“Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Indeed, throughout human history, we’ve learned about the fall of mighty empires like the Romans, Mongols, Aztecs, etc. We’ve also learned about the Bubonic Plague and how it wiped out 1/3 of Europe’s population. More recently, we’ve witnessed the Great Depression which plunged America into a world of high unemployment and desperation, Hitler’s regime nearly conquering Europe and consequently then the world, and the Vietnam War which put a heavy toll on American lives as well as its economics.
I’m sure these are events that most of us would like to never see again.
But with today’s issues like Global Warming and Climate Change, the Credit Bubble Bursting and the Global Financial meltdown, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the oil shock, you get the feeling we haven’t learned from our past mistakes and have been condemned to repeat them over and over again.
We can see that Global Warming and Climate Change is a more insidious consequence of human-based activities not unlike how the Bubonic Plague wiped out Europe due to poor disposal of waste or how the deforestation of Italy might have led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. We can see how the combination of greed and the corporate-government collusion resulted in the Global Financial meltdown that is putting America and the world on a path similar to that of the Great Depression (which itself was caused by similar acts of greed and government-big business greed). We can also see how the Iraq War strained America’s resources and reputation while its motivation for oil by a few are highly questionable; much the same way the Vietnam War divided America and was based on some dubious anti-communist ideologies perpetuated by a vocal minority.
Indeed, the world would be a much better place if the resources we depended on were better shared and managed. And the only way that’s going to happen is if we have a world that’s more sustainable from the way we live to the way we procure the planet’s resources to the way we support governments that uphold these principles.
But how do we go about doing this?
Clearly, people have different ideas on what their ideal world would be. And not all of these ideas are mutually agreed upon because there’s bound to be winners and losers no matter which scheme you pick.
But that’s where we have to dig deep and identify what it is that all of us value in life and try to work from there as the foundation that drives our actions and policies.
So what makes us qualified to offer up an opinion of what a utopian world we ought to achieve should look like?
Well we’ve spent several years getting out in the field for the pleasure of getting back into nature and using waterfalls as the motivation to go to different places. This has allowed us to observe many things firsthand that television, radio, newspapers, books, websites, and world-of-mouth simply can’t provide. More importantly, learning about the world firsthand is far more persuasive than getting your information exclusively from the media (in addition to being less prone to propaganda and brainwashing). And with these observations, we wondered how and why things became the way they are and always kept a healthy curiosity (and skepticism) about everything.
So with our years of experiences, our searching for answers whenever we wondered about something, and processing all this information, we’re in a position to propose a world that’s more sustainable, fair, allows us to pursue the very things we value most, and reasonable to achieve with a modest amount of sacrifice from the unsustainable status quo of today.
While we know such ideas require an open mind and it’s easy to lose someone on a nuance or detail, we ask you to try to get the big picture (even if you disagree with some or all of what’s contained here). The purpose here is to try to spur more discussion and thought about how we can go from abstract ideologies to real world actions that will make this greater vision of a better world happen. For without that vision, as stated earlier, we can’t see the forest for the trees.
So we’ve stated earlier that we need to identify core values that most of us can agree on before implementing the steps to leverage these values and improve our world. But just what exactly are these core values anyway?
THE PURSUIT OF VALUES
What is it that we want to get out of life? What makes life “fulfilling”?
I’m sure you’ll get varying responses to this question depending on who you talk to, and it’s easy to get off on a tangent and discuss ethereal and abstract ideologies that are nothing more than pipe dreams.
If you’re a biologist (or of a truly scientific mind), you’ll probably say we’re here to reproduce, period.
But, really. What is it that drives us to want to earn more money, go traveling, collect more possessions (whether it’s the latest and greatest cars, TVs, real estate, furnishings, clothing, jewelry, electronics, etc.), learn more about the world, make friends, reproduce, raise a family, grow old, etc.?
I think you can pin that answer down to two basic principles (or values).
- A life of variety (i.e. “Variety is the spice of life”)
- Leaving a legacy that lives on (e.g. passing on our DNA, sharing our experiences with others, teaching others or our young ones, ensuring our children live better lives than we do, etc.)
Why discuss these values?
Because I think at their very heart, these principles are what all of us strive for to some degree or another. And if these are values that the majority of us can agree on, then these principles ought to be the guidelines (or tests) in which our grand vision of the better world ought to fulfill, right?
