Sustainable Development is one of those terms that seems to have leapt into our vocabulary from nowhere Five years ago no one, apart from a few green philosophers, had ever heard of the term. Today, thanks largely to the publicity it received from the 1993 ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio, it has become common parlance. Politicians speak passionately about the need for it and the steps we must take to achieve it; corporations bend over backwards to show their dedication to it; while the media enthusiastically tries to explain what sustainable development means.
But what exactly does it mean? At the last count there were over a hundred different definitions of the term, and there has been much debate over their varying merits and relevance. But one principle common to most of them is that it we should leave the planet in as good a state as we found it. The Brundtland Report’s definition is typical. It defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
The goal is certainly worthy. Many argue that it is also an imperative. If such principles are not put into practice we could do irreparable damage to the planet’s biosystem. But amidst all of the clamor for sustainable development, few stop to ask whether it is possible. The consequences of an environmental catastrophe are so frightening – the end of civilization as we know it; perhaps the end of humanity itself – that people seldom question whether our current conceptions of sustainable development are adequate or realistic.
Here I wish to challenge some our deeply held assumptions about sustainability and what it will entail. The reason for doing this is not to create a feeling of hopelessness – although I shall indeed argue that current approaches do not contain a lot of promise – but to bring to light critical aspects of the issue that we might otherwise have overlooked.
The questioning of assumptions is a critical part of the creative process. Faced with a problem, most of us are so eager to find a solution, and thus end the uncertainty and frustration of not knowing what to do, we tend to rush into the first solution that comes to mind. Only later, often when we are in trying to put our solution into practice, do we realize that we had not fully thought through our solution, and probably had made some invalid assumptions.
The following problem provides a very simple example of how easily we make assumptions and how they limit our thinking. Imagine you were asked to cut a cake into eight equal pieces – equal meaning of exactly the same shape and size – but you have to accomplish this with only three cuts.
If you have not come across this problem before you will probably discover that it is not easy as it first appears. This is because you are making some invalid assumptions about the nature of the problem. the most common one is to assume the cake is two-dimensional, i.e. that you can only cut it from above. This is the way we usually cut cakes, but you soon discover that it is impossible to use this approach to cut the cake into equal pieces without some cheating. One solution is to include the third dimension, and cut the cake horizontally as well.
Most people find the process of challenging their assumptions very difficult. It is not just that the assumptions are hard to see; we usually do not want to see them. We become emotionally attached to our beliefs, and to question them can feel very threatening. Nevertheless, uncomfortable as the process may be, it nearly always pays dividends. It usually leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of the problem, and often to better solutions.
This is true of all types of creative problem solving: the cake problem; writing an article; developing a new corporate strategy, making foreign policy decisions. And it applies equally to our efforts to respond to the environmental crisis.
We are facing the most serious crisis in the history of humanity. This is not a crisis we have faced before and there are no tried and tested solutions. Moreover, how we respond to this challenge is going to determine the future of the human race, and it is vitally important that we do not rush into the first solution that comes to mind. To ensure that we choose appropriate and effective paths through this crisis we must step back for moment and, uncomfortable as the process may be, question some of our deeply held assumptions about the compatibility of sustainable development with our culture.
Is Growth Sustainable?
The first assumption we need to question about sustainable development is that it is compatible with growth. Yet ii is growth – population growth along with industrial growth – that lies at the heart of our crisis.
In recent times the more developed nations have been experiencing unprecedented economic growth. The average Westerner today consumes over 100 times the resources of a person living 200 years ago at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Over the same period, the population has increased by a factor of ten. Combine these two growths together and the result is a 1000-fold increase in consumption, and with it a corresponding increase in waste and pollution.
Both these growths are set to continue. The human population is expected to double over the next three decades. That not only means twice as many mouths to feed and bodies to house; but also twice the industrial production, twice the consumption, and twice the pollution.
That would be the case if there were zero per capita industrial growth. But that is extremely unlikely. Third world nations need economic development. People there want clean drinking water, food, sanitation, housing, medicine and employment. Their current self-interest is raising their standard of living to a bearable level.
Moreover it is in the interest of humanity as a whole that they should raise their standard living. Third world poverty is a major contributor to over-grazing, deforestation, water contamination and soil erosion.
