Sustainability boils down to living life in a way that results in a net benefit (or at least no cost) to the overall world. When I hike, I see signs that say “leave only your footprints and take only photographs”. This is a reasonable thing to conceive of when you’re hiking, but it seems daunting in the context of the magnitude of our regular human, American, consumption-oriented lives. And indeed it is — a wonderful metaphor used in Cradle to Cradle is a cherry tree — it flowers in the spring leaving a wonderful aroma, dropping many seeds of which only a few are used, and the rest degrade and naturally enrich the soil. It provides food for insects and people, shade, and beautifies the world. Could we not change our lives in such a way as to live harmoniously with our environment in this way?
Short answer: no way.
There’s just too much of our world built around a completely different mode of operation, whereby we consume what we want and use the “resources” of the world how we see fit. After we mangle and munge all these resources, we consume the parts of them we want, then throw away the rest. This is the way we have been living since the Industrial Revolution, and look at what we have become: wealthy, successful, safe and comfortable.
Yet, we really have no other choice to reverse this mode of operation, at least in the long run. Although the earth has a lot of resources to be consumed, it’s not unlimited, and while our ingenuity may be unlimited, our ability to respond quickly enough is in some question.
So how do we solve a huge problem? Just like any other: identify an opportunity whose scope is manageable, and just do it. For us as individuals, we can take the kinds of steps I have been writing about. But as I have found, it’s not long before you run into limitations on how much a single person can do. The problem is not that there’s not more to be done, it’s mainly that we don’t have the knowledge or infrastructure — the building blocks to assemble the components of more meaningful solutions.
And this is where leadership makes a difference. Our current American government leadership seems to have its head in the sand. But there are a large number of companies, some really big ones, that are taking a pretty serious look at the state of the world and changing their entire strategies to adapt to the coming realities. Examples include BP, Ford and General Electric. Cynically, they are looking for ways to exploit the economic opportunity that the coming crisis presents. But cynical or not, they are taking major risks in spending money and resources.
It is these companies who will provide the leadership we need. And more important, they will provide the infrastructure. GE’s “Ecomagination” program not only raises awareness, but builds the parts we need to make it possible.
So we individually take our own small steps, doing what we can to influence the course of infrastructure, and some major corporations take larger steps to influence the direction of the future. So who’s left? Well, most of the major industrialized countries (well, except for a couple minor cases like the US and China) are taking real actions — expending cost now with the expectation that it is worth the investment.
Long answer: sustainability is the only answer.