Pope John Paul II had a felicitous expression in his 1991 encyclical letter Centessimus Annos. He wrote: "Man's principal resource is man himself." A more proper, gender-inclusive statement would be: "Human beings are humanity's greatest resource." This is true, of course, if we assume that all human beings behave in a responsible and nonviolent manner.
As we enter into the second decade of the 21st century, humanity is confronted by an impending ecological crisis of major proportions. But it is time to recognize that the human habitat is not the problem. Human behavior is the problem. Indeed, as Gandhi pointed out years ago, "The earth has enough for everyone's need but not for anyone's greed."
This editorial attempts to analyze at least one dimension of the problem and suggest some human adaptations that will be required in order to transition from consumerism to sustainability. For it is not reasonable to assume that technological breakthroughs will get us off the hook, and this applies especially to those of us who live in the "developed" countries.
Human Development in the 21st Century
Even in the "developed" countries, economic and industrial development often must coexist with an appalling degree of human underdevelopment. Indulgence in extravagant consumption often has a negative effect on the life-long growth of the human person. This is true for people of all ages, men and women alike. In the case of young people, getting spoiled early with unnecessary gratifications can actually become an obstacle for transitioning into responsible adulthood.
At this critical juncture of human history, human development should be guided by humanity's to coexist with the human habitat. In this editorial, the following terminology is used:
Homo economicus makes decisions on the basis of financial self-interest alone.
Homo ecologicus makes decisions taking into account both self-interest and the ecological common good.
Homo solidarius makes decisions taking into account both self-interest and the general common good,
where "general" includes all dimensions of integral human development and the good of humanity.
Homo eucharisticus makes a radical renunciation to self-interest and becomes a "person for others,"
seeking only the glory of God and both the temporal and spiritual good of humanity.
For more on homo eucharisticus, click here. This is the domain of saints, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. For more on homo solidarius, click here. This has been the domain of the great men and women of history,
such as Martin Luther King Jr and (among those still living) Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. But doing great deeds is not a requirement for becoming homo solidarius. Many of the great men and women of history are unknown. It is "simply" a matter of balancing self-interest and the good of humankind, which includes taking good care of the human habitat. Granted that such maturation of the human species is not yet visible in the horizon, the top human development priority of the 21st century is to help homo economicus become, at least, homo ecologicus. For more on homo economicus and homo ecologicus, click here. The emergence of homo ecologicus is not just a dream or a mere possibility; it is a necessity.
To see the necessity, consider the following energy supply scenario:
The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050, Page 92
Published by the World Wide Fund for Nature, January 2011. Copyright 2011 WWF.
The scenario envisions the current consumption trends of primary sources of energy "peaking" around the year 2020. This peak is followed by adaptation in the form of non-renewable (polluting) sources being substituted by renewable (non-polluting) sources by 2050. It is clearly stated that this is not an exercise in predicting the future, but a number of recommendations are offered:
1. CLEAN ENERGY: Promote only the most efficient products. Develop existing and new renewable energy sources to provide enough clean energy for all by 2050.
2. GRIDS: Share and exchange clean energy through grids and trade, making the best use of sustainable energy resources in different areas.
3. ACCESS: End energy poverty, provide clean electricity and promote sustainable practices, such as efficient cook stoves, to everyone in developing countries.
4. MONEY: Invest in renewable, clean energy and energy-efficient products and buildings.
5. FOOD: Stop food waste. Choose food that is sourced in an efficient and sustainable way to free up land for nature, sustainable forestry and biofuel production. Everyone has an equal right to healthy levels of protein in their diet -- for this to happen, wealthier people need to eat less meat.
6. MATERIALS: Reduce, re-use, recycle -- to minimize waste and save energy. Develop durable materials. And avoid things we don't need.
7. TRANSPORT: Provide incentives to encourage greater use of public transport, and to reduce the distances people and goods travel. Promote electrification wherever possible, and support research into hydrogen and other alternative fuels for shipping and aviation.
8. TECHNOLOGY: Develop national, bilateral and multilateral action plans to promote research and development in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
9. SUSTAINABILITY: Develop and enforce strict sustainability criteria that ensure renewable energy is compatible with environmental and development goals.
10. AGREEMENTS: Support ambitious climate and energy agreements to provide global guidance and promote global cooperation on renewable energy and efficiency efforts.
The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050, Pages 8-9.
Published by the World Wide Fund for Nature, January 2011. Copyright 2011 WWF.
It is hard to imagine that homo economicus will be receptive to these recommendations. What actually happens between now and 2050 may or may not be contingent on these recommendations being accepted and acted upon. But even if the required technological breakthroughs materialize, it is doubtful that this scenario is (or will become) politically feasible as long as human priorities are dictated by the homo economicus mindset as defined above.
Transition from Consumerism to Sustainability
In addition to the energy supply issues, there are many other issues - at the local, national, and global levels - that must be resolved during the transition from consumerism to sustainability.