After all, failure to minimize the amount of losers in any scheme will result in a growing class of disenfranchised and desperate people willing to follow any strong leader promising to pull them out of their rut regardless of whether that leader’s means are agreeable or not. In other words, this becomes the fodder for organizations like:
- Hitler’s Third Reich – to pull people out of the post WWI mess that Germany was in
- Al Qaeda – for those disenfranchised people in the Middle East who won’t stand for the Western exploitation of their land and people for the corrupt few
- The Taliban – who are offering up a militaristic as well as a thriving poppie-growing means of pulling the poor out of their desperate situations
- The Khmer Rouge – who offered a radical means of eradicating the more influential Chinese who themselves were becoming more influential in government at the expense of the rest of the people
- …and the list goes on and on…
Indeed, any successful world order must strive to uphold the values that the majority of the world can agree upon or at least tolerate.
So let’s elaborate a little more about these principles.
First, the variety principle.
I’ve learned that a fulfilling life can be defined as a life where the individual has experienced as many different things as possible over the sum of that finite lifetime. Now what those different things are will differ from one individual to the next. For example, one might acquire a life of variety through travel while another might find the experiences involved in raising a family (and its associated ups and downs) a different yet no-less-fulfilling form of variety. Maybe someone might think having a large collection of possessions or friends can provide the variety in life that is desired.
Regardless of what manifestations a desirable variety of experiences entails, I think we can agree that living a life filled with different experiences from traveling the world is more fulfilling than a life devoted to a monotonous routine of working a dead-end job all day long, watching TV or being on the computer in the evenings, and then sleeping at night only to repeat the cycle the next day. I admit the latter sounds like my rat-race existence, which is why I strive to go traveling to get away from it all whenever I can.
So the big picture vision of the world ought to support these values. It can’t have you stuck in a mundane existence unless you choose to do it that way. More importantly, all infrastructure, commerce, and laws need to support this principle of variety since it’s something I think most of us can agree on.
Second, the legacy principle.
I think we’re pre-programmed (and by “we” I mean every organism on earth) to want to reproduce and pass on our DNA to future generations. If you think about it, this is why we’re more energetic in our youth, more attractive, more durable, and more physically capable. This tends to last until we’re no longer reproductively capable anymore.
By that time, we can see that we age, become more fragile, become more prone to cancers and diseases, etc. (though we are more experienced and wiser).
Indeed, it seems Mother Nature has started its own rat race by letting the various organisms compete with each other for limited resources to see who can adapt, pass on their genes, survive, and keep the species going.
But if this process is left unchecked, it’s conceivable that the majority of species (if not all) experiences boom and bust cycles where the overall population reduces (maybe by overpopulation-related problems like starvation, disease, or some other depletion of resources) or even declines completely (in which case they become extinct). Clearly, the bust cycle is a frightening prospect for the human race, and this is the very reason why it’s desirable to find a happy medium between population growth and sustainability. That way, down at the individual level, we can raise a family, teach our kids, and watch them grow up into individuals without worrying as much about competing for scarce resources to survive. Meanwhile on the macro scale, we are less concerned about living beyond our means and worrying about our own future as well as that of our kids.
And even if you’re not into raising a family, I think there’s a deep desire for us to leave a legacy behind that somehow makes a positive contribution to the world (something to be remembered by rather than be that someone everyone has forgotten about). For example, it could be solving a difficult problem that ends up being a breakthrough in science, or it could be being remembered for actively trying to help people by improving their living conditions, or it could even be setting a good example for others (whether in the family and friends circle or complete strangers) to follow.
Regardless of how we leave our legacy, I’d argue it’s desirable to leave a future in which our children can enjoy a similar type of variety of experiences that we ourselves have enjoyed (if not better) while leaving our mark on the world.
But in order to ensure that noble goal is achieved, we have to keep our individualistic desires for variety needs to be checked. For failure to uphold the value of legacy yields the problems you read about in the headlines like Global Warming and Climate Change, Overpopulation, Unsustainable Status Quo, Politics, Wars, etc.
And it’s with this in mind that the big picture vision of the world ought to support both of the variety and legacy principles simultaneously.
And it turns out that the vision I’m talking about manifests itself in what I’m calling the sustainable paradigm.
THE SUSTAINABLE PARADIGM
A sustainable paradigm is a world system in which all goods and services, laws, desires, infrastructure, habits, etc. all support the values that most of us can agree on (which I argued were the principles of variety and legacy).
It’s basically a system where all energy, transport, reproductive tendencies, and food procurement are done sustainably by minimizing resource depletion, pollution, overdevelopment, etc. while maximizing biodiversity, our own survivability, and the sharing of resources amongst not only different peoples but other organisms as well. Such a system supports the legacy principle as it assures the world is sustainable for the enjoyment of future generations. Moreover, by focusing on the sustainability challenges, we put our energies into working on meaningful problems to drive our economics while learning more about the world.
