Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Our Interconnected Crises and the Occupy Movement

Last week, my environmental studies senior seminar class examined different ideas about a sustainable economy. During the class, my peers lectured on the market-based green transition of Iceland’s taxi fleet and Costa Rica’s ecotourism industry. I think that capitalism and markets, if properly incentivized, have incredible potential to drive rapid change towards a more sustainable world. However, I was deeply upset by the level of complacency I observed from my peers about our current economic system. Perhaps I misunderstood, but it seemed that the general consensus was that we simply needed to slightly tweak our current economic system to align ourselves with the principles of sustainability. While I wish this was the case, I could not disagree more.

I believe fundamental physical limits exist for humanity’s total sustainable consumption of resources. No matter how innovative or ingenious we are, we cannot keep growing society forever. Eventually, we will either need to transition to a steady state economy or collapse our entire human enterprise; constant growth, in physical or financial terms, simply is not sustainable. I’m not sure whether we will be able cultivate enough wisdom to successfully navigate this difficult transition, but I hope that as a species we can avoid the fate that any other isolated population suffers when it overshoots its carrying capacity and collapses its stocks of environmental resources.

I also believe that we are rapidly running out of time to make this transition. Currently at 389 ppm, we are rapidly approaching the “safe” limit for atmospheric carbon dioxide of 450 ppm. James Hansen and others have suggested that this limit is actually too generous and that for real long-term climatic stability, we must get back to 350 ppm. But climate is only one fundamental limit to society; we also face threats from continued chemical pollution, ozone degradation, ocean acidification, excessive nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, and several other planetary boundaries (for one analysis of these threats, see this special Nature article published in 2009). So it seems like we need to start making this transition NOW; we don’t have time to wait another decade or two to grow to an adequate level of prosperity before we decide to kick our growth addiction.

What I am writing is nothing new; environmental scientists have been warning us of the dangers of unobstructed growth since the early 1970s with the publication of Limits to Growth. World leaders have gathered many times at UN Sustainable Development conferences, G8 Summits, UNFCCC COP negotiations, and other forums to address these issues and promise the beginning of a transition towards a more sustainable economy. Yet, I see very little progress being made. We have collectively made very little progress on the goals set at Rio during the Earth Summit in 1992; we have not come even close to achieving the Millennium Development Goals; we are nowhere near an adequate global climate treaty. Now, in the midst of a global recession and with the threat of a new global financial meltdown looming from the EuroZone crisis, we are still looking at our problems with the same mindset, still trying to figure out how to stimulate the economy to get back to our “healthy” paradigm of growth.

I really hate to sound so pessimistic about our current situation. I think that if we chose to, we could easily provide for every single person’s basic human needs. If we chose to, we could distribute society’s resources in a way that would make war, famine, and civil strife unnecessary. We could redesign our economic and social systems to fit within our finite resource constraints and power our society entirely with renewable energy. We won’t ever manage to reach utopia, but we can certainly do better than what we are doing now. And I believe that if we want society to endure for the next century and beyond, we need to change. This is no longer a matter of idealism. This is a matter of survival.

It’s easy to point out society’s problems, but it is very difficult to come up with viable and sustainable solutions. But maybe that is part of the problem. Maybe us not having a comprehensive road map for the future, guaranteed to direct us to a sustainable and just society, is preventing us from starting the journey. But it’s never going to happen; we are never going to possess a crystal ball to tell us exactly what we should be doing. And there is so much to transition, so much to change, that it seems like the best thing to do right now is just pick something and start working. If we actually aligned a majority of society’s resources towards the task of achieving true sustainability, or even a sizeable minority of our resources, I’m fairly confident that we could resolve our current ecological crises within a decade.

Alternatively, maybe we already are on that journey towards sustainability, just in the very beginning stages. I am always amazed to see how many local initiatives exist that are pursuing deep sustainability measures. Barter circles and free-cycling, community-owned solar power, the rapid proliferation of urban farming, a reinvigorated interest in biking and mass transit; all of these trends are incredibly encouraging. But they still feel small and insignificant compared to the monumental changes I believe are necessary to adequately confront our society’s encroachment of ecological limits. Community renewable power is nice, but it doesn’t do much to disrupt the continued consumption of coal in China. It is great to ride my bike everywhere throughout St. Louis, but doing that won’t shut down the continued mining of Tar Sands oil in Alberta or other “extreme” fossil fuel energy sources now that we have run low on the traditional varieties of oil.

It is with this mindset that I have thrown my support behind the Occupy Movement. While it has still yet to formulate any solutions to our crises or annunciate a clear set of demands, the members of the Occupy Movement have had the courage to stand up and say that things are deeply flawed in our society. I believe that the wide and ever growing gap between the rich and the poor mirrors the ever growing gap between sustainability and our current consumption patterns. The suffering happening now in the current economic downturn is a shadow of the much greater potential suffering threatened by an ecological meltdown. And I don’t see any way that we can change these things, that we can fundamentally shift society, without some disruption. With the disruption and attention created by Occupy, perhaps something new can emerge.

NYT columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote an article entitled “Something’s Happening Here” in which he outlines two master narratives for the future: The Great Disruption and The Big Shift. The first narrative, which comes from Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding, argues that our climate, debt, employment, and leadership crises are all interconnected signs that our current global capitalist system is reaching its limits. The second narrative, coming from John Hagel III of Deloitte, argues that we are in the midst of a “Great Shift” in society that will soon merge the forces of information technology and globalization to create a “huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities.” Both narratives predict big changes for our society. Friedman himself does not pick a favorite, instead telling his readers that “you decide” which future we take.

You decide. To me, that sentiment rings true, now more than ever. In this age of interconnected crises, it helps to realize that we still have the power to determine our own destiny. But we only have that power if we wake up and realize our own individual and collective abilities to redesign our current social, economic, and political systems. Until then, we will be continue to be trapped by the crises we ourselves created.


  1. Well said. I've been doing a lot of thinking myself about the interconnectedness between ecological, social, and economic sustainability... and in the process have become entirely supportive of the Occupy Movement. Keep up the good writing, and the good work!


  2. Eieenie said it well...applying the kind of thinking that got us into our current predicament will not be the thinking that will take us out of this jam.
    Reinventing the box is what will.

  3. Could not agree more with you Adam.

    Natural Capitalism, as I'm sure you've read, is all about tweaking businesses to do better, in terms of sustainability. But, when Nike builds a LEED Platinum building, should we all get up and cheer or should we continue pushing forward towards a sustaining economy? To me, this just will not cut it and we need the realization that this culture is killing the planet. And this culture includes business. Granted, some businesses do great work and that is truly undeniable. But, now more than ever, we cannot afford to get complacent about our nation and world's state of affairs. The bottom up is where we start and then we carry forward with the paying-it-forward mentality. Good work Adam.