Sunday, April 15, 2007

Is sustainability a drag?

I have been peppered in recent weeks with email asking me how to get people to take peak oil seriously and make the necessary preparations for themselves, their families and their communities. The emphasis has been on what to tell them. But I think the emphasis should be on what to show them.

The way most people talk about sustainability, it sounds like a drag. After all, people are called upon to give up their cars and ride the bus, to stop watching the stupid television, and to go to more places by walking and bicycling (and that means going uphill at least part of the time!). It means avoiding packaged food, eating less meat, and eating more fruits and vegetables, local and organic if you can find it. It means traveling less, at least by plane or car. It means giving up the consumer life of endless new gadgets and clothes that so many have become used to. It means remembering to shut off the lights and turn down the heat. And, it means (gasp!) no air conditioning in the summer. In short, it sounds like a regimen of self-abnegation that is likely to entice only those wanting to become monks.

I do not think that people should stop talking about sustainability. We need all the dialogue we can get about what works and what doesn't and about why moving closer to a sustainable life is not only worth it, but can have many advantages over the current terminal, power dive that we call global industrial capitalism. But to restate an old and well-worn phrase: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Only when others see with their own eyes that those seeking sustainability are having enjoyable lives will the switch seem worth making. Just one shot of genuine cheerfulness, humor and even exuberance goes much further than a year's worth of pious sermons. Again, it doesn't mean that people should not talk about sustainability. They should talk about it and focus on making it happen in their own lives--not in order to be a good example for others, but rather because it is a good thing in itself for each individual. After all, if moving toward sustainability is miserable (and I don't think it is), who's going to want to do it?

Moving toward sustainability is a daunting task. And, it seems as if the best any of us can do is simply to become less unsustainable. But, we must start somewhere. Some people may even admire our less unsustainable lifestyle, but say that they could never live that way. I think that's because they believe such changes have been made all at once. Certainly, some people achieve sudden, thoroughgoing changes in their lives. But most of us who are trying to live more sustainably add saner, more sustainable practices gradually over time as we become more comfortable with the steps we've already taken and as we understand more deeply what is truly sustainable.

What's the first move? For Americans it could easily be this. If you have three cars, try going down to two. If you have two cars, try going down to one. For those who understand the stakes, this doesn't seem like much. But the first move begins a process that focuses the mind on the next step even as the first one proceeds. This step-by-step approach--which is the one I've followed--makes it possible to adapt to each change and then move on to the next change. Success breeds success.

Some may complain that time grows too short for a gradualist approach. I fear that this may be true. But I am trying to work with human beings as they are. They don't like change. If they must change, they prefer it in digestible increments. But, each success increases a person's confidence that next change will work.

The key is to reach a tipping point where millions and then billions are moving in the right direction. It starts with you, and then your neighbor and then your friends who live nearby. It may seem like we'll never make it in time to head off serious problems. But if we're lucky, we'll reach the tipping point and the move toward sustainability all around our cities, our countries and even the world will gain unstoppable momentum. Can we afford not to try?


Anonymous said...

I agree to some extent with what you have written. It's just that some of us are overcome with frustration in that we have been working at this for so long and progress has been so slow. Waiting for people to downsize from 3 cars to 2 or change even one friggin bulb to a CFL- I fear the planet will lose patience with this....

I have been trying to live sustainably for years, and thus "give witness" to the fact that not only is it more sustainable but also cheaper and enjoyable- and yes, I do see some people taking notice and hopefuly this will help, but is it ever slow....

It seems like it has to become the new social norm- and that large houses, SUV's and consumption are deemed tacky and last century or something before we see enough change. But I fear that is not enough- in reality so many Americans are lazy and don't want to exert themselves or do without their comforts or whatever they desire at the moment. So they won't want to sweat by riding a bike(except in the gym of course), or do without AC, hang the clothes to dry, not travel to a warm place whenever winter gets to them, cut down on shopping, etc. So as much as I wish to believe you are right, I'd say that is dumping the responsiblity back on the shoulders of us "greens"; if only we presented a happier, cooler image or something the masses would follow us. I'm not willing to shoulder that blame-it is up to them to decide how to act.


Anonymous said...

Just one shot of genuine cheerfulness, humor and even exuberance goes much further than a year's worth of pious sermons.

I think you're absolutely right there. Have you heard of a UK TV programme called "It's Not Easy Being Green"? It's very much in that vein - all about how much fun sustainability can be.