Meanwhile, we’d still like to experience a variety of things so the sustainable paradigm must also support the consumption of goods and services that allows us to travel, develop hobbies, meet people, raise a family, etc. But we must do so without trashing the planet.
When you add these things together, you can see the principles come full circle in that energy is required to make these desires happen, but that energy generation and consumption must be sustainable in order to fulfill the legacy principle.
That’s why I think harnessing the “free” energies available to us while minimizing their detrimental effects is paramount to supporting the sustainable paradigm. Thus, solar energy, wind energy, wave energy, and geothermal (and maybe nuclear fusion if they ever get there) energy needs to be the exclusive means of procurement of energy since they minimize pollution, deterioration of natural resources, and loss of biodiversity while meeting the needs of our energy consumption. These are things that fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas), hydroelectricity, nuclear, and the vast majority of biofuels will never be able to fulfill.
Thus, you need homes that can generate their own electricity through solar and wind with an energy storage device (like a battery) to smooth out nature’s intermittences. You also need an energy grid whose energy is exclusively procured from the aforementioned clean renewable energies. And leverage that grid to drive electrically powered machines, vehicles, computers, etc.
Now we know nothing’s perfect and the manufacture of goods and technologies to allow such a paradigm to occur must also minimize the degradation of our natural resources and not be subject to resource scarcity. This, by the way, is the crux of why such a paradigm is difficult to achieve (but clearly not impossible and certainly far better than anything fossil-fuel-based for even a compromised solution!).
As for the procurement of food and fresh water, they must also be done by sustainable means. Therefore, we need desalinization plants to procure freshwater. Such plants must leverage a combination of solar concentrators and a green grid for places that are currently diverting or blocking a disproportionate amount of water from freshwater river systems. Plus, individual households ought to have rain catchments as well to tend to landscaping, drinking water, and small-scale water usage at the individual level.
Now procuring food might be more difficult since this involves irrigation (thus water diversion) and land clearing. Something has to give here, but there needs to be a cap on the mass production of food that ultimately leads to waste and pollution. That means more organic products, smaller scale production, and the minimization of chemicals and/or preservatives applied to them. Basically, we ought to eat locally and limit the amount of travel the foods must make unless the means of travel of that food is via purely green means.
Speaking of transport, we need to have something to the effect of solar electric vehicles where the car can be charged by being in the sun or being plugged in to a green grid (at home, in an office, in a parking lot, etc.). For more powerful applications, you could leverage biodiesel (generated from photosynthetic sludge cultured from solar energy and not food) or some form of yet-to-be-developed hydrogen fuel cell or carbon sponge technology to power airplanes or even ocean vessels. Meanwhile, every city should rely on public transportation systems powered by a green grid while discouraging urban and suburban sprawl.
As for waste management, there can be some significant improvement here in terms of minimizing the amount of runoff that ends up getting dumped into our oceans. If we keep treating the ocean like our toilet, then the life so vital to all life on land is sure to decline in a type of mass extinction that has been shown to have occurred in the past (and wiped out over 90% of all life). So here, we can minimize the runoff by using our compost as fertilizer, minimizing the amount of bulk waste generated in both industry and our day-to-day lives, and even using some of the methane emissions in landfills to supplement the grid power. Whatever the case, the economic system needs to penalize polluters and use those penalties to subsidize the maintenance and development of the sustainable paradigm.
As for an agreeable means of consumption, there are numerous applications of the sustainable paradigm to a variety of industries. I’ll single out sustainable travel since I think it should be one of the most important industries driving economies around the world. OK ok, sure I’m biased about this particular topic, but can you name another industry that helps the locals’ economy, harbors a desire to share rather than take away, encourage conservation and preservation, and meets our individual desires to experience variety?
Here, you could stress natural and historical features where investment must be made to conserve and preserve while the features themselves should attract paying customers. Locals ought to be enthusiastic about their culture and heritage and be willing to share their homeland with the world. Meanwhile, transport is (as mentioned previously) by sustainable means by electric vehicles, or sustainable biofuel, or some other yet-to-be-developed hydrogen-fuel-cell or cabon-sponge storage and energy-conversion system. Moreover, locals should be able to benefit from the injection of money into the economy, running tours, etc.
As for population control, you don’t have to be as drastic as China’s one-child policy, but there ought to be taxes (as opposed to tax breaks) against each dependent (since they’re consuming resources) and to utilize that income to offset the inevitable resource consumption and disorder generated by those individuals. And this tariff should persist until the individual is able to give back to the system. This would provide economic incentive to reproduce responsibly and leave the decision up to the couple who must weigh the cost of raising more children at the expense of their own ability to survive and live comfortably.
