Theses on Sustainability

[1] THE TERM HAS BECOME so widely used that it is in danger of meaning nothing. It has been applied to all manner of activities in an effort to give those activities the gloss of moral imperative, the cachet of environmental enlightenment. “Sustainable” has been used variously to mean “politically feasible,” “economically feasible,” “not part of a pyramid or bubble,” “socially enlightened,” “consistent with neoconservative small-government dogma,” “consistent with liberal principles of justice and fairness,” “morally desirable,” and, at its most diffuse, “sensibly far-sighted.”

[2] NATURE WILL DECIDE what is sustainable; it always has and always will. The reflexive invocation of the term as cover for all manner of human acts and wants shows that sustainability has gained wide acceptance as a longed-for, if imperfectly understood, state of being.

[3] AN ACT, PROCESS, OR STATE of affairs can be said to be economically sustainable, ecologically sustainable, or socially sustainable. To these three some would add a fourth: culturally sustainable.

[4] NATURE IS MALLEABLE and has enormous resilience, a resilience that gives healthy ecosystems a dynamic equilibrium. But the resiliency of nature has limits and to transgress them is to act unsustainably. Thus, the most diffuse usage, “sensibly far-sighted,” is the usage that contains and properly reflects the strict ecological definition of the term: a thing is ecologically sustainable if it doesn’t destroy the environmental preconditions for its own existence.

[5] ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY describes the point at which a less-developed economy no longer needs infusions of capital or aid in order to generate wealth. This definition is misleading: for many of those who use it (including traditional economists and many economic aid agencies), “economic sustainability” means “sustainable within the general industrial program of using fossil fuels to generate wealth and produce economic growth,” a program that is, of course, not sustainable.

[6] SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY describes a state in which a society does not contain any dynamics or forces that would pull it apart. Such a society has sufficient cohesion to overcome the animosities that arise from (for instance) differences of race, gender, wealth, ethnicity, political or religious belief; or from differential access to such boons as education, opportunity, or the nonpartisan administration of justice. Social sustainability can be achieved by strengthening social cohesion (war is a favorite device), through indoctrination in an ideology that bridges the disparities that strain that cohesion, or through diminishing the disparities themselves. (Or all three.)

[7] CULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY asks that we preserve the opportunity for nonmarket or other nonindustrial cultures to maintain themselves and to pass their culture undiminished to their offspring.

[8] HUMAN CIVILIZATION has been built on the exploitation of the stored solar energy found in four distinct carbon pools: soil, wood, coal, petroleum. The latter two pools represent antique, stored solar energy, and their stock is finite. Since agriculture and forestry exploit current solar income, civilizations built on the first two pools — soil and wood — had the opportunity to be sustainable. Many were not.

[9] THE 1987 UN BRUNDTLAND REPORT offered one widely accepted definition of what sustainability means: “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition contains within it two key concepts. One is the presumption of a distinction between needs and wants, a distinction that comes into sharp relief when we compare the consumption patterns of people in rich and in poor nations: rich nations satisfy many of their members’ wants — indeed, billions of dollars are spent to stimulate those wants — even as poor nations struggle to satisfy human needs. Two: we face what Brundtland called “limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

[10] THAT A DISTINCTION can usefully be drawn between wants and needs seems obvious. Mainstream economics, however, refuses to countenance such a distinction. (Marxist economics does, which, from the viewpoint of an ecologically enlightened economics, is one of the few ways in which it is distinguishable from its neoclassical alternative.) The work of Wilfred Pareto was crucial to this refusal. His contribution to economic theory marks a turning point in the evolution (some would say devolution) of nineteenth-century political economy into the highly mathematized discipline of economics as we know it today. Pareto’s novel idea: because satisfactions and pleasures are subjective — because no one among us can say with certainty, “I like ice cream more than you do” — there is no rational way to compare the degree of pleasure that different people will gain by satisfying desires. All we can do is assert that if an economic arrangement satisfies more human wants, it is objectively better than an arrangement that satisfies fewer human wants. This seems commonsensical until we unpack that caveat “all we can do.” An economic arrangement achieves Pareto Optimality if, within it, no one can be made better off (in his own estimation) without making someone else worse off (in her own estimation). Economic science, in its desire to be grounded on rational, objective principles, thus concludes that were we to take a dollar from a billionaire and give it to a starving man to buy food, we can’t know for certain that we have improved the sum total of human satisfaction in the world. For all we know, the billionaire might derive as much pleasure from the expenditure of his billionth dollar as would a starving man spending a dollar on food. All we can do — all! — is promote the growth of income; and if we care about that starving man, we must work to produce two dollars’ worth of goods where before there was only one, so that both the billionaire and the starving man can satisfy their wants.

[11] THUS WAS neoclassical economic theory, putatively value-free and scientific, made structurally dependent on a commitment to infinite economic growth, a value-laden, unscientific, demonstrably unsustainable commitment if ever there was one.

[12] THE BRUNDTLAND assertion that we face “limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs” can be read as both acknowledging ecological limits to human activity and as sidestepping the major issue that those ecological limits have brought to the fore. Can humans, through technological development, solve any problem brought on by resource scarcity and the limited capacity of ecosystems to absorb our acts and works? When all is said and done, can we enlarge the economy’s ecological footprint forever in order to create wealth? Gradually, we are coming to recognize that the answer is no.

