A few months ago I wrote a column on surviving what I call our Not-So-Great Depression, a double whammy of eco-nomic and ecological crises.
My threefold prescription for survival included regarding our homes as shelters rather than investments, harmonizing our relations with each other and the Earth, and fostering interdependence within our communities.
Apparently I performed one of my functions as a columnist by hitting some nerves. One reader responded, "I think you are right. It is time to live like the Zulus in Africa. No water, no electricity, no doors, no windows, walk 20 to 30 miles to get help, and live in a house of dung." Another wrote, "This depression will not be full of community, but guns, looters and outright starvation. How is that better even if 'less materialistic?' "
The vehemence of these denunciations surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn't have, considering the dominance of materialism in our culture. Fear of loss is pervasive, especially now, and our deeper fears are tied to the fact that our standard of living is unsustainable.
The arithmetic is pretty straightforward. The United States makes up 5 percent of the world's population and consumes roughly 25 percent of its resources. If just 15 percent more of the world's population reaches our level of consumption, 100 percent of the resources would be consumed by 20 percent of the people - and the remaining 80 percent would have to die. So far, few of those 80 percent have volunteered.
While ramping up the production of food and material goods might offer an illusory way out, it is, in fact, unfeasible. Currently, our fertilizers and many of our critical materials are derived from vanishing, nonrenewable resources. Our long-range survival can be ensured only by reducing our per capita consumption in the United States and other developed countries - a process that is under way whether we like it or not.
What is unclear is whether "guns, looters and outright starvation" or an equitable (and healthier), sustainable society will take the place of overweening materialism - but surely there must be some middle ground between the excesses of our consumer culture and living in a "house of dung."
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If we decide to opt for sustainability over economic and ecological chaos, we must overcome our fear that reduced consumption means impoverishment. The basic question, then, is: Can we as a species live within our means and still live well?
Three conditions will have to be met for a sustainable society to emerge. First, our economy will have to be based on renewable energy and materials (plant products). Second, global population must not exceed the Earth's productive capacity. Third, we must replace our secular materialism with a new cultural paradigm I call "green consciousness."
None of these conditions implies poverty. Poverty stems from competition for limited, nonrenewable resources and the over-harvesting of renewable resources - all in pursuit of an accumulation of goods in the more developed nations that unbalances the entire global system of energy and material distribution.
Yet the Earth's capacity to grow food and forests, and to produce energy from sources such as switch grass and algae, is far greater than our total supply of nonrenewable resources. Enough sunlight strikes the Earth's surface in one day to power civilization for a year. And virtually every material we need - from plastic composites that are stronger and lighter than steel to filaments that conduct light pulses - can be derived from plants.
It's all ours for the growing if we are willing to make the needed cultural adjustments, such as voluntary population reduction and investments in sustainable systems. Cultural adjustments occur at times like ours when the old order no longer serves our needs and visionaries provide alternatives that are seized upon, sometimes in desperation.
In our time the alternative is green consciousness, the understanding that the Earth is a single living system and that we are all part of it. If you believe, as I do, that the Earth is worth saving, you'll strive to understand that system and share what you learn with others. As your green consciousness grows, you'll see that the entire planet is your ecological house.