Meanwhile the more developed nations argue that they too need continued economic growth.. Each new report of a nation’s economic growth is celebrated as if some new savior had arrived. “Monthly industrial output up 0.4%” read a recent headline. Good news according to all the economic pundits paraded on the television. But I wonder how many paused to think what that means in the long term? Five percent per year extrapolated over the next thirty years amounts to a 250% increase in production – along with a corresponding increase in consumption, and in pollution. Extrapolated over a hundred years, it amounts to a 13000% increase in production.
Corporate rates of growth are planned to be even higher. Many major US corporations, including some of the greener ones, have committed themselves to growth rates of between 10% and 15% At that rate, companies currently turning over $10 billion will be in the trillion dollar range in thirty years. How can that be sustainable in the long-term?
Some technologists argue that with more efficient and cleaner technologies increased production does not have to result in as much consumption or pollution. During the next century we might see technological efficiency rise by as much as a factor of ten. That could help, but it would not solve the problem. It would merely reduce a 13000% increase in consumption to a 1300% increase. Moreover, that assumes that we would use the increased efficiency to do the same with less. Past increases in efficiency have usually led to increased production.
It is also true that a shift from manufacturing to information processing will lessen the rate at which our consumption of grows. But slowing the rate of growth does not eliminate the problem; it merely moves the crisis point a few years into the future – and that is hardly sustainable development by any definition of the term.
In his recent book, The Growth Illusion, the economist Richard Douthwaite argues persuasively that the only truly sustainable economy is one with zero material growth.
He shows how, despite all its promises, growth has done very little in recent years to raise the quality of life. The promise of more jobs has been offset by the unemployment generated by increased efficiency and productivity from new technologies which the drive for growth has produced.
Few people in the more developed countries are more fulfilled than they were thirty years ago. A study in 1955 showed that one third of U.S. population said they were happy with their lives. The same study repeated in 1992 found that exactly the same proportion of the people were happy with their lives – despite the fact that per capita productivity and consumption have both doubled over this time.
Continued economic growth has made a few people richer, and a lot of people poorer. In 1980 the average large company CEO earns 42 times as the average hourly paid worker. In 1992 he earned 157 times as much. The same pattern has happened over the world as a whole, resulting in a net flow of wealth from the Third World to the First World. During the 1980s incomes fell in more than 40 developing countries, in some cases by as much as 30 percent. Over the same period Third World debt has been increasing at 10% per year – that means a doubling every seven years.
Most dangerously, continued economic growth has seriously damaged the environment; impoverishing the soil, polluting the seas, fouling the air, fueling the global greenhouse, depleting the ozone layer and triggering a range of environmental disasters.
Douthwaite concludes that ‘the sooner growth is dropped from our thinking and we revert to setting ourselves specific and finite objectives that lead towards our steady state the better our future will be’.
Herman Daly of the World Bank puts it more bluntly in his essay in the book The Sustainable Society:
It is obvious that in a finite world nothing physical can grow forever. Yet our current policy seems to aim at increasing physical production indefinitely.
But zero-growth is far too uncomfortable for most economists and politicians to accept. And quite understandably. Western capitalism cannot survive without growth. National and corporate economies are compelled to expand if they are to avoid collapse. Herein is a fundamental conflict. We want to ensure the future of humanity, and yet we also want to ensure the very system that is contributing to its downfall.
As Willis Harman, one of the founders of the World Business Academy, points out, “this is rather like a patient who implores his physician to heal him, but subject to the conditions that the doctor not interfere with his drinking, smoking, eating or stress-producing attitudes. Yet we do something similar when we admit the seriousness of our unsustainable modern way of life, and insist that the cure be sought without disturbing our concepts of the necessity of technological progress and economic growth.”
As a consequence most definitions of sustainable development do little more than make economic growth more equitable and environmentally careful. They seldom challenge the assumption that economic growth is beneficial.
Is Free-enterprise Sustainable?
Questioning the sustainability of growth implies questioning the sustainability of our free-enterprise capitalist system. This can be even more difficult. In many people’s minds it occupies the status of a religion; and to challenge it is virtual heresy. Yet if we are genuine in our desire to keep the planet inhabitable we must be prepared to challenge our most fundamental and closely held assumptions. (Remember, however, that the purpose of challenging our assumptions is not to invalidate and discard them – assumptions are there for good reason, and certainly have value. But holding the assumption as an unquestionable article of faith prevents us from seeing beyond it. By challenging our core assumptions, we may begin to appreciate the issue from a broader perspectives, and see some of the pitfalls of our current solutions.)