[13] AN ECONOMY CAN BE MODELED as an open thermodynamic system, one that exchanges matter and energy across its border (that mostly conceptual, sometimes physical line that separates culture from its home in nature). An economy sucks up valuable low-entropy matter and energy from its environment, uses these to produce products and services, and emits degraded matter and energy back into the environment in the form of a high-entropy wake. (Waste heat. Waste matter. Dissipated and degraded matter: yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s running shoes, last decade’s dilapidated automobile.) An economy has ecological impact on both the uptake and emission side. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that this be so. “You can’t make something from nothing; nor can you make nothing from something,” the law of conservation of matter and energy tells us. With enough energy we could recycle all the matter that enters our economy — even the molecules that wear off the coins in your pocket. But energy is scarce: “You can’t recycle energy,” says the law of entropy. Or, in a colloquial analogy: Accounts must balance and bills must be paid. To operate our economic machine we pay an energy bill; we must ever take in energy anew.

[14] ESTABLISHING an ecologically sustainable economy requires that humans accept a limit on the amount of scarce low entropy that we take up from the planet (which will also, necessarily, limit the amount of degraded matter and energy that we emit). An effective approach would be to use market mechanisms, such as would occur if we had an economy-wide tax on low-entropy uptake (the extraction of coal and oil, the cutting of lumber). The tax rate could be set to ensure that use doesn’t exceed a limit — the CO2 absorption capacity of the planet, the regenerative ability of forests. Producers and consumers would have freedom under the cap brought about by the tax. With such a tax, the tax on workers’ income could be abandoned. (As the slogan says, we should “tax bads, not goods.” Work is good. Uptake of scarce resources is bad.)

[15] FOR DECADES environmentalism has been primarily a moral vision, with principles susceptible to being reduced to fundamentalist absolutes. Pollution is wrong; it is profanation. We have no right, environmentalism has said, to cause species extinction, to destroy habitat, to expand the dominion of culture across the face of nature. True enough, and so granted. But even Dick Cheney agreed that environmentalism is essentially, merely, a moral vision. (“Conservation,” he said, on his way to giving oil companies everything they wanted, “may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”) The time has long since passed for the achievement of sustainability to be left to simple moral admonition, to finger-wagging in its various forms. It’s time to use the power of the market — the power of self-interest, regulated and channeled by wise policy — to do good. Environmentalism must become an economic vision.

[16] ACCEPTING A LIMIT on the economy’s uptake of matter and energy from the planet does not mean that we have to accept that history is over, that civilization will stagnate, or that we cannot make continual improvements to the human condition. A no-growth economy is not a no-development economy; there would still be invention, innovation, even fads and fashions. An economy operating within ecological limits will be in dynamic equilibrium (like nature, its model): just as ecosystems evolve, so would the economy. Quality of life (as it is measured by the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, an ecologically minded replacement for GDP) would still improve. If a sustainable economy dedicated to development rather than growth were achieved through market mechanisms, consumers would still reign supreme over economic decision making, free to pursue satisfactions — and fads and fashions — as they choose.

[17] OUR CHALLENGE is to create something unprecedented in human history: an ecologically sustainable civilization that offers a high standard of living widely shared among its citizens, a civilization that does not maintain itself through more-or-less hidden subsidies from antique solar income, or from the unsustainable exploitation of ecosystems and peoples held in slavery or penury, domestically or in remote regions of the globe. The world has never known such a civilization. Most hunting-and-gathering tribes achieved a sustainable balance with their environments, living off current solar income in many of its forms rather than on the draw-down of irreplaceable stocks, but we can’t say that any of them achieved a high standard of material well-being. Medieval western Europe lived in balance with its soil community, achieving a form of sustainable agriculture that lasted until the invention of coal- and steam-propelled agriculture a few centuries ago, but few of us would trade the comforts and freedoms we enjoy today for life as a serf on a baronial estate, or even for the pre-electricity, pre-petroleum life of a mid-nineteenth-century farmer.

[18] NO, THERE IS NO PRECEDENT for what we are struggling to create. We have to make it up ourselves.

Eric Zencey lives in Vermont and is the author of the essay collection Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture. He is visiting associate professor at Empire State College. His work has appeared in the North American Review, The Nation, and the New York Times.


  1. Wonderful. It’s amazing what a profound impact the “more is more” mantra has within our society – terrifying even. And a reorientation of incentives beneath the umbrella of that mantra probably won’t do us much good – a different standard, a different system, one that measures human well being in units other than money, one that places importance on human creativity and flourishing, human independence, is certainly needed.

    My question; how do we create this sustainable economy with 6 (and eventually more) billion people on the planet? We have obviously grown beyond earth’s carrying capacity (or will shortly). How can you provide a fair standard of living for 6bil without depleting the ability for future generations to inhabit the planet (not to mention healthfully, fairly, and peacefully)?

  2. I’ve been reading Paul Shepard recently, and he might add that, yes, culturally, we can’t go back to hunter-gatherer days, but on the other hand neither have we completely left behind the bodies and minds of the people of that period. So perhaps dreaming up a “sustainable” economics–even with 6 billion people–should start with taking a critical look at what “quality of life” really means in terms of who we are evolutionarily, as well as historically and culturally.

  3. Nothing can be sustained, save compassion. All else is mutable in the great Tao!

  4. It helps to clarify what is happening by considering what the systems we have installed in our civilization do. As pointed out in the article, they irreversibly use up stocks of limited natural resources and produce irrevocable wastes.

    What is done with these natural resources is another issue, covered in some detail in the article.

    The bottom line is simply that civilization’s devastation of its life support system is not sustainable no matter what is done with the natural wealth it has used.

  5. Readers might be interested in my small experiment of living sustainably in rural India. One each of us live in a sustainable or energy efficient way then there is enough energy available for the mankind to live a decent and holistic life.

  6. Excellent essay.

    With regrad to theme 8, it´s interesting to note that soil carbon (about 58% of soil organic matter)is by itself generally comprised of pools of different age (or “residence times”). A normally quite large pool is constituted by very old organic material that resists degradation — “antique, stored solar energy”. Other so-called labile pools indeed store “current solar income”, which can quickly destroyed/decomposed by agricultural and other uses, but may also be restored to most of their orignal extent by proper and careful management.

