The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

"Alan AtKisson is the freshest and wisest voice to emerge from the sustainability movement in many years. Believing Cassandra manages to be incisive, humorous, and hopeful. It renews our sense of the possible and expands the dimensions of our collective intelligence, transforming our sense of the future from a curse to a blessing."
Paul Hawken, author, The Ecology of Commerce and co-author, Natural Capitalism


Foreword by Alan AtKisson

To-do List for a Sustainable Civilization

The challenge of sustainability places greater demands on us than is commonly understood. People often speak of ‘balancing’ economic, social and environmental needs – as though performing a mere tight-rope act, a skilful stroll above the crowd and the safety-net, was all that was required. But there is no safety-net; to fail is to crash. The crowd cannot just watch; all must participate. And we need far more than balance: we need transformation, a wave of social, technical and economic innovation that will touch every person, community, company, institution and nation on the Earth. The irony is that this transformation is still viewed as an economic ‘cost’, when it is in fact an enormous economic opportunity – an opportunity that we are increasingly being forced to recognize. Consider the widening abyss between how we run our economies and what Nature’s systems can tolerate. Consider the rising levels of international tension as gaps widen between the have-a-lots and the have-not-at-alls, the techno-rich and the food-andwater- poor. Consider that we are rapidly losing whole peoples, whole species, whole ecosystems. Technology is, of course, an enormous blessing. Bhutanese villages celebrate the arrival of electricity as though it were ‘the coming of the sun’. Few alive today understand the horror of smallpox and other diseases that have been all but eradicated (even though other diseases, like AIDS and malaria, continue to haunt us). Who wants to turn back the clock on dental care, or withhold it from those who do not
yet have it?

The developed world’s quality of life represents success in the human struggle of a hundred thousand years – the struggle for survival, health, longer life, safety from Nature’s unpredictable rages, comfort, happiness. Those living in the world’s richer demographic groups can now expect their children to grow up healthy, to see grandchildren do the same and to watch all this from the vantage point of technology based personal satisfaction. But this amazing accomplishment has come to us via catastrophically destructive methods. It is physically impossible to spread such wonders to the whole world, doing things the way we do them now. It is very likely impossible even to maintain this quality of life for those who already have it, without enormous changes. In the industrialized world, we do not need ‘sustainable development’. We need sustainable re-development, a set of transformations in the direction of sustainability, in virtually every sector. Here are just a few of the challenges we actually face, challenges that we inherited from our recent ancestors and that we will almost certainly pass on to our descendants:

The complete redevelopment of our energy systems. Energy is the life-blood of our economies but producing it is destroying our climate, damaging our health and degrading nature. We must make our energy sources and systems climate-neutral, or better yet climate-restorative. This transformation involves much more than just energy efficiency or hybrid engines. We must either put fossil-carbon-based energy systems essentially to rest in our cars, planes and power plants; or we must find a way to permanently sequester the carbon and manage the Earth’s atmosphere, permanently.

The complete redevelopment of chemical, material and building technologies. While we have begun a transformation in all these areas, the work remains far from finished. We still release dizzying amounts of poisonous substances into nature, where they accumulate in living bodies. We still build incredibly wasteful, toxic and inefficient products and buildings. We are now adding the wild cards of nanotechnology and biotechnology to this strange brew. How we make things, and how we think about how we make things, must change radically.

The complete redevelopment of industrial agriculture. If we are to feed the world and coming generations, we need farming and food production systems that do not depend on fossil fuel, fossil water, chemical pesticides, ever-increasing nitrogen fertilizers and the like. Despite many wonderful experiments with change, most people’s very lives still depend on one or all these things – all of which are known to be dangerous, devastating, or deadly. This is perhaps the transformation nearest to our survival needs.

The preservation of the world’s remaining species and ecosystems. I say ‘remaining’ to remind us that much is already lost. The cost of that loss is immeasurable, even in gross economic, human-centred terms. Cures for cancer, models for chemical production and farmable sources of food have all certainly disappeared, without our knowing it. Gone already are many sources of inspiration, joy and – think of the dodo – even laughter. ‘Nature’ as we have known it for millennia is disappearing. And yet there is no more precious inheritance to preserve for future generations than the richness of life itself.

Stable and long-lasting international peace. We must never forget that human beings have created the means to destroy whole cities at the press of a button. We have created garbage with the power to poison us and other creatures for thousands of years. We are, as I have written elsewhere, ‘doomed to a high-technology future’, because we must forever maintain our technical capacity to deal with the results of opening Pandora’s Box. For this and so many other reasons, striving for basic peace, stability and security is not an ideal; it is a precondition for the maintenance of civilization.

Given the scale of these challenges, perhaps our greatest need is a drastic increase in the number of people who understand them, accept them and dedicate their efforts to addressing them. This book is meant to support just such an increase in committed engagement. And fortunately, the increase is well under way, as the number of people working directly on ‘sustainability’, or incorporating it into their existing work, continues to grow exponentially. In part, this increase is driven by moral concerns and idealistic feelings, as well it should be. The development of morality and the ability to envision better futures are fundamental to the human animal. Love and vision are our ‘better angels’.

But one need not be an impassioned visionary to understand the profound economic advantages of embracing sustainable (re)development. In the transition from horse-drawn carriages to cars, from firewood to fossil fuel, from typewriters to the Internet, tremendous fortunes have been made. The transformation to next-generation energy, transport, agriculture and industry – indeed the rebuilding of the 20th century’s ageing and increasingly dangerous infrastructure – will make greater fortunes still. And the past century’s best examples have already given us plenty of case study proof that morality and profit can be easily combined to conserve habitat, reduce poverty and build peace. The continuing explosion of creative and determined efforts to build a world that is environmentally, economically, socially and humanly healthy is hope-giving. But it is not so hard to understand.

If this book’s ‘to-do list for a sustainable civilization’ is not worth the dedication of a life’s work, what is?

Stockholm, Sweden
26 March 2004