Archive for November, 2009

Where Sustainability Becomes Philosophy

No one can disagree with sustainable principles – that we be able to sustain ourselves, our families and our communities.  The questions arise when the discussion enters the abstract of scope and time, but coincidentally this is also where the realm of philosophy begins.  It seems to me that it is commonplace today for most people to compartmentalize these life-guiding ideas into one of the neatly packaged religions of Judaism, Islam, Christianity or Hinduism without really questioning the source or meaning of their beliefs – and, that is okay – it is human nature.  The challenge of any of the great prophets has been to make the people of their time recognize societal changes and the religions that arose were that people’s adaptation to that new reality.

Well, we too have entered a new reality for which our current systems and beliefs are no longer adequate.  People don’t object to the principals of sustaining a way of life for them or their children.  And, it is within this narrow circle of interest where “modern civilization” as we know it seems feasible.  But humanity’s new reality lies in the domain of scope and scale.  In terms of scope, I’m talking about economic well-being for the people we don’t see or meet or hear from – i.e. everyone, all humanity.  In terms of time, people relate mostly to their own time scale which is their lifetime and maybe their children’s.  And, again the abstract asks the question: What about their grandchildren, their children’s children and so forth.  The notion of 1000 years is beyond most people’s calculations and grasp.  So, it’s in striving to achieve solutions which can be sustained for all humanity and across the millennia where we can realize this stark reality: the norms of today will not suffice.

While I believe compassion for our fellow man lies in the hearts of us all, it is fear that is guiding our societal decisions.  In English we have an expression “Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t know.” And it probably offers some wise advice.  However, in Mexico there is a similar expression with very different implications.  They very often say “Better the devil we know than the angel we don’t know.”  Personally, I find this expression disturbing, but I feel is a better reflection of societal attitudes toward achieving a sustainable future because we do possess the technology and know-how to achieve that future – what we lack is the will.

And, ultimately these abstracts are irrelevant because to know the fears, hopes and dreams of others, we need only look at the fears, hopes and dreams of ourselves.  You do not need to personally know or meet the starving Sudanese child to what he or she or their parent hopes for – the same opportunity to fulfill their potential as you wish for your own children.  I believe people can and will agree to sustainable principals – not as a result of a logical explanation, but from a leap of faith to these principals because they are common to all major religions and are therefore ones which we already know and believe in.

We have arrived at a time of choice created by our own technological success that has allowed our population to swell and has simultaneously been impacting our environment.  A philosophy is ultimately a set of values that guides us in our day to day decisions of life.  If we make our choices based on our fears of what we will lose, I believe we are doomed.  However, if we make those same choices in hope of what we can become, then the “tough” decisions will become easy and humanity will face a bright future.

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November 23, 2009 at 10:39 am 1 comment

Jon Stewart Freaks-out on Environmental Conservation

… At least, that was my first impression.  Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show is undoubtedly one of my favorite and I believe one of the most effective political commentators “out there”.  However, in a recent interview with Super Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, he seemed to side with the author’s position advocating techno fixes in lieu of environmental conservation efforts (see video).  However, after listening to the interview more carefully, Jon’s position seems much more middle-of-the-road.  I think the questions he raises are worth responding to.

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Levitt argues from the economics point-of-view.  I should point out that conventional, modern economics can also be considered a “secular religion.”  And, while the label of economics carries a hefty validation to what it professes, there are growing doubts to many of its underlying assumptions and therefore its solutions.  And, while geo-engineering fixes to the carbon problem could be a “band-aid” as Levitt puts it, such techno-fixes ignore a reverence and respect for what we don’t know.  Modern, human history is riddled with examples of environmental interventions gone astray due to complete knowledge of the very complex systems which they attempt to influence.  In a way, conservation is humanity’s insurance policy.

In general, the conversations regarding global warming are filled with misinformation, bias, self-interest and a host of other nouns.  And, in this age of political, and media partisanship, it can be even more confusing to get to the crux of such big problems.  As an example, the arguments against building windmills range from endangering birds to being ugly.  Do you know how many birds die from flying into high rise buildings?  I don’t know the exact number either, but I do know it’s a lot.  And, while windmills may not beautify the landscape they occupy a small footprint and can be dismantled in the future when we do arrive at a better energy solution. I feel that many times people raise such arguments for the sake of being argumentative to resist change.  To me, choosing clean energy such as windmills is a testament to our respect for our environment and conservation is our effort to improve the quality of life for all our brothers and sister.  And, that my friend is a beautiful thing.