  7. Sustainability might be just a “concept” in Orion Magazine, but for every other living creature it is the daily life. When both Greedy and Green intellectuals step down from the false ego view of being Lord Masters of the Universe, accept the effort it takes for Existence to happen for our species, cherish each breath given; then problems will become solutions. Dinosaurs were dominant for millions of years, we are only a few thousand years old. I have invested big time in the future, I have grand-children. We owe it to get off the high horse and do the right things needed. There are only 7 billion of us really. Recognition of the genius level in all of Life is needed. Stop telling every other species where they belong according to us. That is not Green. We are like the story of the Lion who gets up every day, goes over to each of the other animals, pins them down to the ground (or places a transmitter on their backs)and asks, ” Who’s the toughest in the jungle?” All the little animals look up to the Lion and say, ” You are “! One day the Lion sees the elephant, grabs him by the leg and squeezes and asks, ” Who’s the toughest in the jungle? ” The elephant takes his trunk and wraps it around the Lion, then proceeds to smash him back and forth on the ground until the Lion is very hurt and wobbly. When the Lion is finally put back down on his own feet he looks up at the elephant and says ” If you didn’t know the answer, you didn’t have to get so sore about it”! Understanding… Will we ever learn how precious this life Really Is?

  8. A commentary on the vapidity of the phrase “sustainability” that is as vapid as the phrase itself?

    No, Zencey’s nonsense koans are worse. “We must harness the power of the markets to do good.” Have you not paid the slightest attention to what this laissez faire, pro-corporate supersystem has wrought? With all the offensive greenwashing spilling from the dominant transational corporations, we have to hear such bilge from an Orion sage?

    The globe desperately needs environmental and economic regulation to restrain the extractive impulse of the neoliberal global economic system.
    Of course, we have evolved no such means of supervisory control upon our rich and obtuse, so we’ll just enjoy the libertarian bird-chirping of master greenwashers like Amory Lovins and this latest contender.

  9. Oh, I don’t know. From where I’m sitting in a small urban apartment breathing toxic traffic fumes and drinking chlorinated water, I’d say the life of a mid 18th century farmer doesn’t look half bad . . .

  10. A connection here to I.A. Richards’ _The Meaning of Meaning_ from 1923: “Words, as everyone now knows, ‘mean’ nothing by themselves. It is only when a thinker makes use of them that they stand for anything, or, in one sense, have ‘meaning. They are instruments.”

    That seems like useful information if we’re interested in understanding HOW words come to mean what they mean. They are signs or vessels that we fill with meaning in different historical and cultural contexts. So, I like Eric Zencey’s application here to “sustainability,” but I’d love to see it extended to “economy.” (William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” does something like this with the word “wilderness,” especially in the U.S.)

    Let’s rethink “economy” in similar ways. That’s one thing I appreciate most about Orion; it highlights the connection between economies and ecologies. Rethinking and re-inscribing sustainability and economy will ideally lead to a redefinition and new understanding of “progress” (which has implications for how we talk about or what we mean by “clean” and “fair”).

    That’s social movement (not a social movement) – i.e., changes in how we talk and the way we think that ultimately lead to changes in the way we live our lives.

  11. One of the most telling lines in this essay is the observation that “just as ecosystems evolve, so would the economy.” I can see how unsustainable activities may give rise to selective pressure that will nudge our globalized economies onto a desirable path. But it’s also clear that less desirable aspects of this economy, e.g., some global companies, are currently enjoying high levels of evolutionary “fitness.” I would welcome a follow-up that looks at this through a evolutionary lens. Where is the variation that the evolution process requires? How is this variation giving rise to consequences that affect the survival of economic activities? And how are desirable and undesirable activities being passed from one generation to the next?

  12. Glenn Sutter’s comment moves me to remark: The companies that are enjoying “high levels of evolutionary ‘fitness'” worldwide may in fact be no so much winners in an evolutionary contest, but hothouse flowers, supported (like a rose in winter greenhouse) by vast unsustainable subsidies–from the draw-down of fossil fuels, from the draw-down of natural capital. When subjected to the discipline of a market that values resources at their ecological (instead of their current market) cost, those companies would have to adapt to doing sustainable business in a sustainable world, or go the way of a hothouse flower exposed to real weather.

  13. I too wonder where the statement “It’s time to harness the power of the markets…” came from. The other theses build on one another, sort of, but then this statement comes in from left field. Markets do not currently work, and I doubt if they can work when the sources of production are isolated from consumption by convoluted markets. What could possibly make them work except a return to simpler systems? The rich and powerful have become so by capturing the resources and energy of the earth for their own use. They will not give up this power and wealth, nor will they allow markets to include the real costs of such extraction. Until we have social and economic equity, markets are the problem and not the solution.

  14. I’ll join the chorus of those objecting to the (currently politically correct) phrase “it’s time to use the power of the market… to do good.” We’ve had too much of this from the political and economic establishment, and our current problems with unsustainability stem from this mindset. What the rest of the article points to from my perspective is the moral imperative to bring the study (and practice) of economics into its proper role as a subservient discipline to ecology — rather than the other way around. There is no sustainable economic system that exists outside a defined ecological system, and any theses on economics that doesn’t recognize this fact should be discarded. From a biological perspective, species or ecosystems are only considered “successful” and sustainable if they practice evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS) with their respective environments. Human civilization, let alone industrial human civilization, is a long way from coming anywhere close to achieving this. We’ll need another million years or so of stable (i.e. mostly unchanging) societal practice to see how we do on this score. We need to start thinking much bigger and acting much smaller.