One of the principle shortcomings of our current system is that it fails to take human psychology into full account. The psychotherapist Kenneth Lux made this very clear in his book Adam Smith’s Mistake. He shows how Smith was concerned with the relative merits of self-interest and benevolence, and argued that the invisible hand of self-interest generally did more for the common good (and for the individual good) than altruistic, self-sacrificing benevolence.
His mistake, as Lux so clearly points out, was to argue in favor of self-interest alone, discarding benevolence. If we were all enlightened human beings this might work. But we are not. Not all of us, for example, are honest. If a merchant can cheat a customer (say be using short weights on his scale), and get away with it, then is it in his self-interest to do so. Self-interest does not rule out cheating; it only decrees that one should be good enough at it not to get caught.
The same goes for corruption, theft, fraud and other deceptive acts. Societies worldwide are littered with people whose self-interest has led them to behave in ways that clearly do not promote the common good. And these are just the people unlucky, or unskillful, enough to get caught.
Corruption not only undermines our society, it also undermines our attempts to care for the environment. What large development project in Africa, Latin America or Asia in the past three decades has gone ahead without a large kickback to politicians? Developing countries complain about their onerous debt burden. Brazil, for example, has to service the interest on more than $100 billion of loans. But the “flight capital” (cash that wings its way out of the country into various foreign banks accounts) is $50 billion per year – enough to pay off most its debt in a couple of years.
Getting Away with the Minimum
The hidden hand of self-interest invites people and corporations to get around the law, or do the minimum they can get away with; not to do the maximum possible.
The CFC story is a good example. CFCs were created more than twenty five years ago as the result of a search for inert, non-toxic, inflammable, stable, compressible gases – gases that would, in other words be safe for human beings and for the environment. Only after their manufacture had begun did some people suspect that they might damage the ozone layer that shields the Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet light.
Today we are realizing that this danger is very real, and every new report of thinning ozone is greeted by the media with estimates of the increase in skin cancers and eye cataracts that are likely to result. But if the zone hole grows skin cancers and eye cataracts are likely to be the least of our worries.
What will happen to other creatures that cannot avail themselves of such luxuries. We cannot fit bees with sunglasses. But blind bees will not be much good as plant pollinators. The consequences of that could be catastrophic. Consider also the direct effect of increased UV light on plants. The most vulnerable parts are the growing tips of plants. Destroy the DNA in these cells and the plant will not reach maturity, and will not seed – with equally catastrophic consequences. Or consider the effects on the microscopic phytoplankton in the sea which have no skin to protect them and are very vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation. Destroy these and the planet’s food chain will crash.
If we do severely damage, or even destroy, the ozone layer life on land will become nigh impossible. We will have destroyed half a billion years of evolution – and ourselves with it. That is how dangerous the situation is.
Is it already late? No one knows. Sixty per cent of the CFCs ever produced are still drifting up towards the ozone layer. It takes 10 to 15 years to get there and once there a CFC molecule will continue destroying ozone molecules for fifty years.
Was it too late fifteen years ago when we began to realize the disastrous potentials of CFCs? No. If we had acted in our long-term self-interest we would have stopped production then. But that was not in the interest of the companies concerned – nor, we should add, of their shareholders – so they suppressed the information for another decade.
Now that we finally have the evidence before us most countries have agreed to ban CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride and the halons used in fire extinguishers by the end of the century. In 1992, after more rapid progress than expected in the development of replacements, even more stringent controls were set. Now production of most of these gases will be banned from 1996 – except for methyl bromide, a substance used as a fumigant to kill pests in soil and stored crops. Yet methyl bromide is thought to be responsible for as much ozone depletion as CFCs. Why is it excluded? Countries such as Israel, Brazil, Greece, Spain and Italy whose agricultural industries rely heavily on the chemical, blocked any ban on methyl bromide. It was not in their self-interest.
The hidden hand of self-interest may have promoted the overall well-being of the communities of Adam smith’s time, and the free-enterprise economy it gave birth to may have been very successful in implementing the Industrial Revolution. It raised the general standard of living, and gave us in the West many personal luxuries such as private cars, air-conditioning, and hand-held video cameras. But we now have to question whether it is still valid in a global community with global problems. Sustainable development is clearly in the long-term interest of humanity – individuals and corporations alike. The problem is that the steps necessary to bring it about are not in our immediate interest – and it is our immediate interest that tends to rule.