Jon raised an interesting point regarding “5000 years of human nature”.  I think it’s a very relevant point in considering these issues, but I’m wondering if the behavior he refers to is human nature or socialized behavior?  I would argue that human history has been plagued by scarcity and that has translated into competitive behavior.  But, I don’t think that behavior is necessarily human nature.  I believe that “deep down” if we can satisfy our own needs, it is human nature to have compassion for others.  And, today we are technologically at that point where we can satisfy everyone’s needs.  What we lack is the will to overcome the systems and learned behaviors that prevent us from creating a sustainable future.  While the link between global warming, resources use and social justice might seem to be unrelated, they aren’t.  And, with at least two billion people living in poverty, I believe it’s time the public begin understating this very real relationship.

Jon Stewart is brilliant in his ability to capture the essence of arguments in an entertaining fashion.  And, while Jon’s comments were disappointing, I think his remark is a reflection of prevailing societal attitudes and offers us an opportunity to more fully understand the challenges that humanity currently faces.  I would recommend that he invite William Rees of the University of British Columbia to counter Levitt’s arguments.  Dr. Rees created the Ecological Footprint and I think would be helpful in explaining the deeper issues at play in this discussion of global warming.

November 13, 2009 at 11:36 am Leave a comment

Cantilevered Sustainability

The question of how we as a global civilization can achieve a sustainable economic system looms large in my thoughts.  As any economist will tell you, the question of economics is one of scope and scale, but with a population over 6 billion people, our conventional systems and tactics are failing us.  And, while we know what practices are sustainable, the challenge I’m tackling is to achieve global sustainability that is palatable to the great diversity of people that make up our world – not only culturally, but economically.  Because, let’s face it, the world is being shaped and molded by the “have’s” and the developed countries of the world are very much attached to the trappings of modernity they’ve accumulated over the past century.  The solution I’ve come up with is what I refer to as “Cantilevered Sustainability”.

A cantilevered structure is one that is supported only at one end.  As I envision it, a civilization that is economically and socially cantilevered to be sustainable will be anchored by millions of resource-light communities that locally combine their products and services via smart raiCantilevered Sustainabilityl and internet to offset the more resource intense cities around which they are centered (see diagram).  In this way, a cantilevered system will allow us to have our proverbial cake and eat it too.

The success of this cantilevered design is rooted in the ability of local communities to resolve and provide for most of their economic needs from local sources.  By resolving these fundamental needs at their production source, a great deal of wasted time and energy is recaptured by its participating members.  This “trickle up” approach to self governance and reliance will eliminate a growing reliance on central governments for local solutions allowing the big governments to focus on the “big matters” such as financing and coordinating rail infrastructure and international relations.

This “whole systems design” approach offers the opportunity to simplify and streamline structures in ways that incremental changes cannot.   The complexities of our current legal, tax, transportation and health care systems are testament to the downside of incrementalism.  While it is a complicated idea to sell, I believe it is one that the Obama administration understands as it tries to reform health care.

Why is this a good idea?  Well, to any undertaking there is a time component.  And, while academics and policy makers think in terms of incentives – carrots and sticks to achieve policy goals, it is also an approach that requires time we don’t have.  I should be clear that this urgency is not about our planet’s environment – the Earth will eventually restore its ecological balances and health.  The urgency is a social one rooted in how our economics is impacting, both socially and environmentally, our fellow mankind.

I understand that such a drastic change in how we live may seem an unreasonable choice – as a species we prefer to take the tried and tested path.  What this argument fails to recognize is that the path we are on is neither tried nor tested because of the scope and scale of the problem.  We are conducting an experiment whose failure can be witnessed in poverty and terrorism.  I truly believe that our humanity is defined by how we treat one another.  And, if we don’t do our best to care for our brother’s and sister’s around the globe, we will have failed the very challenge that a conscious life offers us individually and collectively as a species.

November 6, 2009 at 10:05 am 2 comments



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