Today's date:
Winter 2008

The Future Is Upon Us

Spring 2005

The race is on between environmental destruction on a global scale and sustainable solutions. The finish line, in Jared Diamond's alarmed estimation, is only 50 years away. For Bruce Mau, sustainable solutions, already at hand, will win out. Diamond, too, hopes our civilization will learn from those in history who rose to their challenges and prospered, not suffer the fate of others who dithered and collapsed.

The decisive factor in our time is whether the consumer democracies that drive globalization are capable of the massive change that both Diamond and Mau agree is necessary over the next five decades.

In consumer democracies, the unsustainable logic of the system is built into the very personal habits and aspirations of the majority—a lifestyle of consumption. The more democracy spreads globally, including to China, the more the retail sanity of freely consuming individuals will add up to wholesale madness.

From a political perspective, the ecological imperative is thus distinctly impractical: The consumer classes will have to downsize their appetites while the aspiring must de-industrialize their desires. The globalized middle class will have to reduce their footprint while the advancing steps of the localized poor will have to become greener.

As one alternative, the German ecological thinker Wolfgang Sachs has argued for a new paradigm of development that secures "livelihood rights" rather than promotes an export-led industrialization strategy to reduce poverty. For Sachs, poverty derives from a deficit of power rather than a lack of money. Far from being needy persons awaiting provisions, the poor must be seen as citizens who are constrained by lack of social and political leverage. Any attempt to mitigate poverty will thus have to be centered on a reinforcement of rights and opportunities. This is particularly true of women who are often legally marginalized.

For Sachs, a livelihood-centered perspective must not only supplement but ultimately supplant the export-led approach that, while lifting hundreds of millions from misery in Asia, has left even more behind. Under the condition of a borderless economy in which export industries must be competitive on the world market, such a strategy is likely to run out of breath. Sachs is surely right to worry that under a free trade regime agriculture and industry in most countries of the South cannot be simultaneously competitive and job intensive. This effect can already be seen as low-wage jobs have been drained away to China from Mexico and Central America with the end this year of global textile quotas.

Rather than narrowly defining development as per capita GDP growth, the livelihood alternative would seek to ensure the requisite rights and resources for sustaining communities and their environment.

Perhaps all this is just pie in the ozone layer? Didn't China just join the World Trade Organization, thus mobilizing its billion people to gloriously pursue a refrigerator for every kitchen by making trinkets for Toys "R" Us and shoes for Sports Chalet? Didn't the small-is-beautiful backyard furnaces of Mao's Great Leap Forward end in disaster—a policy China has spent the past three decades reversing?

Conversely, can the rich West succeed in portion control any more than the perpetually backsliding dieter? Outside the monastery, is there any case in history in which "homo economicus" has voluntarily sacrificed expectations of more?

Conceivably, underdevelopment might prove to be an asset that enables "leapfrogging" over capital-intensive infrastructure, toxic dumps, clogged roads and oil refineries to catch up with the post-industrial retreat from overdevelopment. By linking up people with information technology in a post-fossil fuel age—among the sustainable solutions Bruce Mau lauds—the quality of life can be enhanced without passing through the destructive stages of industrial development. Think of the "cell phone" ladies in Bangladesh who have become their own "utility" by purchasing a cell phone with microcredit, then selling calls in their villages which have no land lines.

Among the global consumer class, new technologies also promise to radically reduce wasteful inputs. For example, in the rich West, where petroleum is mainly a transportation fuel, hybrid cars are becoming as popular as not smoking. Car manufacturers are already projecting sales of 1 million hydrogen fuel cell cars in urban China in the near future.

This technological promise may well substitute for self-limitation up to a certain threshold. But technology is also the first line of defense against altering lifestyles through the responsible, though discomfitting, choice of self-limitation. In consumer societies that sanctify the present, there is precious little political will to make changes for the future. And where political will lacks, technology substitutes. Indeed, technological optimism is too often the opiate of the consuming masses; it can sustain the addiction while worsening the underlying affliction.

While technology can assist responsible choices, it cannot substitute for them. Whether technology extends and reinforces humankind's recklessness or responsibility depends on the ethos behind its use.

In the end, the expectation that some kind of planetary liposuction will save us from ourselves can be no substitute for a lean ethos that emphasizes the art of living over the ideology of consumerism.

Clearly, the answer is a cultural transformation that redefines wealth as well-being instead of well-having. This alternative of greater frugality does not mean deprivation or denial. It only means living intelligently instead of wastefully.

Mikhail Gorbachev once famously remarked that the best way to remember the future is to live virtuously in the present. As Diamond now urgently argues by raising the specter of collapse, the future is upon us.

This reflection weaves together parts of the introductory comments from "The Shadow Our Future Throws" (Spring 1989), "From Well-Having to Well-Being" (Fall 2000) and "Fairness in a Fragile World" (Summer 2002)—a sign of NPQ's constancy of purpose over the years.