  15. Ken, I absolutely agree that we need a dramatic revision in the foundations of economic thinking; I’m an advocate for Ecological Economics, which does just what you propose: sees economic activity in context (in thermodynamic and ecological context) as one form of activity within a larger system (the environment). (The neoclassical model gets it exactly backwards, by seeing environmental values as a subset of economic values.) But I think you are too harsh on the power of the market. The market system, as presently constructed, is part of the problem, because prices lie to us about the true cost of things. A carbon tax or a low-entropy tax would go a long way toward letting prices tell the ecological truth. And then self-interested behavior (such as people pursue in economic markets) would no longer necessarily be unsustainable. (Such a tax could be revenue neutral, and with a system of rebates could hold harmless those least able to pay it.) The alternative, it seems to me, is to continue to hope that environmentally aware people can change the system through moral admonition–lecturing, hectoring, asking people to go against their own financial interest. “If men were angels,” James Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.” And if we could all be morally pure according to the moral vision of ecological sustainability, we’d have no need for environmental policy of any sort. Information alone would do it. But, given that information and moral admonition haven’t done the job of establishing our society on a sustainable basis, I think it’s time to try the power of self-interest through markets in which ecological cost is relfected in the prices of things. Let me add a plug: I’ve been working with some people who are holding the first-ever U.S. conference on adopting an alternative measure of well-being–an alternative to GDP, which counts environmental damage as a positive contribution to well-being. The conference is sponsored by GNH USA, and will be in VT in early June. You can find info about it on the organization’s web site.

  16. Eric wears the same “green” blinders he perceives in others and engages in the very same greenwash, made all the more dangerous because of his apparent insights into cause and effect.

    He identifies us as self-interested consumers (i.e. parasites) and accepts that identity (“consumers would still reign supreme”) as immutable as the laws of thermodynamics.

    He places economy above ecology (“environmentalism must become an economic vision”) and proposes a variation of economic regulation (“a regulated and manipulated form of self-interest”) as the solution, even though self-interest is a very modern economic invention that has proven unsustainable as well as immoral.

    He continues to engage in the destructive calculus that places wants and comforts over authentic human needs (“a high standard of living widely shared among its citizens”), ignoring that even a third-world material standard for all humanity is beyond the earth’s carrying capacity as we annually convert millions of species into yet more human biomass.

    And, while grudgingly acknowledging the sustainability of the pre-petroleum cultures, he falls victim to the belief that we have a choice in the matter (“few of us would trade the comforts and freedoms we enjoy today”) and are masters of our fate. We are either servants of the web-of-life or we are heading toward extirpation.

    The simple and obvious truth, for those who would take off the blinders, is that either we devolve to a very low footprint culture based on real need, mutual support and interdependence or Mother Nature does it for us.

    We cannot rewrite the rules of this game and expect to “win”. We must stop playing the game.

  17. I find it difficult to believe that someone who calls for a radical (and more humble) re-visioning of our place in nature, and who points out that the world has never known a sustainable, egalitarian society that had even a moderate level of technical development, can be accused of “greenwashing.” To say that “environmentalism must become an economic vision” is not to say that economics is larger than ecology (something I’ve long argued against). It’s to say that setting up environmentalism so that people must make “uneconomic” choices–must pay extra for sustainably sourced products–isn’t going to work if there are cheaper, non-sustainably sourced products in the market.

    You can badger people into being altruistic some of the time, but you can’t expect altruism from all of the people all of the time–which is why prices ought to reflect true ecological cost. That’s what I mean by “ecology must become an economic vision,” and I think that meaning is clear in context.

    Nor did I place wants above needs; I specifically talked about the perversity of a system that puts some peoples’ (artificially generated) wants above other peoples’ needs, and talked about where that perversity originated in economic discourse.

    I agree that we are headed for big changes, including a civilization with a smaller, much smaller, ecological footprint; we either will get there by design (by bringing prices into line with ecological cost, and by distinguishing between wants and needs, for instance) or have that civilization imposed on us through ecosystem degradation and a loss of the planet’s ability to support us. “Sustainability Happens” eventually. The only quesiton is: at what cost in human pain and suffering? What sort of human culture will the planet be able to support when we get there? I’m all for embracing the transition to sustainability rationally, and trying to make the anding “soft.”

  18. Eric,

    Of course you find it difficult to believe that anyone might question your “wisdom”, because you are lost in the fog of the “rational” mindset that brought us to the brink of global annihilation.

    “I’m all for embracing the transition to sustainability rationally”.

    It was pure reason – economic rationality – that got us into this morass. Reason will only drive us more deeply into it. The only route to sustainability is the one that we walked for millions of years – the path of heart.

    “Lose you mind – find your way” is chiseled into the lintel of the gateway to the next world. As long as you cling to the belief that simply tinkering with economic incentives in order to “guide” our essentially selfish lives into a better world, you are propagating the same rationalizations that have turned Western culture into a self-destructive leviathan.

    Original sin is the mythos of our culture. We are essentially selfish and must be turned away from sin. The real story of humanity, as of all life, is Original Blessing: we are nodes in an indivisible web of life that supports each element for the good of the whole.

    Tinkering with the guidance system of the Titanic will not turn it away from certain doom. Those who survived did so by abandoning ship, and now it will be only those who jump off this distorted story who will have the opportunity to build a truly blessed world.

    Take the red pill. Lose your mind. See the truth.

  19. Let me quote Bruce Springsteen:

    “You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain; make crosses for your lovers, throw roses in the rain; waste your summers prayin’ in vain for a savior to rise from these streets….”

