Praise for Earth and concerns for the future echoed across America in 1970 as speaker after speaker celebrated the first Earth Day. After reviewing what had been said, Barry Commoner, in his now famous book, Closing Circle, concluded that Earth Day meant everything and thus nothing. “The confusion … was a sign that the situation was so complex and ambiguous that people could read into it whatever conclusion their own beliefs—about human nature, economics, and politics—suggested.” Forty years later, we are still struggling with the meaning and purpose of Earth Day. What environmental qualities should we protect? What development path should we follow? In which future do we want to live?
The challenges confronting us in 2010 are in every way more sobering than those of 1970: climate chaos, depleted fisheries, water shortages, soil salinization, crushing poverty, and soaring global material aspirations. And worse, our political will and government capacity are shackled. Do not lament. Sustainability provides purpose to Earth Day. It brings people to the table. Sane people want to live in a thriving and sustainable future. Constructing such a future is clearly within our grasp. We are the problem. We are the solution.
In 1987 the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission set down the fundamental challenge and contradiction of our time. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Individuals, communities, nations, and Earthlings agree that we want to sustain, nurture, and cherish the traditions, ideals, places, people, and institutions that make us feel special and enhance our quality of life. But we also agree that we must strive to improve current conditions, expand opportunities for others less fortunate, and advance human potential to realize new dreams. The perceived contradiction between these two goals has stymied progress towards either. To sustain something means keeping it safe from degradation and change. To develop something means to change it. Sustainable development efforts produce negotiation train wrecks when we can’t agree on what to keep and what to change. Unfortunately, rather than engage in the difficult task of negotiating development pathways to desirable futures, we have instead distracted ourselves by gambling.
“We are the problem. We are the solution.”
Our primary strategy to achieve sustainable development has been to invest most of our money, time and talent in natural sciences and engineering technologies to solve problems of supply. We are betting that innovations by creative individuals motivated by market riches will increase supply of the things we want—energy, materials, water, shelter, convenience, entertainment—and reduce the supply of things we don’t want—pollutants and wastes.
Why do we place such a big, risky bet that human ingenuity is the ultimate resource? Because it is easier to wish for luck than to face our addictions. It allows us to put off hard choices. It requires no sober introspections about our development path and priorities. We aren’t forced to trade-off the things to save with the things to change. Instead we wager that the invisible hand of Adam Smith will be able to bake us an every larger pie, so not only will our slices grow, but so will there be more to share with those currently less fortunate. The bet is a risky one, however, and the reasoning flawed.
Human wants know no bounds. Marketing strategies and social expectations successfully motivate us to want more, buy more, and be increasingly materialistic. We eagerly oblige despite ancient wisdoms and modern scientific evidence that confirm we can’t buy happiness. The burden of supporting many billion more meat rich, energy intensive, materialistic lifestyles is undeniably unsustainable. Economic-growth-has-no-limits advocates none withstanding, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment sadly confirms that capitalism’s success in satisfying human needs and wants is already taking its toll on our finite and fragile blue-green orb.
The path to sustainability, and the hope of Earth Day, is to manage both supply and demand. Society must invest some of its bet in the humanities and social sciences. We need stories that re-define the good life. We need art that celebrates the sacrifice that parents make for their children and current generations make for the next. We need status to be defined independently of possessions. And perhaps most importantly, we need social programs, organizations, and policies that help us evaluate complex situations, set priorities, and make the conflict-ridden trade-offs required of sustainable development.
Reasons for hope abound. They can be found in solutions emerging from the thousands upon thousands of community groups that Paul Hawken, in his best selling Blessed Unrest, reports have formed to take responsibility for local quality of life issues: in efforts by major universities to develop new graduate and undergraduate majors emphasizing integrative sustainability studies; in collaboration among ecologists and economists to identify and price water filtration, pollination, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services that we have thus far been wasting and exploiting because we haven’t had to pay for them; and in the rapidly expanding markets for local and sustainable food and forest products that allow people to vote with their pocketbooks for a thriving and sustainable future.
Earth Day reminds us we have one planet, one life support system, one parts department to resupply the engine of capitalism, and one home for our diverse cultures, religions, and political parties. Sustainability provides reason to care about the Earth because by doing so we are caring for each other. We already have the needed ethical principle of care embedded in most every world religion and culture. Sustainability adds the needed temporal dimension: Do to others as you would have them do to you and pass to the future what you are grateful was passed to you.
R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for GREENR.