Issues vary widely depending on regional geography, and there are significant variations even within nations. Local sustainability initiatives often overlap with urban sustainability and generally coalesce around the creation and governance of sustainable communities. See, for example, samples of local sustainability issues for Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America (Canada, Mexico, and the USA), Oceania, South Asia, and South-East Asia.
Globally, there are "issues without frontiers" such as pollution accumulation and climate change. As Vandana Shiva has pointed out, "resources flow from the poor to the rich, pollution flows from the rich to the poor." These global problems require global solutions rather than pseudo-solutions, such as carbon trading, which in the short-term often work in favor of the heaviest polluters but in the long-term are detrimental to the global environment. A proper resolution of these issues will require strict adherence to the principle of subsidiarity. However, as long as democratic global governance is lacking, there is no way to adjudicate international issues in a fair manner.
Is global governance impossible? In his remarkable book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Gus Speth reminds us that despair is not an option:
"Last, we should remember that, as the expression goes, the impossible will take a little while. There is much to be done, and it will not be easy.... Proposals for transformational change will be derided and, when they gain traction, resisted at every turn. It is true but too easy to say that resistance will come from entrenched interests. It will also come from each one of us. We are the consumers and the employees, and we are easily seduced. Still, there is a world at stake, the world our children and grandchildren will inherit....
"In our journey down the path between two worlds, we are fast approaching a place where the path forks. We got to this fork through a long history dominated by two great and related struggles -- the struggle against scarcity and the struggle to subdue nature. To win these struggles we created a powerful technology and forged an organization of economy and society to deploy that technology extensively, rapidly and, if need be, ruthlessly. And we succeeded at subduing nature and creating wealth far beyond our ancestors' imaginings. So successful were these accomplishments that we were swept up by them, mesmerized by them, captivated, even addicted....
"But there is another path, and it leads to a bridge across the abyss. We have been examining this bridge at the edge of the world and what is required to cross it. Of course, where the path forks will be the site of another struggle, a struggle that must be won even tough we cannot see clearly what lies beyond the bridge. Yet in that struggle and in the crossing that will follow, we are carried forward by hope, a radical hope, that a better world is possible and that we can build it."
The Bridge at the Edge of the World
James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 235-237.
Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies
There are two overarching strategies to resolve all these issues: mitigation and adaptation.
Mitigation strategies use the methods of industrial ecology to minimize further environmental degradation and further accumulation of pollutants around the planet. Industrial ecology entails maximizing productivity in use of natural resources, i.e., maximizing the amount of good and services produced per unit of natural resource consumed. It also attempts to minimize the amount of pollutants released into the environment per unit of goods and services consumed. Mitigation strategies and technologies are helpful; but it is doubtful that industrial ecology alone can be a complete solution to ensure sustainable development.
Adaptation strategies are based on the principles of human ecology. Plants and animals adapt to changes in their environment, and either do so automatically or disappear; and many species have disappeared as a consequence of industrially-induced environmental changes happening faster than their capacity to adapt. Homo sapiens also has the capacity to adapt; and much more so than plants and animals since humans can use their intelligence to enhance their adaptation options. But the human propensity to adapt is often resisted by the propensity to resist change and, for homo economicus, resistance to change is reinforced by the propensity to consume.
This is not a problem for homo eucharisticus, the very rare species of human being defined by communion rather than consumption. It should not be a problem either for homo solidarius, the not so rare but still rare species of human being defined by solidarity rather self-interest alone. But it is a problem for homo economicus, the very common species of human being that cares about financial profit, material consumption, and nothing else. Thus the need for adaptation strategies to encourage the emergence of homo ecologicus and a proper balancing of the human propensity to consume and the human propensity to adapt. Fundamentally, human adaptation strategies are based on human ecology, which entails studying and improving the relationship between humans and their natural, social, and built environments.
The age of homo economicus is past; the future belongs to homo ecologicus.
As economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out years ago, "anyone who thinks that an economy can be expanded forever, within the confines of a finite planet, is either a madman or an economist."
It is not a matter of homo ecologicus replacing homo economicus. Rather, what is needed is just to enhance the narrow economic mindset to take into account the basic need for harmony between humans and the human habitat. This is really a no-brainer; it is self-evident that no economy can survive in a vacuum. But humans are notorious for not seeing what they don't want to see; and this is especially the case when "seeing" entails unwanted changes, such as changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns. Gandhi saw this clearly: "The earth has enough for everyone's need but not for anyone's greed." Perhaps he saw it so clearly because, for him, "seeing" did not require a change in lifestyle.
It is reasonable to anticipate that homo ecologicus will prevail. A pending question is when; but we will not have the luxury of a long, protracted time window for adaptation. Another question is how. It will be by way of reason (after all, homo economicus is still homo sapiens), or it will be by way of pressure -- the kind of pressure that hits where it hurts, i.e., in the pocketbook. Perhaps it will take a combination of both. Additional pressures can emerge in other undesirable forms: inclement weather, wars and/or terrorist acts fueled by the utter lack of distributive justice, forced East-to-West and South-to-North migrations, etc.
