The Sustainability Compass

Kosmos 9

Imagine we’d know which way to navigate towards a sustainable development of our planet.

A planet which has boundaries – or with more positive words “a safe operation space for humans”. We must respect it. Yet, that is not enough. We must also seek to find socially just solutions. That is when we can speak of inclusive and sustainable development.

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February 24, 2012 at 6:21 am 17 comments

What is Our Problem?

Dr. David Suzuki explains…

February 23, 2012 at 10:22 am 5 comments

Reframing the Sustainability Argument: It’s about How We Organize Ourselves

Like a doctor treating a medical problem, without accurate and good information, the doctor can’t diagnose the problem correctly.  And, without an accurate diagnosis, he or she can’t develop a proper treatment.  Our society works in much the same way.  If the general population is not given accurate information about our sustainability problem, how can we expect them to realize that the treatment and its urgency are appropriate for the scale of the problem?

From our past experience, we’ve learned that the solution to our economic problems is through creating more jobs, more manufacturing and more consumption of goods.  The problem is that this solution clashes with our environmental reality—the way we live consumes too many resources and it is only going to become worse because of our population growth.  However, if we are content with a permanent economic underclass, then it may be possible to continue the current paradigm in one form or another.

The CBC documentary Surviving the Future echoes what is the common perception about how we will reach a sustainable future – through better technology.  I clearly reject this notion because the key to sustainability is in how we organize ourselves.  Solutions based on this assessment can be achieved with our current state of technology.  Time is more important than technology in determining our success because the longer we wait, the more complex and larger the problems become.

Our growing population is having a devastating impact on our environment and can’t continue.  Imminent ecological system collapses include fish depletion, water table depletion and the influence of fossil fuel, not only on the environment, but on our society.  It has distorted who we are as humans and our basic moral code of treating others as we would like to be treated is being compromised.

The good news is that, strictly speaking, we have enough resources and adequate technology to allow everyone a dignified life.  However, our current systems require a great deal of waste in order to work.  It is how we live that is creating these devastating consumption patterns that jeopardize our future. At some point, someone needs to be the adult in the room, stand up and make everyone face the facts.  How do we do this in our world with 7 billion voices?

At times I feel like I am alone in this argument for urgent action, but I know there are others such as David Suzuki that have a much larger sphere of influence and still there is not even a murmur of concern in capitals around the world.  Yes, there are documentaries such as Surviving the Future and online groups such as the  Future We Want.

Our failure to address what is probably the largest issue that humanity will face is a combination of a lack of leadership, the distraction that occurs with too many voices and the faith we place in the current economic paradigm.

The scope and scale of the problem requires a global response because it is both an issue of population and resources.  We can no longer afford to cling to quaint notions of a world with limitless resources.  A few generations ago when the world was less populated global coordination was not necessary, but today’s growth rate makes it imperative.

February 20, 2012 at 8:35 am 31 comments

In Pursuit of Happiness

In this blog, I’ve very often discussed happiness which at first glance may seem unrelated to sustainability.  However, as I see it, the two are quite inter-related because the fundamental drive of people, perhaps even the purpose of life is to find happiness.  In the world we are now creating, people believe they will be happier once they have x, y and z – usually things that can be bought.  Where our modern pursuit of happiness clashes with sustainability is that after we’ve bought x, y and z we realize we’re still not happy and develop a new list of things to buy that will make us happy.  And, little by little we are consuming our world.  From my experience I’ve found that happiness is found in our relationships and not in our stuff.

The engine of our world economy is our consumption and this creates problems not only in terms of environmental sustainability, but also has consequences in how it creates poverty.  So much of our consumption economy is simply driven by corporations, businesses and advertisers need to feed their profitability by fulfilling peoples search for happiness. If I am correct that it is relationships that foster happiness then, this is a huge distraction of resources, wasteful and is contributing to other people’s poverty.

The question then is how do we build a civilization that contributes to relationships?  I think the answers already exist and have a proven track record.  For example, pedestrian friendly communities help people to know their neighbors and develop a sense of connection with their community.  Public transit is a major element that contributes to the pedestrian culture.  Local economies literally allow people to invest in their own communities and the welfare of the people that create it.  Systems that require less work create less stress and more family time.  And, finally communities that utilize sweat equity rather than taxes create a greater sense of connection not only with the community, but with the idea of self-governance and responsibility to their community.

