How to Talk About Sustainability to People Who Aren’t Environmentalists

TriplePundit This guest post by John Adams of Saybrook University  on Triple Pundit, aims to make sustainability part of a larger system of a functioning, efficient and well-educated world. The post breaks down the need for sustainability into a "set of interacting challenges" that include population, education, energy dependence and more. The point is that if Americans understand the complex system that must interact successfully to aid the future, then they'd be more likely to back efforts to mitigate climate change. Helping to find solutions to all of our current challenges (environment included) should be more digestible and possibly more relevant than isolating climate alone.

Posted Oct. 11, 2010

By John Adams, Triple Pundit

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By John Adams

Have the arguments for sustainability gotten stale – or left out the most important points?

Make no mistake: the need for sustainable solutions has never been greater, and the clock is ticking. But after Earth Day, An Inconvenient Truth, Captain Planet, and endless news stories, is it possible that everyone who’s going to be moved to action by arguments about pollution, water quality, deforestation, and climate change has already been so moved?

What appeal do these arguments for sustainability have to people, and corporations, who have decided that the environment doesn’t need saving, and/or that the climate is probably not changing – at least not because of human activity?

If the sustainability movement has become a broken record, playing the same song over and over again, then maybe it’s time to come up with some new lyrics:  arguments that most Americans haven’t already heard, arguments that don’t need to mention climate change or any of the other usual subjects.

It’s not impossible – in fact, the need for sustainable solutions is so great that it’s easy.  Consider the following set of interacting challenges:

  • POPULATION: The global population is growing every year at the rate of five additional New York Cities – 76,000,000 additional people to water, feed, clothe, and eventually sell consumer goods to. Most are born in less developed countries, but are exposed to Western life styles that they generally grow up aspiring to.  No matter how well this is handled, there are going to be big resource availability challenges.  If population growth is handled badly, it’s a recipe for global unrest and terrorism.
  • EDUCATION: In the USA, elected officials dare not mention increasing taxes, and everywhere schools and colleges are cutting back. Tuition has risen so high that college educations are out of reach of most of our population. The US is rapidly falling far behind the rest of the developed world, especially in science and technology.  That’s a formula for decline.
  • NATURAL CAPITAL: When half of a total resource has been used up (it’s always the easy half that is withdrawn first), the costs of extraction rapidly escalate and the risks associated with extraction also rapidly increase. The halfway point is called “peak” because extraction always follows a bell-shaped curve. Take copper as an example. 150 years ago, there were boulder-sized nuggets scattered around on the surface in the southwest of the USA. Today, 0.02% copper ore is extracted from ¾ mile deep pits and driven to the surface in huge gas-guzzling vehicles. Oil, coal, uranium, natural gas, and many other natural resources are at or near “Peak.”
  • ENERGY DEPENDENCE: All prosperity (yes, ALL) is entirely dependent on cheap, abundant, high efficiency energy. Virtually every activity we engage in requires readily available cheap energy supplies. Early in the 20th Century, 100 barrels of oil could be extracted at the energy cost of about one barrel of oil. Today, one barrel of oil invested gets us only about three barrels of oil. We are soon going to be at a major challenge point in terms of energy availability.
  • ECONOMY: ALL money is loaned into existence. Each country’s central bank prints money and loans it to its government and charges interest. However, most of the money in existence is loaned by banks to individuals or companies, or charged to credit cards. Since ALL money creation transactions create debt that must be paid back with interest, it is a requirement of our monetary systems world-wide that the economy MUST grow perpetually (and debt levels by definition must grow perpetually) in order to create the extra money needed to pay back prior loans plus interest. Debt levels everywhere in the world are reaching such extreme levels that, increasingly, those who hold the debts are challenging governments in their sovereignty.

These issues – population growth, nonrenewable resource depletion, the economy, education, and energy dependency – are at least as urgent as the need to address climate change, and may reach a part of the population that has been consistently unmoved by calls to save the environment.

These elements are all interacting in a complex system. Finding new, more comprehensive approaches to this complex of sustainability challenges has never been more urgent and relevant to everyday life.

John Adams, Ph.D. is a faculty member in the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University.

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