The Problem is Ourselves

As the Earth lurches toward 2050, the chorus of conflicting voices about whether we live on a planet in crisis or a planet in transition grows louder and more confused.   Many already see evidence of impending natural disaster, driven by climate change and overpopulation.  Others live toward a delightful but implausible futuristic world, created and fueled by human ingenuity.

In the first case, the analysis of numbers leads to the paralysis of despair.  Nothing can be done to avert disaster so there is little point in trying to change the way things are. In the second case, naive optimism leads to the inactivity of denial.  Something needs to be done to change our impact on the planet, but not right away and not by us.

Neither option is helpful or hopeful.  Both sidestep the necessity of knowing how our current situation was created, because such understanding is either pointless or irrelevant.  As a result, neither enables us to make better choices toward a sustainable future that will remain elusive unless we change the trajectory of how we live together today.

We need to understand how the systems in which we live have shaped our present, so we can change how they will shape our future.

That means we need history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, religious studies – essentially all the disciplines that tend to get excluded from discussions about economic and environmental sustainability.

In reality, we have all the science and technology we need, right now, to make the changes we need  to create a sustainable future.  We know what needs to be done, we even know how to do it.  We just don’t.  Sustainability is a social and cultural problem, not a scientific and technological one.

In “Final Words,” from The Big Picture: Reflections on Science, Humanity and a Quickly Changing Planet (2009), David Suzuki, the Canadian environmentalist, observed that despite many concerted efforts, the previous decade had seen little substantive progress on environmental issues.  This tells us two things:

“First, the difficulties we’re encountering in solving our environmental problems aren’t scientific or technological; they’re social.  ….Many scientists and researchers agree that we already know what must be done to achieve sustainability and even how to do it; we just aren’t acting.

“Second, relying on science and technology to save us from our environmental problems is a fool’s game, because both science and technology are reflections of society.

“If we don’t commit as a society to change, science and technology will get us nowhere and in fact will take us even faster down an unsustainable path, because that’s where we’re already heading.”

To put it another way, the issue is not technological insufficiency.  It is ethical incapacity.

In 1928, an American named Raymond Blaine Fosdick published a book that came out of a series of college commencement addresses.  Titled The Old Savage in the New Civilization, Fosdick’s thesis was that moral development had not kept pace with technological development.  We were still the same Old Savage, now living in a New Civilization with tools capable of world-wide devastation.  If we do not figure how to use these tools more wisely, then the consequences for everyone will be catastrophic.

It was not unusual for books to appear in the 1920s reflecting on the aftermath of the Great War of 1914-1918, a war that saw four empires destroyed and two more damaged beyond repair in such a short space of time.  The larger question, however, was “why did this happen?” Fosdick, who was an American representative to the failed League of Nations, put into the phrase of his book title what many others had been thinking.

Published at the height of the Roaring Twenties, Fosdick must have seemed out of step – at least for a year, until the Crash of 1929, the Depression, the rise of Fascism, and another world war using even more destructive weapons that culminated in the first use of the atomic bomb.  He did what he could to push the Old Savage in the right direction, however. From 1936 to 1948, he was president of the Rockefeller Foundation as it shifted its funding from the physical to the social sciences, looking for ways to socialize the Old Savage into the New Civilization before it was too late.

More than 80 years after his book appeared, Fosdick’s observations and concerns remain cogent.  Our problem is not our tools; it is ourselves.

Whatever else is done toward sustainability, without finding some new ways to live together as humans who share a planet and a future, the lights will go out, not just over Europe, but over all the Earth.

The rapid environmental devastation caused by how we live can be slowed and reversed, with the necessary changes to lifestyle and a collective effort.

Without a similar change in how we live together, however, the future is bleak.  The conflicts inherent in our global socio-political system, combined with the conflicts inevitable because of climate change and competition on a crowded planet for everything from resources to water, will bring the ultimate devastation through war that Fosdick feared.

So, over the next while, I will offer seven reflections for the journey, seven lessons the Old Savage needs to learn, toward a sustainable world.

There needs to be a social and cultural transformation, at all levels. We can legislate, berate and punish people into a sustainable lifestyle, but that isn’t transformation – that’s just coercion.

When people choose for themselves, that’s transformation.

In that choice, there is hope.