One of our obstacles to making fundamental changes to our world stems from public confidence in several myths about our civilization.  The first is the images of happiness that I’ve just discussed.  Once we realize that happiness cannot be found in buying stuff and that it is found in our relationships with each other, we will change our priorities.  A huge myth is that somehow if we keep doing what we’re doing that poverty will disappear.  Well, the devil is in the details and the current system is built upon economic inequity.  And, the prosperity that billions of people have experienced relies on a resource bubble that is unsustainable.  This brings up the next myth that life is getting better: While this may have been true in the past, we’ve reached a critical point in our population growth, use of natural resources and people’s tolerance of social inequity.  A sustainable system does not try to have people live without stuff, but rather recognize what is enough.  People need to come to terms with the reality that it is not important to live like a millionaire nor should that be their goal.

No one can make anyone else happy, but we can certainly make it easier for everyone to achieve by designing and building systems that contribute to the greater goal of happiness.  Ultimately, I believe the movement to sustainable systems will result from a rising awareness of our consumption of resources and its impact on our fellow man and will result in voluntary societal restraint of our consumption of products.  While the Sustainability Puzzle is attempting to address the built elements of our world, I’m trying to tackle both sides of the happiness equation.  I’ll soon be releasing an ebook with the working title of Liking Yourself to address the existential challenges of being happy.  While these writings are probably inadequate to change our world, I’m doing what I can with the limited resources at my disposal.

September 26, 2011 at 9:27 am 6 comments

Manifesting the Golden Rule

While philosophers may debate the purpose of life, I believe one thing all people seek in life is happiness. The traditional route to becoming a happy individual usually leads people to embrace religious or spiritual teachings. However, I also believe that the values and morals we learn from them can only take us so far. Because, let’s be real, the world we have created and live in is full of problems and constantly clashes with our values. As a result, people compartmentalize life as a coping strategy and we are forced to apply different standards to different areas of our life – this is something I really do not like.

We’ve created a world full of systems that is creating unhappiness – systems that we blindly serve rather than serve us. It almost feels like we’ve created a monster that is now controlling our lives. Call me crazy, but it seems to me like we should do something about it. Creating a sustainable civilization is a way to manifest the Golden Rule into our real world because they are both founded on the principal of respecting the individual. Likewise we might be able to say that by really living according to the Golden Rule, by treating others the way you want to be treated, we will by necessity create sustainable systems.

As a civilization, the challenge of the Golden Rule does not lie within the realm of the extraordinary, but in the ordinary. It is not a call to create a lifestyle of millionaires, but rather very simple, reasonable and achievable goals. And, we need not look beyond our own needs, wants and dreams to recognize them. I want to be able to achieve my potential. I want to breathe clean air and drink clean water. I want my children and their children to benefit from the planet’s abundance of species and have their share of the planet’s natural resources. If I’m sick I want to have access to health care. I don’t expect everyone to like me, but I want others to respect my personal choices. I don’t want my prosperity or happiness to come at the expense of others. I want to live in dignity and be able to provide for my family.

And, although the concept of sustainability may be new to most people and a challenge to grasp, the Golden Rule is an idea that most people already know. In fact, since it is the lesson of the Old Testament, it seems to me that the combined 3.6 billion Muslims, Jews and Christians should be in support of creating a sustainable world. And, I’m pretty sure Buddhist values also lead to sustainability so it’s actually about 4 billion supporters! The question then remains how to rally the faithful to action.

Ultimately our character as an individual or a civilization will be judged on how we treat others – both known and unknown to us. Yes, the challenge we are presented is a tough one, but what people don’t yet understand is that our physical journey and our spiritual journey are actually one and the same. The amazing thing is that making our civilization sustainable is inevitable AND we get to live our lives in harmony with our values. Why do we resist?