    Well, I’m no hero either, but I think that if we need a spiritual transformation of humanity in general before we’re going to have a sustainable society, we will indeed be praying in vain, because that isn’t going to happen–certainly not soon enough, and maybe not ever. Condescend all you want, but I continue to think that rational discussion of the problems we face is the ground on which a democratic people has to meet. (Most of the other roads lead to fascism.) If you don’t want to join people there, that’s fine with me.

  20. Eric has done good work defending his views here – that’s why the comments sections are far better places for thought than the auto-focus of the essay from.
    1. “Rationalism” is not what got us here – irrational “faith” in the “unseen Hand” of the allegedly “free markets” got us here. The fossil fuel supersystem depends on a cowed and self-blaming populace who let this markedly stupid faith guide their working and thinking lives – which is why that “power of the market to do good” tripe was so offensive to me.
    2. I want no pills, am foursquare for realism and sociology – and so the word democratic” is also out of bounds, because that word is certainly not how our social world functions.
    3. For what it is worth, I was drummed out of Empire State because I couldn’t follow its model of ceding my interests to its professor “expert” – one of my more proud moments. I did get my tuition back.
    4. When nostrums like “soft landings” get promulgated, that’s when “greenwashing” enters the field. Pessimism – a far more useful construct.

  21. Eric,
    Invoking the Boss is one sure way to get me over to your side, even if it doesn’t work for anyone else 😉
    I’m not yet done, however, being stuck on “the market” as the mechanism. While I agree that a carbon tax, for example, is a good idea, I know many economists (and libertarians and tea partiers and republicans and mainline democrats, etc) who say that a carbon tax is inherently NOT a market solution, but an external interference in the “natural” market. So we’re back to the failure of contemporary economics, and I applaud yours and other’s efforts to redefine a broken discipline. But it’s also about politics — we can’t enact a carbon tax except through a political system that at least pretends to be a democracy. If self-interest is our guiding principle, how do we convince people to vote for a tax that is going to make fuel (and many other resources) more expensive for them? This is the question that politicians will use to mount a counterattack to any efforts to impose significant market-correcting taxes and fees, and two decades from now us old geezers will still be quoting Bruce Springsteen trying to convince people they are a good idea.
    I also agree that sentimental appeals to good conscience (being “green” is good) are not working. But I think what is needed is not less of this effort, but more. I think we need (to borrow Derrick Jensen’s phrase) to up the stakes. We need to not just say that ecological living is a desirable thing, but that mainstream consumer living is inherently irresponsible. It means confronting people with unpleasant truths, it means letting go of the irresponsible notion that those of us in the developed world are not going to adjust our lifestyles no matter what. It means drawing a moral line in the sand, and living with the conviction that this line is a matter of life and death.
    Merely a generation ago, blatant racism and workplace sexual harassment were completely normal and acceptable in many communities. While I am not naive enough to believe that racism and sexism are problems of the past, I see the profound shifts in cultural values that have taken place on these fronts as evidence that cultural/spiritual/moral revolutions are not only possible, but necessary.
    I confess I do read Orion (and similar publications) looking for a hero to rise from these streets; for mainline pragmatism I prefer National Geographic or Newsweek. That is why I was disappointed to read your concluding thoughts.

  22. Eric,

    That you cannot see the spiritual transformation happening all around you suggests that you are truly blinded by your “faith” in reason. Call that “condescension” if you want, but if you were truly aiming for a “more humble re-visioning of our place in nature” you would show gratitude rather than taking offense.

    It is clear to anyone who has stepped outside the box of Mother Culture, gone to the mountaintop, and glimpsed the big picture that nothing short of a spiritual transformation will make any difference (MLK was perhaps the greatest American visionary).

    And fascism, far from being the antithesis of rational political economics, is the epitome of it. “Enlightened” self-interest raised to its highest level by those with the most power to leverage. There was no more “rational” campaign in history than the holocaust (it required IBM data management to carry it out).


    While I agree that “irrational faith” (all faith is, of necessity, beyond reason) in free markets has been the largest force for destruction since the mid-20th century, state communism and other political/economic variants have lead to the same dismal swamp, with democratic socialism only slightly more humane.

    So you might say that it’s irrational faith in economics as the guiding principle of human culture that’s to blame. But economics is nothing more than a manifestation of modernity’s blind faith in reason as our guiding star. Every sustainable culture that preceded us (and all those which continue to struggle on) are heart-based rather than mind-based.

    It’s ironic that modern scientific research has revealed not only the inherent limits to and internal contradictions of rational systems of thought, but also that human health requires that our brains be entrained to the bio-rhythms of the heart while the converse produces chronic sickness. So for those who have a bias toward the idea of “faith”, use the term “heart” instead. Until we transform into a heart-based culture – one in which “rational self-interest” is a distant memory – we will not achieve benign sustainability. The good news is that this transformation, led in large part by the remaining indigenous cultures, is already happening globally.

    One example of this movement is the “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream” workshops sponsored by the PachaMama Alliance ( which was inspired by Ecuadorean elders and shamans who would like to help us “change the dream of the North”.

    We moderns created what we thought was a dream of a new world, but it turned out to be a nightmare. The only thing we need to do to reverse the damage we’ve done is to change the dream. It’s really as simple as that.

    “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

  23. I disagree that “MLK was America’s greatest visionary.” He was a Christian preacher, whose movement affiliations (SCLC) did not endure. He used the irrationality of religion to integrate the South in various places, was affected by the large social uprisings of the time, but was tied to the dominant religious orthodoxy of evangelical Christianity.
    Black people, after all the governmental (the Feds sent the troops down south back then to enforce integration) and cultural changes of the last forty years, have 1/9th the average wealth of white people. That is not “progress,” by any definition.