Indeed, these are merely just a few things that come to mind that a sustainable paradigm would feature. I’m sure there are other topics I haven’t even mentioned (like medical practices, working class support and incentives, etc.) that could be discussed in the context of the big picture. But realize that this is merely my opinion and I’m sure there are other differing ideas on what the sustainable paradigm ought to be.
The bottom line is that you can see that if all of our thoughts, actions, means of making money, and laws supported a sustainable paradigm, we should be able to support the principles of variety and legacy for not just the human race but the vast majority of other surviving species on earth itself!
But is the sustainable paradigm unrealistic?
Personally, I don’t think so. All it takes is a willingness to take action in manageable steps now. So what are these steps to transition from the status quo to a better world?
THE TRANSITION TO SUSTAINABILITY
So with all the ideas mentioned above to support a sustainable paradigm, it might seem like an unrealistic dream.
But is it really?
Believe it or not, there are actually things that can be done now or technologies that already exist to allow the sustainable paradigm to occur.
And while it might be expensive and relatively painful for the upfront investment necessary to implement these sustainable measures, governments can provide rebates, tax breaks, jobs, and laws to establish such infrastructure that will pay dividends in the long run.
So let’s look at the specifics of what these measures are and how they can be implemented given the current status quo while examining their pros and cons.
First, let’s start with energy.
We’ve established earlier that a decentralized energy procurement infrastructure as well as an exclusively green grid is the most desirable way to meet the energy needs of a modern world. And you do this through heavily leveraging solar and wind energy while supplementing them with energy from wave, geothermal, waste, etc. But in order to make it happen, we need to impose taxes and penalties on all polluting, resource-depleting fossil-fuel based forms and industries. Then, use those taxes and penalties to subsidize clean solar cell photovoltaics or other green technologies. That way, some of the record profits from oil companies can be given back to more meaningful developments rather than buying back their own stocks or looking for new places to drill.
Imagine if every home, street light, traffic light, rail station, office building, etc. had solar panels on them. It’s not so far fetched and it would certainly get rid of our oil addiction, wouldn’t it?
Really, the only thing holding this back are status quo proponents protecting their profits, jobs, and position of power.
Along those lines, governments need to remove coal and oil subsidies as well as subsidies for biofuels that result in land clearing and competition for food resources. That way, the true cost of these dirty energies are reflected and they won’t look so cheap compared to renewables. Thus, you have a more level playing field amongst the various options of energy procurement and consumption. Like I said earlier, these dirty forms of energy ought to be taxed and a carbon cap trading scheme is merely one step in this direction. And once again, the proceeds should subsidize cleaner procurement thereby rewarding companies innovative enough to pull it off while discouraging polluters and resource hogs.
Second, let’s look at managing waste and recycling.
Governments can easily increase redemption values (or CRVs) for plastics and aluminum cans to 25% or more of the retail price. Currently, we have examples of CRVs of only a few pennies for a can of soda that costs $1.00 USD a can. If that CRV value became 25 cents (something I know bottling and soft drink companies will vehemently protest), then you can bet people will be more willing to recycle to get back some of that money. Meanwhile, the upfront proceeds can maintain and build processing facilities (and hire employees) so the recycling system becomes self sufficient. All this has the effect of reducing landfill waste while reusing materials that can easily become scarce if not recycled.
Moreover, plastic bags (the type you get in retail stores, supermarkets, etc.) should be charged. If each plastic bag cost a dollar, then you can bet consumers will remember to bring in their own re-usable bags to hold their goods. Ultimately, that’ll keep us from continuing to fill our landfills with these disposable bags that end up trashing our environment.
Third, let’s look at transportation and travel.
This is along the lines of energy consumption argued earlier, but let’s look much closer at how to improve transportation and travel since we all have somewhere to go, right? So here’s where governments can pour more money into building up public transportation where the trains and trams are powered by an exclusively green grid. This should take care of travel expenses necessary to commute to and from work as well as just getting around town.
As for long distance travel, we know it might be a while before a cleaner fuel enjoys widespread use. However, we can limit the use of gas-electric hybrids or SUVs to rental cars for holidays requiring lots of driving. This can be achieved by making anything gas-powered to be prohibitively expensive leaving on those few able to afford it or business in the travel industry renting out such cars. Moreover, if you absolutely must self-drive to work or around town, then they must be electric vehicles. Recall in the early 1990s, General Motors (GM) came out with the EV before destroying them. So we know the technology’s already there. We just have to keep the human greed and corrupt politics out of it (something us voters can sway).