Thankfully, many scientists and scholars, and many other men and women of good will, are sounding the alarm with an increasingly increasing sense of urgency. To mention just a few: Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962); "Fritz" Schumacher (Small is Beautiful, 1973); Gro Harlem Brundtland (Our Common Future, 1987); Donella & Dennis Meadows (Limits to Growth, 1972, 1991, 2004); Fritjof Capra (The Web of Life, 1996); Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom, 2000); Vandana Shiva (Earth Democracy, 2005); and the book by Gus Speth mentioned above, which should be a "must read" for anyone with common sense.
So the concept of homo ecologicus is simple, but letting go of homo economicus priorities will not be easy ...
From Homo economicus to Homo ecologicus
To better understand both the simplicity and the difficulty, let's reconsider the recommendations in the WWF Energy Report assuming that homo economicus will prevail until 2050:
1. "CLEAN ENERGY: Promote only the most efficient products. Develop existing and new renewable energy sources to provide enough clean energy for all by 2050."
2. "GRIDS: Share and exchange clean energy through grids and trade, making the best use of sustainable energy resources in different areas."
This may be feasible technically, but not politically. Taxing fossil fuels and subsidizing clean energy alternatives is politically incorrect because the profit margins of many powerful corporations may shrink in the short-term.
3. "ACCESS: End energy poverty, provide clean electricity and promote sustainable practices, such as efficient cook stoves, to everyone in developing countries."
Globally, after Copenhagen and Cancún, it is hard to see many - let alone all - nation states collaborating in this manner. Even within nation states, the required coordination and collaboration is not politically possible.
4. "MONEY: Invest in renewable, clean energy and energy-efficient products and buildings."
Who will be the donors, and who will ensure that the cook stoves actually reach everyone - and especially the poor - in the developing countries?
5. "FOOD: Stop food waste. Choose food that is sourced in an efficient and sustainable way to free up land for nature, sustainable forestry and biofuel production. Everyone has an equal right to healthy levels of protein in their diet -- for this to happen, wealthier people need to eat less meat."
More incentives (financial subsidies, tax breaks) would have to be enacted and applied for this recommendation gain traction in a massive scale.
6. "MATERIALS: Reduce, re-use, recycle -- to minimize waste and save energy. Develop durable materials. And avoid things we don't need."
All (or most) people that enjoy a comfortable life would have to change their eating habits - among many other habits. But only a few can resist the seduction of extravagant consumption now; as the saying goes, "the future is now."
7. "TRANSPORT: Provide incentives to encourage greater use of public transport, and to reduce the distances people and goods travel. Promote electrification wherever possible, and support research into hydrogen and other alternative fuels for shipping and aviation."
Discarding and replacing is more expedient than fixing and re-using. Nations with large reserves of rare materials are not willing to let go of the prospective gains.
8. "TECHNOLOGY: Develop national, bilateral and multilateral action plans to promote research and development in energy efficiency and renewable energy."
In the "global village," everyone wants to go everywhere and consume items from everywhere. The sensitivity of oil prices to recent events in Egypt, and the potential closing of the Suez canal, makes this clear.
9. "SUSTAINABILITY: Develop and enforce strict sustainability criteria that ensure renewable energy is compatible with environmental and development goals."
Technological breakthroughs can buy time, but buying time may simply prolong the agony if new technologies are used/misused to increase profit margins at the expense of the poor and the human habitat.
10. "AGREEMENTS: Support ambitious climate and energy agreements to provide global guidance and promote global cooperation on renewable energy and efficiency efforts."
Even if such criteria could be formulated and widely accepted, how can it be enforced given the current lack of political will? How can the full cost of natural resources be counted as long as they are treated as "externalities" in corporate books?
One of the UN Millennium Development Goals is to create a "global partnership for sustainable development." Beyond lip service, who cares? The USA has yet to ratify the Kyoto protocol adopted by the UN in 1997!
Inserted above after each recommendation are honest remarks/questions. The intent is not to be pessimistic. The intent is to provide a "reality check" on the propensity of homo economicus to embrace the recommendations and act accordingly.
WWF's Energy Report: 100 Percent Renewable Energy by 2050 and UNEP's Green Economy Report, both published February 2011, converge on energy as a key dimension of the transition from consumerism to sustainability. The focus on energy correctly points to where the action is. We all know about resistance to change and the "propensity to consume," and we also know about the human capacity to adapt. But, as long as we are dealing with homo economicus, adaptation will happen if - and only if - people are hit where it hurts, i.e., in the pocket book.
Since we must reach people where they are, and resistance to change becomes willingness to change only when there are financial incentives to do so, it is suggested that the best way to get started would be to shift incentives and disincentives (subsidies, taxes) in favor of clean energy. Starting with energy would be a good strategy because the need for energy is pervasive for the economy at all levels - local, national, and global; so a shift in the energy mix for the economy will have a rippling effect in inducing adaptation throughout the economy.
The next question is how to create the political will to "energize" clean energy via adjustments in subsidies and tax systems. As long as we lack an effective form of global governance, the only way to create the required political will keep is to foster the creation of a critical mass of "global citizens" and keep pressuring all national governments to stop talking and start walking.