    “Spirituality” is a vacuous word – we invent all sorts of dubious blame and nonsense terms to cover up the undeniable fact that we live in a supersystem that holds great control over social reality – where jobs are gone, debts are mounting, supertankers criss-cross our plastic oceans, and war cannot be taken back. Whatever Derrick Jensen’s sentiments are, they are not working, and there is “upping the stakes.”
    There is no sense expecting “revolutions” – all social reality has always been tied to the recent past, and in our society, the power is with the corporations and their allied corrupt institutions of higher profit.

  24. mjoseph,

    If MLK was merely a Christian preacher, the world’s most powerful government would not have been so threatened that it had to kill him (it was established in court that he was assassinated by a consortium of the CIA, US military and Mafia). His “movement affiliations” were also so challenged that they distanced themselves from him and tried to silence him.

    MLK was every bit as much of a social and political revolutionary as Jesus of Nazareth – a visionary who was also eliminated by the power structure because he was too much of a threat.

    Spirituality is a “vacuous word” only to those so lost in the fog of the material culture that they have forgotten their source and true nature.

    Nothing can be remedied with the same mindset that created it (A. Einstein). Let go of your mind and you may see the truth. But if you believe that some “supersystem” holds control over your reality, then you are doomed to victimhood and impotence. Take the red pill, see the Matrix for what it is, and then you are free of it.

  25. 1. This is not 1969. The 60s are dead and buried, subsumed under so much corporate onslaught of production and consumption, war and globalized economic power, that no one should revisit that time. Too many long guitar solos from guys who ended up dentists.
    The claptrap from that self-ennobled time lives on in ego, vain speechifying, and hectoring vanity. The supersystem holds social reality in tight control from the courts to the classroom to Toys R Us to bongo fests at the park, but you are free to blow your own mind with whatever fantasies you want. Just don’t expect me to buy the resultant nonsense.

  26. I second and applaud everything Robert Riversong has written on this thread. Beautifully expressed. But I find that these super rational “realists” can still get under my skin with their cocksure guarantees to put us on the right track (not the numerous dead ends and disasters they have always fostered).

    I got a pretty good feel for where these folks were coming from when they tried to trash MLK and the 60’s, not to speak of their consistently arrogant dismissal of spirituality in general. I suppose they feel that the beautiful photography and heartfelt stories in Orion about awakening to the mystical wonder of Nature are a waste space which should more properly be given to Wall Street Journal type articles on how to really save the earth.

    There is a nonsolution to our many problems known as the spiritual bypass. (It’s a little like the popular coronary bypass, an expensive bandaid that fails to deal with the underlying lifestyle problems that really underlay the condition). Folks will do anything to avoid dealing with the real source of their problems, in their own hearts and souls.

  27. Mike K makes the common but absurd mistake of the spiritualists to see rationalists as conservatives.

    Religion and spiritualism are united – MLK and the “sacred nature” gurus are allied with the Wall Street journal fascists in their anti-rationalism.
    That’s the failure of the 60s left – to be completely non-radical when it came to corporations, jobs, money.

    Yes, Orion becomes a “waste space” when it features snake oil nature rhapsodies – while the oil companies record ever-higher profits, while the planet burns. That’s where the problems lie, not within this victim-blaming, Ronald-Reagan style nonsense of “within our souls.” Fascism has always depended on mysticism, and the American variety is no different.
    However, to grant you one point, “realism” grants no guarantees. Given the enduring religious self-beatification of our rulers and their academic mentors, realism points to a doomed human species and devastated ecology. 485 and climbing – way to go, spiritualists.

  28. Hello mjosef. I think we have a lot more in common than I first realized. There was a time (about fifty years ago) when I would have considered your criticisms of religion, spirituality, etc. to be far too mild and understated. In those days my scorn for the idiots who held such views was unbounded. It was obvious to me that all our problems on earth stemmed from people believing and acting out of unscientific and irrational nonsense. If only others would see the obvious facts of life as I so clearly and definitely knew them. A recourse to reason would clear up all problems.

    I was so deeply convinced of my infallible rightness, that it was impossible to discuss things with me. In short, I had become a rational/scientific fundamentalist. Unbeknownst to myself I represented a mirror image of what I had come to despise: a fanatic anti fanatic. Now this is not to say that you are what I was then. It is only to share my experiences in this area of concern. I have no doubt that you would reject what I have shared about my former self as having anything to do with you. That may be as it should be; we are all wonderfully unique and valuable just as we are.

    What I was like, what happened, and what am I like now? Let’s just say that when my life fell apart, I became involved in a process that eventually revealed to me that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in my philosophy. As a result I now know that no matter how certain one is of one’s infallible and unchangeable perception of what is real, there is always the possibility of metanoia, a radical change in one’s worldview. This is why I try not to freeze in place those I am in dialogue with, for they too may change in ways they currently think impossible. Offered in friendship, mike k

  29. When we put the worst perversions of spirituality and the worst perversions of reason into a steel cage fight for supremacy in evil, its hard to say which will “win”. But if we match the best excellence’s of reason with those of spirituality, they end up hugging instead of fighting, because they recognize they are on the same team. Truly open and non-dogmatic science and truly open spirituality are inseparable aspects of the one open search for truth. The historic food fight between science and religion was waged by those who did not deeply understand either discipline. This was really a power struggle pure and simple. There have always been those in both camps who understood this, and transcended the nonsense of a supposed ultimate disconnect.

  30. “Most hunting-and-gathering tribes… we can’t say that any of them achieved a high standard of material well-being.”

