CAN SUSTAINABILITY BE ATTAINED IN SAY 30 YEARS?
This essay is a personal view and is meant to stir those of us working on sustainability to deeper considerations of the path ahead. It is not a quick fix for those who want help with technical solutions, but rather for those with an interest in the social side of getting to sustainability.
Our current way of organized: Economy – Governance – Collective and Personal Psyche – cannot get us to a sustainable society. The way we are now prevents it. The economy requires constant growth and near total dedication. Our governance is split into nations, our nations into parties, and parties controlled by special interests [corporations] who prevent decisions for the common good. Our psyche is filled with fears of any future and mistrust of strangers.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans gained an intelligence to cope with difficult conditions, such as climate change and competing Neanderthals. That intelligence went on to culture, including religions, kinship systems, patterns of authority, belief and technology. These tend to create pseudo species, or in-group out-group divisions that tend toward violence. The trend line of wars through WWI and WWII is still with us, and the forces that led to those wars, and the governance that existed in parallel with them, is still largely with us. The emerging view in anthropology is that we need an overarching global belief system to prevent violence among those groups.
We certainly do not have it, though there are some emerging qualities, led by common decency and empathy. I think of the worldwide grief reaction to Kennedy’s assassination, based on a deep emotional sense of “good”. Such recognized reactions could be the ground for world belief. But we certainly are not there yet. The split/negative reaction to President Obama, and Obama’s apparent lack of leadership, the problem of the transfer of wealth from middle-class America to the super-rich, and the fascinating drama of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden show how deeply divided we are over basic questions.
To get to sustainability would require seeing a series of steps, stages and phases that make sense across a complex non-linear set of systems, each with emerging properties. Never been done. I think that most people in the world fairly accurately intuit this, and hence are skeptical and afraid.
Which suggests that as a species we may need to go through some uncoordinated steps in cultural evolution before we can get to sustainability. Evolution is a very complex process of bringing together uncoordinated advances, advances that only look like advances after the fact, and also include the “survival of the fittest” of things like a finance system that takes over the whole of society, which turns out to be a cultural cancer.
There is a related idea of “path dependent early lock-in” where a society chooses to go down a path that it can’t get out of. Our division into nation states and our choice of economy as the ruling organizing principle may be examples. Can we evolve out of these? How quickly? Certainly not by a single mutation or action.
Thus social evolution toward ecological sanity is likely to have stages and not be a single simple “crossing” through a single major change.
As a species we have always relied upon population growth and conquest to get more.
Character distribution (mix of circumstances and temperament) is surprisingly constant through history, and each epoch must give room for each type. It might be that the proportion of ambitious people is based on the room for ambition, not individual genes. That put requirements on any path to sustainability, since no sustainable society can exist with large numbers of ambitious over-consumers.
The balance of ethical, aesthetic and healthy people seem to be constant across societies and history. The number of people who are comfortable at adapting and those who fight circumstances seems fairly constant. Those who lead are few, but constant. Those who follow, numerous, but fairly constant. Any model of a sustainable future must include an assessment of what we are to do with the range of human temperaments and characters, not to assume that, with the right logic, all will align. There will always be those who game the system, steal from the system, and organize crime at the edges of the system.
Which says that ecological disruptions emerge out of our success at growth, and we are limited in approaches by our talents as a species. No species in history has ever managed its growth—but instead has allowed the factors of disease, environmental collapse and war to control growth.
For those of us working on sustainability, I highly recommend three authors. Toynbee’s Study of History suggests that elites, in times of trouble, abandon their own people. Spengler’s Decline of the West argues that empires must move toward Caesars [dictators] because any show of weakness will cause them to be torn apart from within and without. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies shows that elites, who own the infrastructures, when in trouble, instead of fixing, reduce costs to get cash out of the system.
The human species has always been expanding, or attempting to expand. We are now asking for a change of deep significance, touching all our institutions: family, belief, values, governance, power, aesthetics.
This article is taken from a longer essay titled “Who will do what and when will they do it?” first published online by THE MAHB, December 2010. <http://mahb.stanford.edu>
Dr. Douglass Carmichael is a psychotherapist, teacher, speaker and writer. He has a background in physics and psychoanalysis, and has combined an interest in technology, the humanities, and social issues. His current interest is in technology and society as a symptom of deeper fissures in the human-technology symbiosis. His longer-range focus is on the use of the humanities to enhance societal policy making.