Consuming the Earth

Evidence is accumulating that human society as it currently operates is not sustainable. However, untangling just what is unsustainable about how humans live on Earth is very complex and therefore attracts more beliefs than data.

Leftists complain that capitalism is unsustainable, rightists that markets would clean things up if government got out of the way, environmentalists want more regulation. Some think democracy is the problem, others say it is the solution. Perhaps it is human nature, some suggest: that’s the way we are made. I expect that a survey of (self-proclaimed) scholars of sustainability would generate several more suggestions and a wide range of views.

But perhaps there is some common ground to be found to direct empirical work. Could we all accept that society emerges in large part from the interactions of people (we make society between us)? Could we all also agree that we are made by the societies in which we were raised and in which we live? Then it follows that society is a path-dependent phenomenon that emerges from this dialectical relationship between units and systems. In addition would we be able to agree that whatever the current conditions, our ideas and institutions were born out of a conception of plenty? In John Locke’s terms, generated by his understanding of the New World, that there would always more as good (of equal quality) yet to consume as we have consumed. This would suggest that the critical point of leverage in the system is to change the underlying ethos that has become fixed by emergent institutions in the human mind.

The essential question then becomes who and how? Who should be responsible for changing ideas and the practices they generate? Should it be governments, that are part of the problem; environmentalists who have cried wolf too often; or corporations who see no profit in it? And what is the message? Imminent danger of an end to humanity; empirical data; or a reasoned analysis with a range of solutions?

I suggest that the optimal course would be to tailor the message to the audience. For scientists, data; for governments, policy options and political arguments; and for Joe and Jane six-pack an equally attractive lifestyle that consumes less of the Earth.

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