    There’s some super obvious ignorance in this statement. Generalizations that sweep up all the diverse traditional/indigenous cultures into “hunting-and-gathering tribes” are obsolete, flatly false and racist. The second half of the statement,regarding “material well being”, shows a eurocentric racist view of traditional cultures as primitive and lacking. You might as well just come out with the old Hobbesian anti-indigenous lie, that life outside of western civilization is “nasty brutish and short.” What a joke. Admit that you’re totally ignorant of (and racist against) the multitude of indigenous cultures that have reached and exceeded your supposedly “unprecedented” achievement of a sustainable culture, then get back in your Prius and drive off a cliff.

  31. p. moss: Disagreeing with someone’s understanding of indigenous cultures is one thing, but does it really call for sending them a death threat? Perhaps you misspoke in the heat of the moment?

  32. Mike, I believe that folks like yourself and Riversong have the spiritual bandaid idea backwards. Soliliquies on the mystical wonder of nature and spirituality come from an ultimately self-centered place. It’s certainly good for you that you have the luxury to concern yourselves with problems of your soul but your children and grandchildren will still suffer and die while you ponder the “bigger things” from upon the mountaintop.

  33. Hello z. There are certainly a wide range of takes out there on the meaning of “spiritual”. All the way from “totally irrelevant or downright harmful” to “of crucial importance and profound benefit”. My interpretation leans decisively to the latter evaluation.
    To me, love, the good, the true, and the beautiful are the foundations of right action and authentic being in the world. Real spirituality is deeply involved with helping others and transcending a narrow preoccupation with self. It is ironic that critics of spirituality often accuse those walking this path of being “selfish”.
    Then there is the issue of practicality and effectiveness. There is no doubt that the oven designers in Germany were skilled and capable craftsmen, but they lacked one thing; soul.

  34. Hello again z. Thanks for prodding me to think once again what spirituality means to me. I forgot to add in my previous post that I am not a believer in the various “philosophies” of pragmatism, materialism, hedonism, Unitarianism, etc. that seem to suggest that all human action proceeds from simple self interest. This point of view proposes that if one helps another for example, the real motivation is to help one’s self feel better. So there really is not anything such as true altruism, everything we do is ultimately selfish. The world we live in today has a lot to thank this kind of thinking for. I am not going to take the time to deconstruct this shallow canard. Anyone with a trace of spiritual sensitivity can easily do so for themselves. Thanks for your input. mike

  35. mike Z, you’re giving it a game try, and you deserve credit for your integrity.
    However, the statement that the Nazi oven designers “lacked one thing; soul” is preposterous. In the same way that “real spirituality” is a contradiction, because there is no definition for “spirituality,” there was a great deal of socio-political reality that created the horrors of Nazism, and quite recently.
    German religiosity and mysticism was transmuted very effectively by murderous Nazism into widespread corporate support for their regime. So, too with our society where religion and spiritualism beget endless war and global habitat destruction by enthralled corporatists.
    The Pentagon and their myrmidons are awash in talk of “soul” and “spirit,” as they co-sign the next incursions and invasions. Check Obama’s official piety, and the oil company prayer chapels – that’s who you align with when you reduce all supersystemic reality to talk of “soul.”

  36. Hello mjosef and z. I am going to politely excuse myself from our sharing. It has been meaningful and instructive for me, and for this I thank you both. I now realize that you are both firmly opposed to what I am sharing, and that is ok. We are each entitled to our worldview. Somehow I woke up and realized that I was arguing with you folks about spirituality, which is very meaningful and precious to me.

    I forgot something I had thought to have learned long ago; it is futile and counterproductive to engage in argument about spiritual matters. Nobody profits from such occasions. We should only discuss these matters with those who are at least a little open in this area. Perhaps I can say adieu with a little story:

    Once after a concert where Louie Armstrong had played his heart out to thunderous applause, a man came up to him and asked in a serious tone, “Mr. Armstrong, what is jazz?” Louie looked at him for a long moment and then said, “If you have to ask that, you ain’t never gonna know.”

  37. How to create ‘sustainability’? Vermont Independence.

    Either Independence, or Vermont remains a resource colony to supply major corporations with natural resources, tax & rent-free, and supplying warm bodies to the wars. We’ve already lost the Green Mountain Boys to Afghanistan, and the Vermont Legislature have decided to disregard the $1.2 billion/year in tax-free corporate earnings in Vermont for natural resource extraction… instead pushing the dishonest claim that there is a ‘budget deficit’, breaking the social contract, cutting essential government services.

    As a resource colony, in which USDA/Monsanto have such a tight regulatory grip that we have to struggle just to produce local food (and many Vermonters can’t afford it and have to turn to cheap supermarket food based on GMOs, high fructose corn syrup and the like ), how else can sustainability be created? The farmer’s hands are tied by extreme regulation, the Vermont Legislature is driving business away, and people can’t afford to pay their mortgages TODAY.

    Yet you politically correct lefties go out and buy a Prius, energy-saving fluorescent bulbs to light up your suburban nightmares, attend talks and vote Democrat and pretend that the ongoing wars are for a good cause and don’t even have a cost.

  38. A thought that came to me in my morning meditation…….

    “You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

    Even now, in spite of all contrary currents, our dreams of love, sharing, beauty, and truth are building a new world, which some day will be fully and universally manifested.

  39. Did that tree…

    Did that tree just smile at me?
    Something happened;
    Like when strangers risk
    A silent greeting
    On a lonely street.
    Acknowledging their existence together
    And the possible ok-ness of life.

    But what has that to do with
    A man in Washington DC
    Hustling to work
    In the uniform of his class,
    Or a family huddling together in fear
    Hearing the drone of something overhead,
    Or a hungry child in Brazil
    Wondering when there will be food?

    Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.