June 17, 2011 at 10:04 am 1 comment

Effective Government

Government is an important part of how a modern civilization organizes itself.  While many americans very often treat it as a boogy-man, Abraham Lincoln described its purpose in very practical terms: “We should do together what we cannot do as well by ourselves.”  The problem today is that government has become a catch-all and as such is becoming ineffective — kind of the “jack of all trades, master of none” syndrome.  In a sustainable system, however, government’s role will be refocused.  The concept of sustainable communities is that they are self-governing and self-reliant and designed to resolve as many issues as possible at their local level thereby decreasing the responsibilities people place on a centralized government system.

Geography: At present, governments are responsible for everything, everywhere.  This is causing a strain on its ability to provide effective services to everyone.  By contrast, in a cantilevered system of sustainability, the role of government would shrink the domain of its responsibility to the consumption based economies of the cities, leaving the sustainable communities to self-govern and coordinate resources amongst each other.

Financial Liabilities: Currently, governments are responsible for social welfare programs for everyone that is resulting in huge budget deficits as well as inadequate services for those in need.  The structure of sustainable communities would actually eliminate the need for any social welfare programs since the design of the communities achieves the same results.  So, for example, if eventually 80% of a population emigrates into the sustainable system, the US Federal government would similarly decrease its future liabilities for social security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment and all other services.

Jobs: Economics is a fancy word to describe how people make a living – providing for oneself and one’s family.  Our “modern” system accomplishes this through jobs which government policies are forced to promote at any cost.  In a consumption-based world of 6+ billion people, near full employment is not possible and irresolvable.  However, if 80% of the population retreats into a sustainable system of living, full-employment within the consumption economy becomes possible and will in fact increase the value of labor in cities.

The systems in place that make the “world go around” were not designed, but evolved over time through trial and error.  And, while they may have gotten us to where we are, they are inadequate to meet the modern challenges we now face. The game has changed and we don’t recognize it yet.  And, while I’m not sure exactly what the game is, if it’s “who’s on top”, the United States is rapidly losing its place.  Moreover, right now the United States and the world are facing the new, great depression.  The course of action I’m proposing will prime the economic pump to keep the world going in the short term and lead us into a system that is sustainable for generations to come.

June 9, 2011 at 10:40 am Leave a comment

The Big Idea

Ever wonder why there are so many problems in the world?  Why there continues to be homelessness, hunger and illiteracy?  Why do both parents have to work just to make ends meet leaving no time for their children?  Why are 3 billion people still in poverty?  It could be that our solutions to our problems are not comprehensive, but one dimensional.  Well, this little picture might help us understand why we are plagued by problems and how we can deal with them.

For most people sustainability is a very vague word, but It is actually very specific and a very big idea with big implications.  The three circles represent the environmental, social and economic dimensions that make up our world and the range of options available to us.  According to the picture, what is “sustainable” is where the circles overlap.   It reveals some really big ideas that are hard to disagree with.

  • CHOOSE: The picture shows us that many options exist, but truly sustainable choices are fewer in number.  The world we live in today is focused on mostly economic concerns and usually ignores social or environmental interests.  Yes, we’ve created a machine that seems to be working, but is it really?
  • TAKE ACTION:Sustainability will not “just happen”. On our current path, we will become more aware and more “green”, but a civilization based on consumption is ultimately unsustainable. Sustainability requires us to make different choices from the ones we are making and it will be assembled from our thoughtful choices as a global community.
  • ACCEPT INEVITABILITY: The very logic of sustainability can be a tough one to swallow, but I’m just the messenger: As a species, we will eventually choose sustainable solutions because they are the only choices that insure our survival as a civilization over time.  The only reason we will choose unsustainable systems is because of short-sighted interests.
  • WIN/WIN: The great news is that there are solutions that can accommodate all three interests!  Sustainable solutions do not make economics more important than our happiness nor the environment.  It almost seems magical that all three concerns are resolved together!  No interest outweighs or competes with another.
  • HAPPINESS: And, to be sustainable, the solutions will all be ones that we like, otherwise they are unsustainable!

The world seems adrift.  The “haves” are not content and want more meaning out of life, while the “have-nots” continue to struggle in the wake of those who “have”.  We will only find greater meaning in life when we recognize that it comes through serving a purpose beyond ourselves – our fellow man, our common future.  The interesting thing is that if we ask ourselves what we truly value and the type of world we want for our children, it looks very much like what a sustainable world offers us.

May 23, 2011 at 10:59 am 5 comments

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