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If we get honest about sustainability, it will revolutionize our lives for the better

Fri, Feb 28th, 2014
Posted in All Commentary

By Dr. Bryan Van Gorp

By Dr. Bryan Van Gorp

It is understood that some of the things said in this article will make some people uncomfortable and some angry. That is good, because adults generally do not expand their learning as long as they are comfortable with their current understanding. When facts come to light that are incongruent with the current view, then people are forced to either deny the facts or expand their thinking to bring it into alignment with those facts. The latter is much preferred.

Getting Honest

There is something powerful in speaking the truth, even when it is a truth people do not want to hear. The first step in getting honest would be to admit we have a problem. The majority of people deep down know we must face the truth about climate change, resource depletion, toxic dumping, extinctions, air quality, water quality and over use, soil depletion, and acidification, overfishing, dumping in the oceans.

Those who do not believe in science and do not distinguish between weather and climate may still question climate change. If there is no climate change, perhaps they can explain how to reconcile this with the fact that oil companies are fighting over drilling rights on the newly exposed artic that has been covered with ice for millions of years. Some people try to politicize these issues but this isn’t right vs. left. This is a matter of doing what is right and necessary. These are issues of ecology, chemistry, biology, and physics. Nature doesn’t lose arguments to politicians. All life is dependent on healthy ecosystems.

Even if you still have doubts about the reality of human induced climate change, ask yourself what is the upside and downside potential of taking or not taking action. Suppose the whole thing is a hoax but we take action any way - we get an updated clean renewable energy system and full employment. Or, suppose climate change is real and we do nothing - our children will have a very ugly life thanks to our stupidity and greed. Which do you want to bet on?

When deciding who has credibility, it is important to think about whether the speaker is motivated by a conflict of interest (oil executives and the politicians they fund) or are speaking out of concern for the public health and wellbeing.

Let’s stop talking about natural gas as a bridge fuel. First of all, while it does generate less actual carbon dioxide, it is approximately equal to coal in greenhouse gas impact because of the methane leaks. Methane is 23 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Second, a bridge to what? We have no energy plan and this is just a scam to get us to accept continued reliance on fossil fuels.

The best available science tells us we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5-10 percent per year starting immediately to avoid entering positive feedback loops that make climate change irreversible. An example would be, warming causes melting of the permafrost which releases huge amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which creates more warming and in turn more methane release. We are still increasing emissions by 3-5 percent per year. Climate change is progressing much faster than any of the models predicted.

Change and Grieving

At first thought this may seem negative. Obviously many people are afraid of change or don’t want to change, especially if they are comfortable where they are. Change can be either for the better or for the worse. An 18 year old leaving home may return a failure or may discover independence and how he/she fit into the world. Because change can be scary and perceived as negative, many people grieve for the loss of their previous “life style”. For that reason they are stuck in the various stages of grieving: 1 denial (climate change deniers), 2 anger (those who rail against science and environmentalists), 3 bargaining (if we change light bulbs or buy hybrid cars we will be OK), 4 depression (it is hopeless, we don’t know what to do), and finally 5 acceptance (we know we have a big problem and are prepared to take the required actions to deal with it). Once we get to acceptance we can see that we cannot both continue the status quo and have a livable planet for future generations. Will we claim the moral high ground, be on the right side of history choose a sustainable future?

Personal Choices

and Societal Choices

Some people who have not thought very deeply about these issues will say, “If you are so concerned why don’t you give up your car and stop having children?” First, common sense tell us that an individual driving less or having only two children is certainly the right thing to do but it will not change the outcome for the planet. These are global problems and can only be impacted by whole societies and even international efforts to do the right thing. That of course means regulation and cooperation much like the mobilization that went into WWII. This is not an unheard of idea, only a new application. Second, we all know we could have more fuel efficient cars, a more efficient energy grid, more regulation of toxic chemicals, etc. Those are not things that can be done by individuals; they require a common effort and regulation so better choices become available to individuals.

