Advocates of the sustainability movement envision a future where our global society evolves toward a culture of environmental protection, social equity, democratic participation and representation, and an economy that is predicated on the Earth as the source of capital instead of just another resource.
Unfortunately, many do not see a worldwide transition toward a sustainable and desirable future without a catastrophic event that awakens people to transition past the current direction of the status quo. The thought being that unless we are on the brink of a collapse, our society as a whole will not act, as our priorities lie elsewhere.
Author Bill McKibben and climatologist James Hansen feel we already are at a "tipping point" in regard to our impact on the climate, and if we do not decrease the current level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we will witness large-scale environmental and societal consequences in the coming decades.
In his book "Revenge of Gaia," renowned scientist James Lovelock states that we have 10 years to act to avoid a large collapse, but we already are past certain tipping points, and some consequences cannot be avoided. The attempts to convey this urgency have had some results at the governmental level, but rates of soil erosion, deforestation, hunger, carbon emissions, biodiversity loss and poverty continue to rise. Sure, there are numerous initiatives and organizations that are operating at a local level to help foster this transition, but haven't we seen similar efforts during the past decades while still increasing our overall impact?
There are numerous examples to show the level of participation and attention toward these issues is larger than ever before.
Last October, McKibben and his advocacy group 350.org helped to organize the largest worldwide environmental rally to support action to reduce our carbon footprint - more than 5,200 events in 181 countries came out in full force.
In another laudable effort, Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for examining the role that common-pool resources have in bringing stakeholders together to work toward sustainable and equitable solutions for all parties involved. Ostrom's research re-examines Garret Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons," a widely referenced theory contending that population growth and individual selfishness take precedence over long-term interests of social and environmental welfare.
Paul Hakwen's recent book, "Blessed Unrest," documents how the world's largest movement of more than a million organizations emerged without any unified leader or common cause and ultimately can benefit environmental health and social equity.
Nevertheless, according to the latest Pew and Gallup polls, we see sustainable transitions take a back seat to economic development and growth, and in the U.S., national security. Again, it seems that only a catastrophic event can cause people to understand the link between the current ecological, social, and economic recessions. Neither Hurricane Katrina nor any of the recent widespread heat waves or droughts has inspired national collective and public action toward reducing natural-resource mismanagement.
Is a larger and more-devastating event needed to spur action? What about something on the order of the fantastical and unrealistic apocalyptic movie "The Day After Tomorrow," where climate change causes an overnight ice age?
Perhaps we should alter our strategy. What if we could choose hope rather than despair to instill the will for a transformation? Instead of a debilitating phenomenon, could we create something phenomenal that could inspire people so that a transformation is not only possible, but it is desirable? Remarkable and powerful initiatives are happening today that affect such grand scales they seem to be unrealistic. I believe we can realize the impossible, and it can catalyze action at a global level that will lead to a sustainable transformation.
The best example of achieving the impossible is forestry scientist Willie Smits' work in Borneo. Smits founded the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) in 1991 and set out to protect orangutans that were losing their rainforest habitat in Borneo to huge levels of deforestation to develop palm plantations for biofuel oil. Smits thought that in order to save the ape species from extinction, he would have to restore their habitat.
In fewer than five years, BOS transformed 5,000 acres of degraded and lifeless tropical wasteland into a regenerated rainforest with more than 1,000 indigenous tree species, 100 native bird species, 25 percent more rainfall and 3,000 new jobs that use the sap from the native sugar palm to develop new products.
Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has called Smits' efforts the "finest example of ecological and economic restoration in the tropics."
Similar efforts have been occurring in New England for many years. Nearly 30 years ago, biologist and ecological designer John Todd looked at the role of vegetation and aquatic microorganisms in breaking down wastes and producing beneficial products. The research progressed into the founding of the Eco-Machine, a technology that has been used to treat human and industrial wastewater and also paved the way for the field of biomimicry. There are over 100 different Eco-Machines treating waste in numerous countries worldwide.
Along with several organizations in New England and in the Southeast, I am working toward developing similar stories in the Appalachian coal fields. Through the single-resource dependency of coal and mountaintop-removal surface mining, Appalachian communities suffer some of the highest levels of environmental degradation, poverty, infant mortality, heart disease and high-school dropout rates in the country.
It is incredible this is occurring in the most biologically diverse temperate forest system in the world, and one of the most culturally storied regions in our country. More than a million acres, 1,200 miles of streams and 450 mountains have been blown up - the tonnage of explosives used in two weeks to remove mountaintops in Appalachia is equivalent to one of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II. The coal fields have been labeled appropriately as America's "sacrifice zone" in order to perpetuate our addiction to coal.
While we need to stop the removal of mountains, we also need to help transition the area toward a more-diversified and resilient economy. In collaboration with universities and nonprofit organizations, we are researching how to regenerate the mined landscapes to develop native ecosystems that can support an industrial ecology of locally produced carbon-negative biofuel feedstocks, biochar and Agro-Eco-Park developments.
We are also working with newly established enterprises on agroforestry, sustainable agriculture and renewable-energy developments. As a partner in the Appalachian Transition Initiative headed up by David Orr and Bill Becker, we are working with local communities to transition their ecology and economy toward a resilient infrastructure, something many community members previously thought was impossible - but now feel is inevitable.
Similar to what Smits said of Borneo, Orr has stated Appalachia can be the proving ground for degraded rural landscapes all over the world: "If we can do it here," he says, "we can do it anywhere."