Is Interest Sustainable?
Another way in which our economic system may unintentionally exacerbate our global crisis is the charging of interest. This is so deeply entrenched in our society that is almost heresy to question it. We shall see, however, that it is one of the principle motors behind our economic system’s need for continual economic growth.
Although we may take the charging of interest for granted, it is only relatively recently it has become a widely accepted practice. Usury – as the practice is often called – was originally out-lawed in Judaism; the Old Testament contains several warnings against it. The cultures of ancient Greece and Rome likewise denounced the practice. Aristotle called it the most unnatural and unjust of all trades. For centuries it was outlawed by the Church of Rome’s Canon Law. And it is forbidden by the Koran, and there are today several Islamic countries whose banks are forbidden to charge interest.
Why have spiritual teachings and philosophers repeatedly argued against usury? There are several reasons – both moral and economic.
First, the accumulation of compound interest is economically unsustainable in the long-term. A dollar invested at 10% compound interest would be worth $2.59 after ten years; $13,780 after a hundred years; and around $2.473,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 after a thousand years – which is about ten trillion times the value of the Earth’s weight in gold. Try collecting the interest due on that investment!
Second, it is those who have money who lend it and those without who need to borrow and pay the interest. This tends to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.
Third, usury is wanting something for nothing. The act of lending money involves no input of human labor – apart perhaps from the signing of an agreement and entering some data in a computer. The borrower may well use the money to do something useful, but the lender has done nothing. Yet he still expects to receive something in return. It’s the time-old desire for a free lunch.
But where does this extra something come from? Most money-lenders are so concerned with their own gains they do not consider this question – or turn a blind-eye to it. In order that the interest on all these loans can be paid the amount of money in circulation has to increase. But this fuels inflation – more money chasing the same amount of goods decreases the value of the money. So governments strive to compensate as much as possible for the extra money by increasing real wealth. The result? The need for continued economic growth.
Given the disastrous long-term implications of continued economic growth, we must question whether the charging of interest is compatible with the goals of sustainable development. If not, we must seek to create a radically different economic system. One that is not based on the desire to make money out money – the essence of usury.
Is Western Democracy Sustainable?
Another question we must ask is whether sustainable development is compatible with a democratic system in which leaders must pander to the interests of those who put them in power. Elected leaders need the popular vote, and the popular vote is strongly influenced by what people think politicians will give them in the short-term rather than the long-term. In most cases this is not what is required for sustainable development.
Take, for instance, George Bush’s refusal to sign the Biodiversity Convention at the Earth Summit in Rio. He defended his position by arguing that it endangered company patent rights and was not in the interest of American business. Despite the fact that a number of scientists in the ‘”heartened” biotechnology industries lobbied the then president, trying to persuade him that his decision was short-sighted, and that the loss of biodiversity was a far greater threat than the protection of US business interests, he stuck to his position. Was it just a coincidence that Bush was up for re-election that year, and a major part of his political campaign funds came from the corporate world?
Or consider the sluggishness of governments around the world to take realistic steps to curb greenhouse emissions. One reason often given for their lack of firm action is that scientists are currently divided on whether or not global warming will occur. That is true. Ninety-eight percent think that it will occur; two percent think that it will not.
To argue that we should not therefore act is ridiculous. When approaching a blind bend on a narrow country road, the “precautionary principle” would dictate that a person slows down. It would be a foolish driver that continued at the same, or even greater, speed until he had irrefutable evidence that another vehicle was heading straight for him.
Why don’t we apply the same precautionary principle to greenhouse emissions? The cost to society would be too high. It would slow economic growth. It would create too much individual inconvenience and discomfort.
Look at what happened to Ross Perot in the 1992 US presidential election when he suggested a 50¢ increase in gasoline tax (spread, one should add, over five years) – a measure that would still leave the U.S. with some of the cheapest gas in the West. His ratings in the polls suffered one of the biggest drops in his whole campaign.
Voter’s short-term, materialist interests are one reason why European Green parties have not fulfilled their initial promise. People began to realize that voting green was not just voting for a healthier environment; it was also, in the final analysis, voting for an end to growth, an end to unbridled consumption, and end to low taxation, and the loss of many personal comforts and conveniences. Who would vote for that? The fact that we may not be here in twenty years time if we do not is too distant a consideration.
