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Tuesday March 28th 2023

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How Do We Move Towards Sustainability?


Using well-developed dialoguing and visioning processes involving the entire community, people could develop new ways to organize themselves with community-supported agriculture, barter and alternative currencies, solar and wind energy, holistic and complementary medicine, and co-ops of all kinds.

Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson

Sustainability has been a buzz word for discussing the human/environment interactions for many years now. It has become kind of like the old saying that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

Most of the discussion about sustainability issues in modern human life centers around the use of resources and the damage that is being done to the life-supporting environment. Oil is a good example because it is both a resource that is rapidly being depleted and its use is causing potentially catastrophic damage to the environment. Few people start the discussion by questioning any of the assumptions that have made oil a “necessity.” Most people have some vague notion that we can continue the fossil-fueled consumer lifestyle by simply finding a clean, green energy source.  They seem to think the existing built environment and our society can just be painted green and go right on.

Every aspect of modern society from the buildings to the food supply  to the transportation system was developed based on the assumption that there are unlimited supplies of cheap fossil energy and that  there is no downside to using them. Those assumptions are clearly wrong and the implications of this are beyond most people’s ability to comprehend.    The question becomes, “What  actions make the most sense at this   point?” Should we expend a great deal of energy trying to keep the   systems, technologies, economy and rules that are based on these flawed  assumptions in place and simply try to make them “sustainable” or should we try something completely different.  Both courses of action have pros and cons.

The idea that we simply need to make some minor changes is clearly the path that the cons who are profiting from the structure of today’s society would like you to believe is possible.   There are lots of ads with the message, “Relax don’t worry.  We are the experts and will continue to provide you everything you need.”   They certainly don’t want anyone questioning assumptions much less taking responsibility for themselves.

If we continue to slave away trying to keep a sinking ship afloat we may reach shore … or we may not.  It may make more sense to build a lifeboat and set out in a new direction.  As there are no guarantees either way, the decision can be based on determining which of the options will allow for the most attractive lifestyle.  Many attempts to create sustainable options are only possible as long as the existing economic/technological/political structure continues to function. These are illusory attempts  at sustainability.  Paolo Soleri once said, “Self sufficiency is a concept with no basis in reality.”  This from the man who designed Arcosanti.  Nonetheless, if it is clear that aspects of the present system are fatally flawed, some experimentation with “lifeboats” is  prudent and quite possibly of great importance.

Many attempts to create alternative models are regressive – abandon the present systems and start from scratch. Going “back to the land” hoping to use human labor to try to wrest an existence from the land is not an attractive model. Many early attempts by Europeans to colonize newly “discovered” lands failed. Without continuous resupply from the “civilized” world it was simply impossible to survive on human labor, unless one was able to develop a stone age skill set. Some sense of what it was like was recently portrayed in the movie The New World.    The early colonists were trying to recreate civilization in a stone age  hunter gatherer world. They could either work themselves to death trying to build civilization from scratch or go native.

I like to  garden but very few gardeners get the majority of a years supply of calories from their own labor. We were liberated from subsistence agricultural labor by the mechanization/industrialization of  agriculture and despite the many problems with this system this is a good thing.  A friend was speaking to a farmer recently, and when asked about kitchen gardens, the farmer said it seemed much too tedious and he didn’t have much interest. He did his weeding at 150 acres an hour. The liberation from manual labor subsistence farming is what has made modern society possible. Two percent of the population grow the food for the rest of us. Most of   what we all do to make a “living” is,  strictly speaking,  superficial.   Our basic needs are met by a very small portion of the economic workforce. The implications of this are very positive.  Modern agriculture has many problematic and unsustainable aspects (nitrogen fertilizer being one) but it is an unquestionable success at efficient use of labor and resources to feed the world’s present population.   Almost everything else in an economy is to a large part excessive consumerism.

To understand sustainability we must question consumerism and address the concept of sufficiency.  This is very problematic for economists but they may be the most endangered segment of a future sustainable society. Again, an example that addresses the difficulty of  getting to sustainable from our present condition is energy use,  specifically our electric power system.  Society has become so completely dependent on central, power plant, grid-supplied electricity that no one ever questions the assumption that we need massive, continuous supplies of this elusive stuff. We have no concept of how much we use because it is invisible, but we certainly like the many energy services it provides. And because it is such a subtle and cheap way to provide energy services we use it in frivolous and unnecessary ways and we waste huge amounts of it for which we receive no real   benefit. Energy guru Amory Lovins’ most recent accounting gives an idea of how far beyond sufficiency we have been encouraged to go in terms of electric generating capacity, “… the U.S. has the potential to save 1.2 million gigawatt-hours—equal to displacing over 60 percent of America’s coal-fired generation.”

Like many other possible examples of excess consumption, we are blissfully ignorant of how far beyond sufficiency we have gone.  I often ask if we have reached peak energy stupidity yet. The answer is no. In the discussion of what a sustainable society might look like this is the first priority and one that causes many problems for economists who consider growth the unquestionable first assumption of all capitalist economic policy. What would it do to the national economy to eliminate over half of the $200 billion a year coal power business? That thought will give economists nightmares right up until the climate is no longer cooperating with the farmers to feed society.

Clearly, we need to make some pretty radical reassessments of our society. Start by questioning the assumptions.  It is important that we plainly see what our situation is. We need viable scenarios as we move towards   understanding what a sustainable future society will look like. Given the estimated time constraints for the possible failure of certain presently unsustainable systems, the development of sustainable community models is urgently needed. There are many barriers to the creation of such models. Some of these involve human behavior. Some of the most difficult to overcome are institutional.

It would certainly be tragic to see great human suffering caused because we couldn’t change the existing set of rules, but this is one of the reasons there are so few viable optional models today.  Some examples of model sustainable communities are to be found. The Amish can be viewed as one possible  example.  Gaviotas in Colombia is a very inspiring story.  And several communities are discussed in the book Builders of the Dawn and also in the out-of-print Context Magazine.

Essential to the concept of sustainable community is the need to live within our daily renewable energy income. This is made easily achievable with energy efficient design and building materials. The existing built environment is almost entirely dysfunctional, built based on the flawed assumptions of unlimited supplies of cheap fossil energy. We have known for many years how to plan developments and design buildings to use very little energy. With the use of proper insulation and passive solar design it is possible to reach renewable energy self sufficiency in our homes.  One example of such a building is   the Solargon.

Our chosen means of personal mobility, the car, is a truly amazing example of excess gone, well, excessive. We have the means to design and build very efficient models of personal mobility that can place our transportation energy needs well within the reach of personal home renewable energy systems. These technologies and concepts, taken together with the idea of a group of people with a shared sense of the values involved in creating a sustainable community, are easy to envision. However, it seems to be difficult to achieve —  otherwise wouldn’t we all be living sustainably?

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