November 7, 2005
This column appeared in the Valley News, Lebanon, NH.
Three concrete steps towards sustainability in the U.S.? That shouldn’t be a hard list to create. Certainly there are enough possible steps out there waiting for us to take them. The first that come to mind:
1. Charge the full costs of resource use — not just what it costs to catch a fish or chop down a tree but also what it will cost to keep the ocean and forest healthy for the long term.
2. Ditto for charging the full costs of pollution — not just the costs of pumping oil out of the ground, for instance, but also the costs of counteracting global warming generated from that oil’s burning.
(1 and 2 together would harness the creativity of millions of good-hearted, moral, well meaning business people who would be rewarded for figuring out how to meet real human needs with the least costs to the long term health of our planetary life support systems.)
3. Implement everything we already know how to do – from conservation to renewable energy – so that we can meet our energy needs while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
4. Invest in vigorous development of alternative energy technologies, so that, when we’ve taken everything we already know how to do as far as we possibly can we can, there is a new generation of solutions ready to be implemented.
Already that’s a list of four, not three. And pollution taxes and investment in alternative energy and the like might be great ideas, but there’s not much evidence these days that our national politicians are ready to embrace them. That fact pushes the search for concrete steps back a level. What concrete steps can we ordinary people take so that policies like these become obvious and inevitable?
I can think of at least three steps. I myself don’t take them nearly publicly enough, courageously enough, or often enough. But if I choose to I can take them any time, any day, without waiting for my Senator, the President, or my power company to lead the way.
1. Let reality in.
There’s no use hiding from what is happening. See it and name it. Admit it. It is a signal calling for action, and we can let that signal use us, we can be it’s voice. The permafrost is melting. Children are still dying of hunger on a planet where other children are sick from a diet of empty calories. Toxic chemicals are there in breast milk, in our bloodstreams.
Reality can be our motive force. Especially when we embrace all of reality, not just the bad news but also the good news which tells us it doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to capture energy from the sun and the wind. We know how to grow food without poisoning ourselves. There’s a lot of wilderness left, nature is resilient, people can learn new ways of living. Reality says we need to change. Reality also says we can.
2. Speak the truth.
At least as best we see it. With humility, knowing we don’t see the whole truth.
Money isn’t as important as health or family. Oil isn’t worth dying or killing for. Without functioning ecosystems nothing else matters.
We don’t have pollution taxes and a renewable energy infrastructure and all the other things on my first list because our national conversation is not in touch with these basic truths. Becoming the kind of person who can state them (and restate them) calmly, peacefully, emphatically, is therefore a concrete step towards sustainability..
3. Stay in love with what you love, even when it hurts
Your children, your grandchildren, a neighborhood park, a wild mountain, a tired old creek. Whatever it is, love it, and give it some of your time. Open yourself to it and don’t accept substitutes. Television can’t replace nature. Packaged snacks can’t replace fresh local food. Shopping can’t replace community. At this moment, as the industrial paradigm reveals its costs to us, a lot of what we love is diminished, threatened, or even, sometimes, lost. But we must keep on loving the real thing, the real park, the real mountain, because, as long as we refuse to settle for the surrogates, we will not forget the true value of clean air, pure water, and a stable climate. As long as we stay in love with our world, there’s really nothing to do but keep on trying to figure out how to live within its limits.