Is Individual Liberty Sustainable?
This brings me to the final assumption that I wish to explore; the assumption that people will opt for a program of sustainable development once they realize its necessity. Perhaps we would if we were all truly liberated human beings. But many of us have become so attached to our lifestyles that we would risk oblivion rather than let go of the things that we tell ourselves are so important. This leads to all manner of convoluted thinking.
One reaction is outright denial that there is even a problem. I met this while doing a radio show in Dallas recently.
As soon as I mentioned the environmental issue the phones began ringing. I was repeatedly told, and in no uncertain terms, that there was not one shred of evidence for global warming, that ozone depletion was part of an environmentalist conspiracy, and that if I wanted to know the truth I should go talk to some scientists.
I was, I must admit, initially thrown by such hostility; it was not something I had encountered before. But as I explored their position more deeply, the reasons behind it became clear. ‘Don’t tell me,’ they said, ‘that I have to change my way of life. We are not the problem, it’s in Eastern Europe and the Third World that changes have to be made.’
The truth is, we are all responsible. Almost everyone today is aware that automobiles are a major producer of carbon dioxide. But how many of us have stopped driving a car? Very few indeed. And of those of us who argue that they must have a car, how many have chosen to drive the most fuel-efficient car on the market? Again, very few.
Why not? One reason is that most of us do not believe it would actually make any difference. Why make such personal sacrifices if the vast majority of people continue as before? They will make no measurable difference to the planet or the rest of humanity. The only difference will be a decrease in personal comfort and convenience. And this is not in our self-interest.
The Inner Equation
So, where has this questioning of assumptions got us? Has it merely shown that we should give up any hope of ever achieving a truly sustainable system and resign ourselves to an ever-deepening series of ecological catastrophes? No, there is still hope. As I pointed out earlier, the purpose of questioning assumptions is not to invalidate the assumptions, but to discover aspects of the issue that might otherwise have remained hidden, and so to arrive at more appropriate and effective solutions.
What has emerged from our questioning is a critical psychological aspect. One major impediment to sustainability is not “out there” in the complex global system we are trying to manage; it is inside ourselves. It is our greed, our love of power, our love of money, our attachment to our comforts, our unwillingness to inconvenience ourselves. In one way or another human self-interest is either creating the problem or preventing us from solving it.
Thus, if we are to take sustainable development from a great ideal to a practical reality it is absolutely imperative that we take this inner psychological dynamic into account. Many commentators have advocated the need to apply systems thinking to the global crisis. We can no longer consider problems such as ozone depletion, rainforest decimation, climatic changes, species extinction, resource scarcities, pollution, famine, in isolation. Resource scarcity, for example, may encourage Amazonian Indians to cut the rainforest, which can result in further species extinctions and accentuate the greenhouse effect, contributing perhaps to longer term food scarcities. The many different aspects of our global crisis are bound together as part of a larger system – a system that includes not only all environmental parameters but also our economic systems, political models, social tensions.
What is now becoming clear is that the systems approach needs to be expanded further to include not just all the external material factors, but also the various internal psychological factors that affect the way we respond to the crisis.
In the example of the “cake-cutting problem” we could only arrive at a satisfactory solution by expanding our frame of reference and including the third dimension.. Similarly with the environmental crisis now facing us, we need to expand our frame of reference and include the additional dimension of self-interest.
Let me make it clear that I do not wish to denigrate self-interest. It is absolutely essential to our survival. Self-interest ensures that we take care of our biological selves, find adequate food, water and shelter, and avoid life-threatening situations. This form of self-interest is something common to all life.
In order to ensure that creatures take care of their self-interest, nature has evolved a very simple internal monitor. If a situation is not in our self-interest we cease to feel good. If I am hungry, I feel some discomfort in my stomach. Similarly if I am cold or thirsty, I begin to suffer. Or if my body is damaged and in need of attention, I feel pain. Such experiences are, by their very nature, unpleasant and unwelcome, and our natural tendency is to find some way to return to a more pleasing state of mind.
To avoid suffering and return to a state of inner well-being is our most fundamental motivation. This is our most basic self-interest – the true bottom line against which we measure all our actions. In the words of the Dalai Lama, ”the hope of all people in the final analysis is simply for peace of mind”.