As for air travel, biodiesels developed from photosynthetic sludge should be the norm for commercial airplanes unless there’s something more powerful and less resource intensive.
And where compromised measures involving some form of fossil-fuels are involved, they should be phased out in the long run while development continues for truly clean, renewable fuels.
Fourth, let’s look at food procurement.
Governments can help here by implementing laws that make meats more expensive via taxes or penalties. Why are we singling out meats? Because they involve plenty of resources from maintaining the farm animals, providing feed, transporting the products, clearing land for grazing, etc. On top of that, the methane emissions are serious contributors to the greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere.
Now I know this is painful because I’m a meat eater myself and I’m sure this applies to most other people as well. Besides, many agro-business proponents probably want to kill me for suggesting this.
Nonetheless, by making a financial deterrent for consuming meat, this should lessen the demand for the very things that destroy our environment. Plus, I’d imagine we’d have a healthier population since it becomes very expensive to overeat.
The same goes for processed foods or manufacture of foods that tend to pollute the environment. These should be more taxed and penalized to try to force companies to be more responsible, find a better way to manufacture their goods, and ultimately make it more expensive to eat in an unhealthy way (thereby taxing our medical system).
Again, foods that require lots of transportation, pesticides, etc. should be made more expensive through taxes and penalties. This should spur more local businesses and only export and expand their product lines when it’s sustainably responsible to do so.
Fifth, let’s look at freshwater procurement.
Currently, we’ve got lots of hydroelectric dams and water diversion to supply both energy and nurture agro-business. But we can eliminate hydroelectricity (or drastically reduce their usage while destroying the unnecessary ones) by procuring clear, renewable energy via measures mentioned above. As for water diversion, we can eliminate or drastically reduce this by desalinizing ocean water if the cities happen to be near the ocean. While desalinization takes energy, a mass-rollout of a green grid should be able to help fill this need, while solar concentrators can focus the sun’s energy on hastening the evaporation of the water to make freshwater for delivery to the rest of the city or for further inland.
While some water diversion from freshwater streams is inevitable, we can certainly reduce this practice so our forests can better thrive and scrub the air of carbon dioxide while keeping moisture in the local microclimate.
So you see, all of the above measures are very achievable – not in the future, but now! And I’m sure there are plenty of other measures I haven’t mentioned that could be implemented (e.g. overhauling the medical and pharmaceutical system, books vs. e-books, reducing urban sprawl and prohibiting overdevelopment, etc.). All it takes is a referee (i.e. a government or regulatory body) that ensures people play within these rules while mediating conflicts while upholding the sustainability principle. And the way this is achieved is by voting in people who are serious about implementing these principles.
Meanwhile, at the individual level, we can change or implement habits that allow us to be less wasteful, teach others about the virtues of protecting our resources and living within our means, and not cave in to special interests (even if these interests are our own) when they go against the sustainability paradigm (thereby violating the values of legacy and variety). Actually, if the above measures about transitioning to sustainability are implemented, then the responsible decisions made at the individual level will be automatic because it would hurt us in the wallet if we were being wasteful.
If enough people and eventually nations cooperate in upholding sustainability principles, then they should be more enforceable, result in fewer resource conflicts, and help poorer countries catch up to a more acceptable standard of living.
CONCLUSION: IS THIS UTOPIA?
Well if you’re open-minded and patient enough to read this far, I ask this question once again: Is the sustainable paradigm utopia?
Well it might seem like utopia if you see how far we have to go from the status quo. But after seeing that there are indeed realistic small steps we as a society can take to propel the sustainability paradigm, this better world we’re striving for doesn’t seem so much like an unrealistic pipe dream, doesn’t it?
Besides, to cast off the struggle for a sustainable paradigm as a utopian pipe dream and not take any steps in the direction for improvement is really a cop out. It’s not only lazy and defeatist, but it’ll violate the legacy principle, which is one of the principles I argued we all can agree on trying to achieve and get out of life. And by violating the legacy principle, we end up passing on a trashed planet as our legacy to our children and their children (assuming the human race can survive that long).
So with that, I think the sustainable paradigm might seem like utopia right now, but it’s totally achievable if we want it to happen.
Indeed, our survivability depends on our desire to make a change for the better so that alone should motivate us to take action now – whether it’s by improving our lifestyles, voting for proponents of sustainability, shunning unsustainable products, etc. Heck, even encouraging discussion about this topic (the whole purpose of this article in the first place) is a step in the right direction.
Are you up for the challenge?