  40. I like “ecologically sustainable economy” but that doesn’t really describe all of the aspects Zency puts forward – where’s the culture? So when we are working toward “a _____ future” what wordage does he suggest? What is a common language that most of us can identify with? I think I like Mike K’s poetry the best. I don’t like the Big Block Numbers like a legal document or a version of the Bible. I’ve been deconstructing sustainability since the 80s yet there seems to be a long way to go before we can aptly describe our goals in the world, especially without them being co-opted.

  41. Thanks,DARM for expressing your liking of the poetry. A sometime poet gets a lift from such encouragement. What we are reaching for can’t always be expressed as hard facts and figures. There has to be a role for soulful longings in our search.
    I am glad that Orion appreciates that dimension of our ecological dreaming…

  42. The literature on sustainability is actually quite clear on how to define the term. Underlying the meaning of sustainability is the concept of vital resources (or capitals) on which humans rely for their well-being. Such capitals have carrying capacities, which are either sufficient for purposes of supporting human needs (as well as non-humans) or not. When humans degrade or fail to maintain vital capitals at levels required to support human well-being (which includes supporting non-human well-being), the activities involved (and/or the failure to act) can be said to be unsustainable. So sustainability is all about the impacts of human activities on the quality or sufficiency of vital capitals, as such capitals are required to ensure human well-being. The specific capitals involved are natural capital, human capital, social capital, and constructed capital. Again, all of this has been rigorously vetted over the years, resulting in the perspective summarized above.

  43. Eric,
    Very interesting and thought provoking article. While I do not entirely agree with your every point, I do applaud you for understanding that we are not going to ‘meditate’ ourselves to a solution.

  44. In spite of over a thousand published peer reviewed scientific studies confirming the many real positive benefits from properly performed meditation, those with no awareness of this can smugly dismiss meditation as the baseless imaginings of the easily deluded. These so-called “realists” have no comprehension of what a narrow window they choose to see reality from. Much like the clerics who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, because they believed they already knew what was in the heavens.

  45. Mark W. McElroy, Ph.D.
    Your comments are naive in the real world. The term “sustainability” has been co-opted and is very difficult to utilize as a meaningful term outside of academic literature. That is the problem itself.

  46. DARM, I would agree that the term has been co-opted to a large extent, but it still has real meaning and importance in the mainstream business world — increasingly so. So I think you overstate the problem by more than a little.

  47. “You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

    Nor the only dream. The danger in spiritual solutions is that it runs the risk of being another form of evangelism. If we cannot truly change things until everyone accepts a certain narrowly proscribed spiritual or religious world-view, then it becomes another dogma, another missionary attempt to convert the heathens to the true path. As does the rejection of spiritual solutions. We need the perspective to respect many different ways of reaching shared goals and not try to convert all to the one true path.


  48. Hello John Chapman. I am not really sure if you were referring to my post when you warned about “evangelism”? I myself am not a member of any religion. The word “spiritual” can be confusing unless more clearly defined. What I intend by it is whatever is loving, good, beautiful, etc. Of course all categories are susceptible to corruption. Not all “holy water” is salutary, for sure. User beware. Check before using. My idea of spirituality is very much an individually discerned reality; it doesn’t package well for the mass market.

  49. I would ask the author, Eric Zencey and your readers to check out Technocracy Inc. This organization has had a blueprint for the most sustainable social system for decades.They would recommend doing away with money, the price system, and replace it with with an energy accounting system among other things in their blueprint for survival.

  50. “They’re making more people every day, but they ain’t makin’ any more dirt.”
    — Will Rogers

  51. I believe the sun is the way to sustainable living. The sun allows the creation of plants that can provide more output than the use of stored energy input.

    the delema is how to have enough of these energy (growers)creators near the energy users.

    “vegetaion will save the nation” from Smith and Hawken

  52. I don’t believe our government will let any tax be “revenue neutral”.

  53. We need to get away from the lifestyle of conspicuous consumptionism. Living within our means with enough, but not so much that we destroy the planet. What those that have fail to realize is every material thing we get (while employing someone), uses valuable resources. Think if each of us gave up buying just one material thing we didn’t really need the long term impact this could have.

  54. Eric,
    The term ‘sustainability’ needed clarification, and your article was focused and insightful. Your subsequent explanations on this discussion site were edifying, and I (and I’m sure many others) thank you for sticking to the subject. Too often, comment sites are consumed by irrelevant discussions from folks trying to best the author or pull the topic to their area of interest. To quote another great writer, Bill McKibben,:”….the writing should disappear, the thought linger….”
    I also believe that the time for information sessions and moral/spiritual platitudes on the subject of the sustainability of our Earth is over: we know the facts and we know what’s right. The 5% of folks who will act on info and morals are already living sustainability. The other 95% of folks need financial or legal boundaries to make them live in a way that ensures that their needs don’t compromise our grandkids’ needs.

  55. Sustainabiltiy is a way of living and I honestly can say that since I have taken this class I have become more aware of how to be more sustainable and more green. However there are a lot of reasons why a college student can not efficiently be sustainable because of financial reasons and they may not be able to afford the costs that come with that. I believe the sun can honestly provide a lot of resources on how to be more sustainable. You have to be environmental aware of your ways and commit to them. My brother goes here as well, and since I have been attending the Sustainable Living class, I have enlightened him of the ways to live more useful and sustainable. We both no longer throw everything out, we throw out plastics in a separate pile and paper products out in separate pile. I feel as if we continue to enlighten people about being green, we will only continue to be successful.

  56. Over the millennia human beings have created endless mirages of utopian futures. All have been discredited. Now as the era of Marxist utopian economics has been discredited, we are confronted with yet another form of the same mindset: eco-utopianism. Like most of the other utopias, this one also requires the regimentation of free human beings by an intellectual elite that is convinced of its own superior insight into the failings of society and human beings.

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