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

Socioeconomically unsustainable
August 25, 2011 - 10:00pm

Pretty much everyone in the USA who's concerned with environmental sustainability is aware that Bill McKibben was arrested and held for two days in D.C. for demonstrating against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The two-day detention, given that charges were then dropped, seems more like attempted intimidation than any objective standard of justice. And many of us agree with Bill that what happens to the Keystone proposal will be the acid test of the Obama administration's environmental policies. (Bill's description of his experience makes it clear that the attempt at intimidation didn't succeed, nor would those of us who know him have expected it to.)

But to my mind, McKibben's arrest, like the Keystone XL demonstrations and US Park Police handling thereof, are almost distractions. Yes, the pipeline -- if built -- will be environmentally destructive on a major scale. But large-scale environmental destruction goes on, in various parts of the world, pretty much daily. And it's most often accompanied by large-scale damage to sustainable societies and sustainable livelihoods (what's often referred to as "the tragedy of resources"). Socioeconomic impacts are more immediate, require less abstruse scientific understanding, and thus more likely to receive media attention (if only of short span).

To my mind, what matters isn't so much the specifics, but the overall pattern. I see the DC demonstrations as being (at least loosely) related to other recent demonstrations. The particulars of each case vary, but the song remains the same.

Think how many public demonstrations of outrage have occurred, and in how many countries, just recently. Students are currently protesting in Chile. All sorts of folks hit the streets (almost literally) in the UK earlier this month. There have been demos in San Francisco, Vancouver, Madison (WI), Israel, Uganda, Turkey, Spain, France, Greece, and all the various countries of the "Arab" (term very loosely applied) Spring. The salient issues have varied -- tuition/educational quality, transit, hockey, labor, housing, austerity programs, retirement age, autocracy, etc. But the root cause is constant. The root cause, simply stated, is that none of these societies has -- in the explicit opinion of a large portion of its members -- spent enough of its attention and resources meeting the needs of . . . ummmm . . . society. People rise up against those societies by which they find themselves surrounded, but of which they don't consider themselves a part.

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. The fact that Arab autocrats were (and, in several cases, still are) oppressing their people is well known -- witness the large amounts of foreign military aid granted in interests of "stability". (Maybe I'm off my nut, but if a government needs large amounts of military aid to maintain domestic stability, I have to think there's likely some oppression going on somewhere.) Externally prescribed austerity programs (and even internally prescribed ones, such as in Wisconsin) are never popular (and rarely successful). And students around the world feel cheated when, after doing everything expected of them and attaining unprecedented levels of education, they can't find decent jobs -- given that education has been treated more as a private good worthy of substantial indebtedness than a public one worthy of societal support, the expectation of gainful employment is far from unreasonable.

Even the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver fit the pattern. They serve as evidence that large numbers of normally peaceable Canadians feel closer ties to their favorite hockey team than to Canadian society as a whole. Think about what that implies.

The uprisings that have attracted the most media attention (perhaps in part because London still has many competing media outlets) are the ones in the UK. But they are, in many ways, the least surprising. Underemployed youth and disaffected adults from both the lower and lower-middle classes go ape, smashing and grabbing and generally ignoring established standards of conduct. David Cameron then goes on about a breakdown of respect for property and proper behavior, and promises strict crackdowns -- "you will feel the full force of the law", "nothing [no official behavior] is off the table", there will be no "phony concerns about human rights getting in the way".

Maybe it's just me, but I couldn't help hearing in Cameron's voice an implied message that "these people" didn't know their place. That they had somehow forgotten that they should respect their betters. And, only slightly in the background, an implied statement that in London, as in Ward McAllister's New York, there were only about 400 people who really mattered. Or, in its more modern form, that (as his predecessor Margaret Thatcher stated), "there is no society".

If there's a single statement that's the antithesis of social sustainability, that must certainly be it. And if you truly want to destroy a materialistic, consumption-based social structure, effectively divorcing large portions of the populace from the benefits of the economy (as has happened more and more of late) would seem an effective mechanism.

But any society that takes that course shouldn't be surprised, much less shocked, when the dissociated become the disrespectful. Perhaps the elites truly believe that they can live long and well in a world based on ideology. For the rest of us, sustainable livelihoods need to be based in facts and equity. The uprisings around the Mediterranean have been based in harsh sets of facts; their violent nature has its roots in a violent reality. The demonstrations in D.C. are based on facts a little more abstract, and events a little farther in the future. But a single set of principles -- the requirements for social and, on a broad level, economic sustainability -- lies behind the spectrum of recent events.


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