Core Concepts Of
Sustainability Advocacy

By Dennis Church, EcoIQ
2013 Feature Article for EcoIQ Magazine

[Editor’s Note: The first section of this article, entitled “Our Situation,” has been republished as an opinion piece entitled Living Beyond Our Means in EcoIQ Magazine. The second section of the article below, entitled “The Path Forward,” is unique to this article.]

Our Situation

Overshoot Is Underway

The idea that we humans may be growing beyond - or overshooting - the capacity of the natural resources we depend upon to sustain us has a long history. It has proven premature when previously asserted, but now appears increasingly realistic.

"Overshoot" is a very common natural process. When a species multiplies past the food and other resources available from its environment, it then suffers through a population decline - often large and abrupt. In nature this is not a special case. It happens all the time.

We humans have escaped this outcome in the modern era because new technologies and techniques have expanded the resources available, because we have learned to substitute one resource for another, and because we have increased our ability to secure what we need from a given quantity of resources. Logic would suggest that such escapes cannot continue indefinitely as at some point physical limits will be reached. That point is now arriving for us.

Our Economy Is A Dependent

Many people still believe that what is good for the environment more often than not represents a net cost to the economy. Some have understood that costs incurred to benefit the environment are sometimes a benefit to the economy, but only a minority has fully grasped the fact that a healthy economy is utterly dependent on a healthy natural environment. If the environment is damaged, that drags the economy down. If the environment is deteriorating, the economy will follow a similar downward path.

Without living and non-living natural resources drawn from the environment, there would be no economy. Damaging the environment means that these natural resources will become more difficult and more expensive to secure, and this in turn will hurt the economy. One way to say this is simply to point out that the economy is the wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. As we move forward, it will become ever more apparent that protecting and restoring the natural environment is the most important first step in any plan to maintain a healthy economy over time. Eco is the prefix for both ecology and economy. Green is the color of life and the color of money. Economic and environmental health should be understood as one integrated concept. As one reality.

Action Is Urgent

The question is in the air. Is it too late to save ourselves? It is impossible to know, of course, but it seems clear that at the very least we are nearing the point where it could become too late to prevent a horrible tragedy. The health of oceans and forests is in rapid decline. Irrigation water supplies are threatened, and the food supply seems precarious. A consensus is slowly emerging that we are at or near the peak in the global supply of easily extracted conventional oil. And underlying all of this, the drivers of climate change are getting stronger, and some of the critical accelerating feedbacks that could propel continuing climate change no matter what we do are beginning to kick in.

It is clear to anyone who is paying attention that the necessity for urgent action is upon us, and that failure to move decisively imperils our civilization and the lives and safety of billions of people.

The Path Forward

We'll Get The Future We Build

Just as with democracy, we're likely to get the future that we deserve. Nobody else will save us. We must save ourselves. This follows directly from the near total dysfunctionality of our institutions and the failure of our elites to take responsibility for the general welfare of society. Perhaps, more carefully stated, the only way to return our institutions to the functionality we need is to fix them ourselves. Our elites are mostly corrupted by wealth, greed and power. A popular movement is our best and perhaps only hope for the change we need.

Knowing That & What We Don't Know

Knowing that - and to some extent what - we don't know is absolutely critical to both planning and navigating our path forward. Predictions about what will happen in the future are often wrong, and actions based on such predictions can thus turn out to be ineffective or even counterproductive. Planning for probabilities, making contingency plans, building hedges into our plans, and preparing for resilience in the face of unforeseen "black swan" events must be important parts of the planning we do.

Navigating a path forward will require a great deal of cooperation between people who hold very different views. This cooperation will be more difficult to advocate and carry out if we believe we are correct in all of our opinions. We know otherwise. We know our brains have limitations and biases. We understand that we are not cognitive "truth seekers," but instead seek "naturally" to serve our egos and interests and confirm our existing views. If this weren't difficulty enough, language itself, with many words meaning something a bit different to everyone, provides another reason to assert our views more cautiously and to keep our self-confidence in check.

Humility As A First Principle

It is one thing to acknowledge in the abstract that you might be wrong about some things, but it is quite another thing to acknowledge it in concrete cases and face-to-face with real people who hold, often strongly and pridefully, very different views.

Liberals might find it easier to talk to conservatives if they would remember that government often is wasteful, that power does corrupt, that bureaucrats can often behave as petty tyrants, that markets do have virtues, and that people do tend often to be self-serving. And this is but a small sampling of the conservative views that may warrant more respect than they often receive from liberals.

Conservatives might keep in mind that they too depend on government for many things of value to them, that corporations are deeply flawed for many of the same reasons government is, that it may not be prudent or responsible to evolve without caution into futures that depart radically from all past human experience, and so on.

In terms of our political conflicts, it may be that conservatives are right about government, that liberals are right about corporations, that conservatives and liberals are both part right and part wrong about human nature, and that we're in the mess we're in because all of our institutions have failed us, because our leaders have failed us, and yes, because we have failed ourselves.

The religious might want to keep in mind the history of religious intolerance and the many evils such intolerance has produced, and the secular may want to keep in mind that the origins of the cosmos are indeed mysterious and legitimately subject to a variety of interpretations and speculations. And of course, we should all keep in mind the pitfalls of language. Whatever we mean when we say "God," God is for sure a three-letter word.

Overall, our ego attachment to our own ideas and beliefs should give us pause, and we would all do well to remember that pride goeth before the fall. An honest look around at the state of things would seem to suggest that we all have a great deal to be humble about.

Personal Responsibility

Personal responsibility can be at the center of a values renewal to bring left and right together around an agenda to save ourselves. We need to embrace personal responsibility in a way that cuts across the political spectrum. The market can reinforce personal responsibility if everyone and everything pays its true and full cost (including "external" costs). Personal responsibility can help us deal with a range of difficult challenges, such as health care and public safety.

But more than that, we all need to take personal responsibility for restoring the health of our democracy. We all need to take personal responsibility for saving our civilization. This value, so near and dear to conservatives, can be our new best friend.

Political Maturity & Inclusiveness

Grown-ups "agree to disagree" on some issues in order to work cooperatively on others where they have shared interests and concerns. We are never going to agree on all issues, and some of our disagreements will be very strongly felt. The question is, can we keep those differences from becoming so acrimonious, or reduce the current intensity of conflict, so that we will be emotionally capable of cooperating on critical issues of common concern?

There are two aspects to this challenge: Reducing the emotional intensity of our differences (anger and demonization) is the first, and increasing the perceived importance of the interests that require collaboration is the other.

Avoiding The Pitfalls Of Language

In our hyper-politicized and hostile environment, we often find ourselves fighting over words. It can reach the point where reactions are virtually automatic. But if we are to increase our ability to cooperate with people with whom we disagree on some things, we must learn to overcome first reactions to the language being used and try to understand the more complex reality of what people really think.

Language often leads us to a first impression that we disagree completely with a statement. More careful consideration may reveal that we only partly disagree. These sorts of insights can help reduce the intensity of disagreement and thereby make cooperation more achievable.

Communications Tone: A New Attitude

In a nutshell, we must find it within ourselves to replace a tone of contempt with a tone of respect. We must stop demonizing people with whom we disagree and start trying to stand in their shoes and see through their eyes. We must look for areas of agreement rather than seeking out disagreement.

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