We must also start making decisions based on science and reason rather than beliefs. People can and often do believe ridiculous things. They can believe the world is flat or that we will somehow be taken care of even when we foul our own nest. Obviously people can believe anything they want. It is equally obvious that decisions that impact the commons and the public good and the survivability of future generations must be based on reason and science, not on beliefs. The commons must be protected; we all have a right to clean air, clean water, and access to nature and resources. The earth itself and its resources should never be owned by a person or a company. They were here before us and will be here after us, how can we own these resources or have the right to foul or deplete them?

How the Current

System Works

The answer does not lie with either of the current political parties. There are a few exceptions, but both parties represent the interests of the donor class. The fact that we can name a few exceptions only proves they are exceptions and not where the parties themselves are at. If corporations are people then we want a DNA test to see who their parents are. If money is speech then rich people have a bully pulpit and poor people are mute.

Our current system is an auction, with power and access going to the highest bidder. We obviously need campaign finance reform to have any chance to restore our democracy. But what would make us believe that the very people who came to power under this corrupt system would be willing to change it? Special interests will never voluntarily give up power, the people must take it. We are currently being held hostage by a broken and dysfunctional system that only serves the interests of the financial and political elites. Our best hope is to educate enough voters to vote for people who represent their legitimate interests. Politicians have never led the way to significant change. Women’s rights, civil rights, previous environmental progress are examples of political change only occurring after activists provided the leadership, education, and energy that forced politicians to act. When we go hat in hand to the current elected officials or their appointees to ask for “favors “we only further enable and legitimize this dysfunctional system.

When we get to acceptance we must acknowledge that to move toward sustainability will require drastic changes in our lifestyle. Change is not optional. The choice we have is to create the future we want or cling to the present until things get so ugly we are forced to react in desperation to the changes that are thrust upon us. Since infinite growth on a finite planet is by definition not sustainable, it becomes obvious that we must set limits. Those limits are defined by the carrying capacity of the earth itself.

The carrying capacity is what the ecological services of the earth are capable of handling. That means a certain number of people and a limited level of consumption. The more people on the planet the, lower the level of consumption that can be sustained. Therefore, it is obvious that we need to limit both reproduction and consumption as part of any sustainability strategy. Continuous growth seemed to work OK before we overshot the carrying capacity of the earth but now the problems are obvious.

Since capitalism requires continuous growth and it is actually illegal for corporations to subordinate profits to the public’s welfare we can see that capitalism is also incompatible with a sustainable future. Under capitalism companies externalize costs, to maximize profits. Externalization means to make other people pay the real costs. Examples of this are: air pollution causing respiratory problems, sick people pay the true costs not the company that did the polluting; or the chemical spill in West Virginia, individuals go to the hospital or have to buy water not the company that declares bankruptcy.

Climate change disasters and the huge negative economic impacts associated with them are externalized costs for fossil fuel companies. This is an example of how markets can lie. If we forced companies to internalize these costs, and stopped subsidies to the largest and wealthiest corporations, renewable energy would be the low cost option. It is antithetical to capitalism to leave most of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, yet that is what is required for us to pass on a livable planet to our children.

Capitalism vs. Democracy

Capitalism is also destructive of democracy. By definition, power in a capitalist system resides with the capital, the few wealthy elites, while in a democracy power resides with the majority of people. Over time capitalism causes ever increasing consolidation of wealth which is antidemocratic.

Democracy requires a level playing field, equality of opportunity and voice. Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Paine both describe how structurally tolerated inequality is directly antagonistic to democracy. Big business has captured our government. Capitalism says he who has the gold makes the rules. Democracy is about reasoned debate and voting. The alternative to capitalism is not socialism; it is democracy. A democratically planned economy that sets limits and treats all people justly.

We claim to be a democracy, yet in the work place, where we spend more of our waking hours than any other place, we have no voice. If we had a democratic work place, we would not vote to outsource our own jobs, pollute the river we drink from, or pay the CEO 500 times more than the workers. Instead we would vote to pay everyone who works a living wage. A democratic work place would also encourage more people to get involved and take responsibility for their place of work and their local community and environment. This may seem a radical idea to some but it has been endorsed by many, from the Pope to leading economists (Richard Wolff, Richard Smith).

