Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sustainable Interdependence

I am an avowed environmentalist. I work towards decreasing my carbon footprint: I eat organic and recycle; I reuse and reduce; travel by bus and have lowered my water consumption. However, in a recent article by George Monbiot, I discovered that I am also lost.

Monbiot is a fervent sustainability activist. He wrote the highly acclaimed, Heat: How to stop the planet from burning (2006) and is a regular contributor to the Guardian Weekly. He is, in short, highly credible; highly respected. Monbiot writes: “The battle among environmentalists over how or whether our future energy is supplied is a cipher for something much bigger: who we are, who we want to be, how we want society to evolve. … We choose our technology — or absence of technology —according to a set of deep beliefs: beliefs that in some cases remain unexamined.” (Guardian Weekly,13.05.11).

He goes on to say that whatever future energy source we choose there will still be “greenhouse gases, other forms of destruction and human deaths and injuries.” For example, in abolishing nuclear energy, one then has to choose between fossil fuels or renewable resources. Neither is problem free. Seemingly earth friendly renewables still need infrastructure: hydro-electric dams are built of massive amounts of concrete and destroy natural habitat; windmills are made of steel and fiberglass; and solar panel manufacturing requires the use of toxic chemicals including arsenic, cadmium telluride, hexafluoroethane, lead, and polyvinyl fluoride. It aint easy being green.

And what if we become modern day luddites, return to the land and say no to cars, tractors, cell phones, computers, and electricity? Will we renege on steel shovels? Wood houses? Polyester clothes? All pose problems. Cob houses are an excellent housing alternative but then you still need to decide on light and cooking sources. Everything manufactured (or taken from the earth) has a by-product resulting in varying degrees of environmental damage. Organic cotton fields are thirsty crops in a world where water supply is limited; bio-fuels reduce land needed for food crops and recycling options are not always environmentally sound. And, finally, it is not just one person who must lower their carbon footprint… it is everybody. How do we work with exponential population growth?

Monbiot writes: “All of us in the environmental movement, in other words, are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognize the contradictions we confront.”

Okay, I admit it, I am lost. While on the one hand I am cleaning up my own back yard I don’t always look at the big picture. What I like about Monbiot’s view is that he is asking us to take an interdependent perspective on sustainability and, by extension, human rights, health care; life in general. I have to examine my own interdependent philosophy as closely as Monbiot does his.

Mahatma Ghandi said: "Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being. Without interrelation with society he cannot realize his oneness with the universe or suppress his egotism."

My needs (and desires) do not always reflect the global community’s and, indeed, the needs of the vast majority: clean water, adequate food and health are, for the most part, taken for granted by me. How can I respect myself, my community, and the environment plus strive for mutuality when I also want a car and an Apple ipad? (Read more on abusive working conditions at Apple’s Chinese manufacturing partners).

As with George Monbiot I hope we can open discussion in this blog on how to “abandon magical thinking and to recognize the contradictions” while living interdependently.

Meanwhile, I am off to bake bread … my own bit of magic making that belies the contradiction that two vastly different substances, flour and water, can work together towards excellent results.

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