An Erroneous Assumption
Peace of mind may be our primary goal, but it is also clear that the vast majority of us are not living in that state. Sometimes unexpected events interfere with our best-laid plans. If the car won’t start on a wet winter’s morning and we arrive for a meeting wet and late, we can hardly expect ourselves to feel on top of the world. Other times we miscalculate what will make us feel better. One spoonful of ice cream may stimulate our taste buds sufficiently to make us feel good; a whole tub of ice cream, on the other hand, may not be so welcome by the stomach, and we end up feeling worse than before.
We may find our expectations being challenged. If I believe that all people should be honest and of the highest integrity, then I may well find myself becoming upset when I am faced with reality. Or we may worry about whether or not we will feel good in the future. Will people treat us fairly? Will it rain? Will the stock market crash again? And so long as our minds are taken up with concern and worry, they are not at peace.
In nearly every case, the reason we do not find the peace we seek is because we are looking for it in the wrong place. We are rather like Nasrudhin, the “wise-fool” of Sufi tales, who has lost his key somewhere in his house. But he is searching for it out in the street “because,” he says, “there is more light outside.” We too look for the key to fulfillment in the world around because that is the world we know best. We know how to change this world, how to gather possessions, how to make people and things behave the way we want – the way we think will bring us happiness. We know much less about our minds and how to find fulfillment within ourselves. There seems to be “much less light in there.”
It is this erroneous belief that our inner well-being depends upon how things are in the world around that lies behind much of our short-sighted, self-centered behavior. This is why we consume so much more than we need – more than we need physically that is. Most of what we consume we consume in the belief that it will make us happier. If only we had enough, we tell ourselves, we would be happy.
A person who is feeling depressed or insecure may, for example, try to make themselves feel better by going out and buying themselves a new jacket. And for a while they may indeed feel better. But the effect does not last for long – a few days or weeks perhaps. It soon ends up hanging in the closet with all the other things we have bought in our search for satisfaction.
We have become addicted to the material world. Like a person with a chemical addiction, we want to feel good inside. So we gather for ourselves whatever we believe will make us feel better. But because no ‘thing’ can ever satisfy that inner need, the ‘high’ soon wears off, and we go off in search of another ‘fix’.
This addiction to things is one of the prime reasons we resist the very changes that we most need to make if we are to create a sustainable civilization. This is why we love money so much.
Money gives us the power to buy the things, or experiences, or even relationships that we think will make us happy. And the more money we have, the happier we will be – or so we think.
This is another reason our economic system has become so wedded to growth. We believe that material prosperity equates with inner peace. This may be true for a person who does not have adequate food, shelter or clean drinking water. But the majority of people in the more developed countries have these needs fully met. But we do not seem to know when to stop. We are stuck in the mindset that if only we had more wealth, more purchasing power, more opportunities, and more luxuries, we would be even happier.
This mindset lies behind so much human greed; we want to have as many as possible of the things we believe will bring us inner peace. It is the reason we want to feel in control of our world; we want to know the world of tomorrow is going to fulfill our desires. It is why people hang on to power. And it is the reason we resist change; we don’t want to do anything that’s going to decrease our financial status, our sense of control, or feelings of power. We fear the very changes that will save us because we fear that we might lose some of the things or experiences we think are so important.
A Crisis of Consciousness
The real crisis we are facing is not an environmental crisis, a population crisis, economic crisis, a social crisis, or a political crisis. It is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness.
A crisis is an indication that the old mode of operating is no longer working, and a new approach is required. This is true of a personal crisis, a family crisis or a political crisis. In the case of the environmental the old way that is no longer working is our self-centered materialistic consciousness. It may have worked well in the past, when we needed to provide ourselves with the basic commodities necessary for our individual well-being – but it clearly no longer works today.
It no longer works for the individual as Wendell Berry makes clear in his book, The Unsettling of America:
An American is probably the most unhappy citizen in the history of the world. . . . He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill.
And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts who, in turn, consult certified experts about their anxieties.
It does not work for the developing countries. Our material greed leads to a net flow of resources and wealth from third world to first. Indigenous peoples, previously living a contented life in balance with their environment, find their lands being taken over by multinational ventures and in order to survive are forced to move into cities where lack of possessions translates into poverty and homelessness.
