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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

A View of an Opposing View
April 12, 2012 - 2:49pm

First, let me respond to David's request by posting a digital version of the hand-drawn sketch which is the working version of my current model of sustainability:

 

If I had more (by which I mean any) artistic ability, I might be able to fit all the words into their proper areas, but I hope this comes close enough to let people understand what I have in mind. 

The thinking this little doodle represents centers around a concept of a sustainable society.  In this, it differs from the common definition of 'meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' -- that phrasing originates as a definition of human sustainable development, not human sustainability more generally.  My current thinking is that a vital (alive) culture is a sustainable culture -- one which focuses on, and therefore is likely to achieve, comprehensive sustenance for its members.  Sustaining well-being will require creativity.  Creativity requires diversity and innovation.  Creativity, diversity and innovation in an atmosphere of recognized interdependence and mutual support seems likely to yield resilience.  And resilience -- the ability to adapt to changing circumstances -- seems the key element of sustainability.  If I had significant (more than a little) artistic ability, I might find a way to work all that into the diagram too, but for now it will just have to remain unformatted text.  Sigh.

But while my whole re-conceptualization of sustainability stems from an attempt to reflect its inherent attractiveness (on an almost instinctual level) to all minds, I'm not at all sure it succeeds.  Evidently, there are minds (many of them in the USA) to which at least one element of the model may be repugnant.  The element is social equity.

I was raised to evaluate the appropriateness of any social interaction by looking at it from both sides (or, at least, trying to).  I don't always do that, of course, but at least I have the good grace to feel guilty when I fail.  The standard that my parents tried to drum into me was that everybody's equal.  Everybody has inherent worth.  Everybody's worthy of respect.  Do unto others, and all that.  It's become increasingly apparent, however, that a large portion of the populace is emotionally invested in an alternate model.  It's like their version of the Golden Rule really is "who has the gold, makes the rules."

Exhibit 1 -- A recent column by Nicholas Kristof.  He quotes research which concludes that liberals care about fairness, liberty, and caring for the weak.  Conservatives, he says, care about those but also about loyalty, sanctity and respect for authority.

Exhibit 2 -

 

 

In terms of both of those discussions, my vision of sustainable culture is a "liberal" vision (as much as I distrust the terms "liberal" and "conservative" in the current political discourse).  But I have to admit that an alternative version -- a "conservative" version -- is certainly possible.  Whether anything truly sustainable in the long term can result from that vision is something we'll never really know for sure.  But what worries me is that, on US society's current course (and thus a course being imposed on much of the planet), the "conservative sustainability" vision seems more likely to be attempted.

Exhibit 3 - Masdar City.  A walled enclave in the United Arab Emirates for which high claims about energy self-sufficiency, low-carbon footprint, and sustainable water management are made.  An attractive location for sustainable energy companies and consortia.  Two square miles.  Fifty thousand people living in a gated compound and dependent on the labor of an additional sixty thousand folks who aren't able to live there.  (No wonder there's a wall.)

Exhibit 4 - The Sustainable Brands 2012 Conference in San Diego.  Coke, Mars (candy), Saatchi & Saatchi, Target, Williams-Sonoma amd a bunch of their corporate friends laying the groundwork for an effective co-optation of "sustainability" as a concept.  Tag line:  "The Revolution Will Be Branded".  (If anyone apologized to the memory of Gil Scott-Heron, I must have missed it.)

What these and a couple of other broad concerns raise in my mind is the fact that certain strongly hierarchical societies had very long runs.  Egypt.  Persia.  China.  Rome.  None of them lasted forever (although the jury on China may still be out), but each of them lasted longer than any example of modern democracy.  Nothing I'm aware of in history absolutely rules out autocracy as a model for a sustainable society.  It's just not a desirable one.

Taking a lesson from Kevin Phillips, then, one likely source of political opposition to this vision of sustainability may lie in the long-standing opposition between Cavaliers and Roundheads, Tories and Whigs, Loyalists and Revolutionaries, Rebs and Yanks.  Today, we call them Republicans and . . . I don't know, maybe the Green Party?  But the key question boils down to Kristof's three conservative principles: loyalty, sanctity and respect for authority.  I lump them together under the general heading of "obedience".  Or maybe "deference". 

Personally, I think "Western" society is at a point where we've enjoyed about as much obedience and deference as we can survive.  And I think we need to be challenging the putative virtue of deference while we still can.

 

 

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