There will be those who will say the government can’t do anything well, that it is less efficient than the private or corporate business sector. That is simply not true, compare the overhead cost of Social Security vs. private pension funds or Medicare/Medicaid vs. health insurance or compare the cost of soldiers to those of private contractors. What you find is that government is much more efficient and fairer.

Honesty compels us to deal with four major requirements to attain a sustainable future. 1. Stopping population growth and gradually decreasing it over time. 2. Less consumption per person in the wealthy countries. 3. Abandoning the capitalist paradigm – continuous growth on a finite planet is magical thinking. 4. A WWII level commitment to moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy and a commitment to support all other countries efforts to become more sustainable.

Why are people so reluctant to do these things? At least in part because we all know that one person acting alone cannot fix the larger problem. Each person is reluctant to sacrifice their own “quality of life”. Unless we know it has a chance of meaning something and unless it is part of an organized systemic effort that has a chance of succeeding, why do it? We know the political system will not organize this effort and certainly the business community will not. So it is up to us to create a citizen movement demanding these changes. If we are not honest in our discussion of what it will take (if we focus on the symptoms instead of the disease), we will lose all credibility just as our political and business leaders have.

Acceptance means we understand sustainability as a challenge for every person on earth regardless of country, race, and income level. So the solution can only be affected by everyone working together in common cause. That is the big positive; once we get honest we realize we have to cooperate with everyone else to survive. This has the potential to change so many things for the better. But first we have to do the education to bring more than 50 percent of the people along and the first step in doing that is being honest in our debate.

Time to Decide

Evolution has equipped each species with certain attributes that allow it to survive. For humans a couple of the most important are a conscious mind and the ability to communicate. Let’s use those attributes to debate and decide where we go from here.

Sustainability is the vision. Renewable energy, population management, equality of opportunity and many other things are all pieces of the pie. Each of these must be addressed. None of us can do everything, but every one of us can do something. It is also important to keep the overall picture in mind. All these things are connected.

This brings us to change, and therefore a chance to choose a better future. For example, since climate change cannot be solved by any one group or country, it provides a vehicle for national and international solidarity and cooperation. It becomes obvious that our futures are all interrelated and that means thinking in terms of “we” instead of “us vs. them”. We have an opportunity to leave the treadmill of consumerism and militarism to start thinking in terms of what we really value in our lives and society. Think how liberating it would be to stop being seduced by this consumer culture we have been marketed and say yes to a future of our own choosing. Maybe the common enemy of climate change can unite us in a way nothing else has been able to.

Let’s lead by example. Since our energy use per person is by far the highest in the world, it is only fair we take responsibility before preaching to others. To be legitimate a government’s priority must be a sustainable future because if we fail at that nothing else matters much. Let’s do what is required of us to secure the future just as those who went before us often had to do. Climate change is the challenge of our generation just as the Revolutionary War, Women’s Rights, Great Depression, or Civil Rights were the struggle of previous generations. Our survival depends on us coming together in cooperation and that will be a very hopeful and positive thing.

Wise people generally do not try to solve a problem with the same processes that created the problem. Will we define freedom as the right to steal from the commons for short term personal gain and to exploit fellow human beings to maximize profits or will we define freedom as the right to create a sustainable future that allows us to share in its responsibilities and rewards? We can’t have both, and it is time to decide.


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8:39:53, Mar 4th 2014

krogstad@springgrove.coop says:
Excellent commentary, very thoughtful. Although quite lengthy, hopefully people will read to its conclusion. It is time (actually past time) for the majority of us to take a stand and make the right decisions for future generations.


7:38:38, Mar 5th 2014

bootscoot21 says:
Thank you Dr. Van Gorp for this complete look at what our generation is facing. I hope it helps to awaken and more importantly empower people to work together. There are so many people working in little ways toward the goal of sustainability, less waste, and food security, among other important goals. www.newdream.org does a fantastic job of compiling ideas of how to change our every day activities, celebrations, and living habits to be more sustainable, saving money and creating less of a negative impact on the earth. Start out this spring by growing a backyard garden, switching to non-toxic home cleaning methods, and using non-toxic lawn care methods!