Today’s blog is the latest in a series from Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, ran the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, launching a degree in Sustainability Studies. His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability. As ever, with our blogs, Richard’s views are not necessarily shared by NAEE.
Since the industrial revolution began, humanity has metaphorically been travelling along a dangerous mountain road that inexorably is bringing us to the edge of ecological global collapse. In the 1960s, we first began in earnest, as a global society, to recognize the hazardous road we are travelling. Through laws, regulations, and educational changes, we have been trying to tweak environmental problems piecemeal without addressing the root causes. There is no shortage of knowledge, superficially at least, about the myriad problems we face, but few seem to understand the true interconnectedness of them all. In recent years, there is more talk of systemic thinking, but like environmental education, it is something that is done on the side and not as a central focus of teaching.
While laws, regulations, and educational reforms have shown minor successes here and there, the continual degradation of the global environment keeps moving humanity inexorably towards the proverbial abyss. A major part of the problem is that we so overwhelmed by the myriad socio-cultural and ecological issues that assail us daily, we are lulled into apathy and inaction. Our economic paradigms focus on Standard of Living and assume that Quality of Life is directly connected. Despair, anger, and antipathy becomes our norm instead of hope, compassion and love. There are pockets of success all around the globe, but the mass media continues to focus on problems, trials and tribulations that apparently besiege humanity.
There is a fervent belief, or it simply hope, that some technological solutions will save us so we can continue on our normal path of being consumers. Or, that somehow, somewhere, some mythical power, superhero, or even friendly aliens will arrive and intervene to prevent our demise. Consumer living, like any addiction, requires our first step of recognizing our addiction, and then, be willing to undergo the change. While many have done the former, very few are willing to do the latter.
As a global population we seem apparently oblivious of mathematical realities such as the Exponential function and the Law of Diminishing Returns. Part of this problem lies in how humans think linearly and in the short-term. In reality, it isn’t the math that people cannot understand but a willingness to want to see it. There is also a feeling that becoming sustainable is some kind of utopia, and that unless we can become completely sustainable now it is not worth pursuing. All utopian visions have at their core one major dysfunction, that of looking forward to an ideal world. Can humans ever achieve a utopia? Perhaps eventually, but hoping that one will somehow present itself now as a whole solution is debilitating.
It is all too easy to point out the flaws in our collective thinking, but at some point, and imminently, we need to wake up and recognize that all our behavioral tweaking is, as David Orr emphasized metaphorically in his essay just Walking North on a Southbound Train. We literally are the ones we are waiting for to create a better world in which humans are a vibrant part and not just a footnote for some future species to find in the geological record. We have got to stop trying to tweak ourselves out of the global mess we created and metaphorically turn the whole train around in one go. If nothing else, 2020 showed people how important quality of life beyond the consumer paradigm. Instead of trying to regulate or scare people into action, we might place more emphasis on getting people to imagine a future that shows life the way we want it to be with a focus on quality of life, for all life.
Richard can be contacted at: Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org