It clearly does not work for the planet as a whole. Our unrelenting search for external satisfaction leads us to consume resources as if there were no tomorrow. Our desire for economic efficiency results in our pouring waste products into the oceans, atmosphere and soil, overloading the biosystem’s natural recycling abilities. Unwilling to put up with some short-term discomforts and inconveniences, we continue to produce and release into the atmosphere substances that threaten to destroy the ozone layer and with it all life on land.
And it most certainly will not work in the future. If this planet is already finding it difficult to sustain one billion, acquisitive, money-loving, status-seeking, power-hungry human beings, how can we expect it to sustain five billion people relentlessly seeking fulfillment through what they have or do?
Moreover, remembering that population is still growing, how can we expect our planet to sustain a population of ten or twelve billion human beings seeking ever-greater levels of material satisfaction?
It’s our current mode of consciousness that is unsustainable. It leads to short-term needs that are intrinsically incompatible with the long-term needs of future generations. This is the underlying reason why current business practices, economies and societies are unsustainable. If we are to develop truly sustainable policies we must change not only our behavior but the mode of consciousness that underlies them.
The Real Challenge
Is it possible to relieve ourselves of this outdated mode of consciousness? I think so. We are not demanding of ourselves anything extraordinary, only an acceleration of the normal process of maturation.
When we think of the elders in a society, we think of the wisdom born of many years of experience. With this wisdom comes the realization that the things we have or do in the world do not matter as much as before. The desire to strive for material fulfillment has given way to an acceptance of how things are.
The challenge of our times is to find ways to accelerate this natural process of maturation so that we can begin to tap this wisdom when we start our adult life rather than as we approach its end.
Such wisdom has been the goal of all the great spiritual traditions. They have each in their own way been trying to help us move beyond our material attachments; to find within ourselves the peace of mind that we eternally seek; and to nourish the wisdom we each carry in our hearts so that it may shine out through our words and deeds.
A New Apollo Project
Even though many of us may already be striving to release ourselves from our material attachments and find the peace within, it is also clear that current approaches to this task either take a very long time, or may not work at all.
Over the last two thousand years we have made tremendous strides in our understanding and mastery of the external world. But our understanding and mastery of our own minds has hardly progressed at all. When it comes to the challenge of developing wisdom we know little more today than did the ancient Greeks and ancient Indians.
Perhaps we need the psychological equivalent of the Apollo Project. John Kennedy set the challenge of getting to the moon in ten years. The resources were there, the knowledge was being gained, and the technology had to be developed. Dedication to the mission brought fruition, and nine years later the first human being was standing on the moon.
The new frontier we now urgently need to master is not outer space but inner space. Again the resources are there – just consider the trillion dollars spent each year defending ourselves against each other’s greed and jealousy. The knowledge is being gained. Seeds of it are to be found in the great spiritual teachings, in many philosophies, in various psychotherapies, and in the emerging fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. What is needed is a dedicated research and development effort to explore how we can most easily release our minds from this materialist mindset and move into a more mature mode of functioning.
Nor do I think the task is that difficult. The only reason that most of us are still caught in the old mode of consciousness is that we have been so caught up in our materialistic conditioning we have not applied ourselves to the task. If we did we could probably achieve our goal very rapidly. By the turn of the millennium we could see our society shifting from its current egocentric mode of consciousness to a more mature and sustainable mode.
The payoffs from such a shift would go far beyond the ability to develop truly sustainable social, economic and political systems. Human beings would at last begin to find the peace of mind they had been seeking all along. With that increase in inner well-being would come not only a lessening in our material needs and the ability to let go of many things that we now believe are so important, but also an improvement in our personal relationships, better health and a far more satisfying life.
In closing let me make one thing clear. I am not suggesting that we should concentrate only on our inner development. We need to do everything we can to prevent further damage to the ozone layer, stop destroying the rainforests, curb greenhouse emissions, reduce pollution, etc. But we also need to bear in mind that these are only symptoms of a deeper underlying problem.
To return to the doctor analogy, suppose that your skin had erupted in a rash, we were having headaches and feeling tired. You might well want a doctor to give you something to reduce the inflammation, get rid of the headache and restore your energy. But if that was all he did you would not be fully satisfied. A good doctor will also want to diagnose and treat the cause of your condition. Have you caught a virus, eaten some contaminated food, or been under undue stress?
The same is true of our global malaise. Yes, we should treat the various symptoms that are threatening us so much. But we also need to look deeper and diagnose and treat the root causes of our predicament. Only then will we stand a real chance of creating a truly sustainable society.
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