Scientists agree we have entered a new era of Earth’s history in which humans have become the dominant physical force. They call it the Anthropocene. This era can be long — or it can be short. The choice is ours. Unless we can shift to new economic, social and political models, the glory days of humanity will be short indeed; a brief hiccup in Earth’s story.
Regardless of your views on climate change, one thing remains certain: Obvious changes are occurring all around the planet more rapidly than ever before. These environmental changes are often difficult to predict and hard to identify before it’s too late. Issues such as soil fertility loss, ecosystem collapse, mass extinctions and extreme weather threaten the viability of human populations.
People are starting to realize business as usual is simply unsustainable. In fact, the concept of sustainability has become quite fashionable. Sustainability gets thrown around so much we have lost track of its core meaning and misconceptions abound. I think it’s worth taking the time to examine and refute these misinterpretations.
Sustainability is not all about sacrifice, it’s about efficiency and longevity. It’s not just about saving the whales and polar bears, it’s about our quality of life. Sustainability is not a political issue, it is a human issue. It’s about the people already suffering from the effects of climate change: environmental refugees fleeing poverty, hunger and displacement. Moving toward sustainability is more than a moral choice, it is a practical one. It’s the choice of survival.
Sustainability is also not some narrow notion of living “green” — recycling, driving a hybrid and turning the water off while you brush your teeth. You probably feel bombarded by information on how you can do little things at home to make a difference. Sure, these are valuable as starting points. But let’s be honest, at some point it’s going to take deeper changes and real policy shifts. If you think that doing small things as an individual is pointless, then you should push yourself to do more, not less. The best opportunity for you to make a real difference on a larger scale lies in exploiting your underestimated and underutilized influence as a taxpayer, voter and consumer.
Now that we know what sustainability is not, we must move onto the more difficult task of defining what it is. At its core, to make something sustainable simply means to ensure it continues running for a long time. In order for our social, political and economic systems to achieve this longevity and stability, we must take the limits of Earth’s natural systems into account.
But it also takes more than just environmental consciousness to sustain a system or activity. We must also keep in mind economic feasibility and social equity in order to achieve lasting success. Sustainability meshes environmental stewardship with these intimately related issues. Finding a way to combine all these interests to achieve concrete policy goals will be no small feat. But finding a way to advance this triple-bottom-line of economic efficiency, social equity and environmental stewardship is the only way to forge a civilization capable of sustained survival.
The prevailing attitude toward environmental issues is unproductive and dangerous. They are seen as external, nonhuman issues. To be fair, mainstream environmental activists do little to correct the nonsensical notion that humans are fundamentally separate from the natural world in which we live. The environment is not static and pristine, and humans are not a cancer upon the earth. Humanity is full of its own value. In fact, our greatest resources — ingenuity, determination, creativity and compassion —come from within. Therefore we must learn to invest in both human and natural resources. Only then can we achieve a symbiotic rather than competitive relationship with our crucial life-support systems. In no way am I suggesting that this will be easy, painless or straightforward. We can’t all just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” The fact remains: A radical shift is necessary.
The world is not ending in 2012. But our long-term survival is far from certain. No matter how you look at it, our world is changing and we must adapt. Transitions can be painful. Industries may collapse and jobs may be lost. But where one door closes, a giant floodgate opens somewhere else. Perhaps this global economic crisis could be the first stage of a more profound metamorphosis. Sustainability will be the most difficult and the most important struggle humanity has ever faced. It will be the central mission of our generation and of many more that follow. This is an exciting time to be alive. You and I have a chance to do something incredible, an opportunity to change the world. Instead of viewing the coming changes as a collapse of civilization, let’s embrace them as a new renaissance, an innovative enlightenment. Let’s create a more sustainable, more equal and ultimately richer world in which we can all thrive.
—Randy Wilde is an ISCOR senior.
—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.