Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake
will find it.
Matt. 10:39

In 1982, Lester Brown and Pamela Shaw published a pamphlet with the title: Six Steps to a Sustainable Society. This was number 48 in a series, known as the Worldwatch Papers, and was written in response to a growing concern about the impact of our numbers and our way of life on the state of the earth. It has been known for a while that we, especially in the developed countries, have created a situation that is destructive to the natural systems that support us. Brown and Shaw simply pointed out the most fundamental steps we all must take to reverse this trend of destruction, and to return to a way of life that is once again balanced and is in harmony with the earth. After all, the earth is our home, and there is no other.

The magnitude of the problem is enormous. The human population is over six billion with a doubling time of close to 50 years. It has been growing with a momentum that we can appreciate better if we consider the time it took to add another billion to an already large base population. (See Historical Overview.) This small bit of demography highlights only one of the many dimensions of the problem. There is not a single aspect of human life that is not affected by our impact on the natural world that supports us.

Considering the characteristics of the impact upon the earth caused by our numbers and by our way of life, the six steps, proposed by Brown and Shaw, are most appropriate. They are the following. 1. Stabilize world population. 2. Protect cropland. 3. Reforest the earth. 4. Move beyond the throwaway society. 5. Conserve energy. 6. Develop renewable energy. Each of these steps means healing, and together they mean survival. Unfortunately, they may easily be rendered meaningless in a world where the value of immediate profit consistently overrides the value of long range stability. In other words, the six steps lead nowhere in the scenario of the tragedy of the commons. (See Attitudes and Responses.) Therefore, we need to make another step by which we efficiently neutralize the mentality of the tragedy of the commons.

Let us consider the various options. For the sake of success, it is essential that we study the problem in terms of concrete realities. The scenario of the tragedy of the commons appears in our time in the form of a mentality, which desires the greatest possible and immediate profit, makes this the ultimate aim in life, and calls the resulting momentary, personal gain success. This is a mentality of greed, a short sighted and unfortunately a fairly universal human trait. In earlier times, such mentality may have been the cause of social injustice and much unhappiness, but today, as we approach the limits of the earth, this shortsighted greed has become a suicidal. It is not difficult to see that the behavior of a few may have no major ecological consequences, but the greed of six billion can destroy the earth. An economy motivated by greed and totally dedicated to unlimited growth in a limited world is surely destructive, especially if it is coupled with a political system that identifies the national interest with a race to take as much out of the earth as possible and to do it as fast as possible against all other nations who attempt to do the same.

In view of the magnitude and the importance of the problem, we should find allies in our effort to neutralize the mentality of the tragedy of the commons. We cannot expect much help in this regard from the representatives of industry and business. In so many ways, they are the sources of the problem. We cannot expect much help from the political structure either as long as our politicians remain subservient and dedicated to unlimited economic growth and national instead of global interests. It follows, therefore, that any solution we may hope for must come from the “grass roots” of society, that is from the general public. Some may feel that all major economic decisions are made by the large corporations because, after all, they have the power of money. Others may feel that the general public is without power to do anything about policy making because again it is money that ensures political clout. There may be a great deal of truth in that. We must, however, remember that in our democratic society, people have at least some limited power to elect their representatives, and as to the even more important economic power, the ultimate say is that of the consumer. What we really want depends on our values. If consumers do not buy gasoline guzzling cars, the manufacturers will produce more energy efficient ones. The consumers, however, must know the values implied in their choices. That is where education has an important role to play. Only through education can we make the six steps to a sustainable society come to life and become a reality through general knowledge, personal involvement, and personal moral concern. I suspect that the persistent choices of a consumer majority provide us with a powerful selective force to establish new, environmentally sound trends in our economy and industry. Promoting ecological values through education is step number seven to a sustainable society.

But that is only the beginning. The next step is to apply pressure on those who make public policy. It is necessary to make everyone realize that environmentally destructive acts are crimes against the earth and humanity. We should be especially sensitive to the preservation of our commons the land, the water, and the air. These commons are there to be used and enjoyed by everyone and not to be abused by a few for personal gain. Public policies and consistently enforced environmental laws may render such criminal acts as air and water pollution, destruction of forests, dumping of toxic or non degradable wastes, and careless use of nonrenewable resources sufficiently unprofitable to turn the balance of cost and profit in favor of long range goals. The experiences of a better way of life and the knowledge that we are saving the earth and ourselves are powerful positive reinforcers. Of course, sound public policies are not just the concern of isolated nations but must have an international, global dimension. After all, acid rain destroys life far from the origin of pollution, the fate of the ozone and the effects of global warming are felt by all, and the burning of tropical rain forests means a substantial loss of the earth’s genetic endowment impoverishing everyone on earth. Environmental laws, therefore, must be international leaving no sheltered areas anywhere in the world where abuses may still remain profitable for the criminally inclined. I believe, these are some of the principles all educated people should expect and demand. Creating ecologically sound public policies is step number eight to a sustainable society.
Of course, being sustainable is not necessarily the same as being pleasant. It is well known that In a natural system the balance between the population’s capacity to increase and the ability of the environment to accommodate the increase is usually established at the carrying capacity of the environment. It is, however, more correct to say that the carrying capacity is a term of interactions and as such it does not depend only on population size and resource availability, but also on the way of life of individuals in any given population. In other words, the standard of living is not just an isolated experience, but it is also an economic, social factor. It would be foolish to believe that permanent balance is possible in a world that is deficient in social and economic justice. A society that is plagued by discrimination and by extremes of living standards, such as enormous riches tied together with desperate poverty, is not sustainable because it is subjected to internal stresses, which are powerful enough to destroy it. That is why we must make one final step to a sustainable society by establishing social and economic justice, which means an equitable distribution of resource benefits within the limits of our earth. With this last step, we have completed the planning of a healing agenda by recognizing in the mentality of the tragedy of the commons the source of our ailments, and finding means to defeat this mentality. Now it is possible for us to walk the six steps to an ecological recovery.

The three more steps described in this short essay should logically precede and then accompany the ecological agenda proposed by Brown and Shaw. This is the road then that leads to a truly sustainable society:

1. Promoting Ecological Values through Education.
2. Creating Ecologically Sound Public Policies.
3. Establishing Social and Economic Justice.
4. Stabilizing World Population.
5. Protecting Cropland.
6. Reforesting the Earth.
7. Moving beyond the Throwaway Society.
8. Conserving Energy.
9. Developing Renewable Energy.

These are not easy issues. Try to write a plan for yourself that answers the question: What can I do? The title of the plan should be: The power of the consumer: a personal agenda.

In the next section I shall consider one of the most central issues of the outlined agenda. This is the proposition to stabilize world population. It is important to see the dilemma this proposition creates for so many people, and to see how much the success of this proposition depends on our understanding of the attitudes of mind, which are deeply rooted in the divers cultures of our world. (See section on Stabilize World Population.)

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