Sign up to receive our story of the month, free lesson plans, films and more.
To support outer efforts towards sustainability we need to radically adjust our inner attitudes toward the material world. Relationships based on greed, over-identification with ownership, and the use of material goods to establish status and power over others, can be traded for new values and ways of living that empower a healthy and dignified relationship to all the earth's resources.
This shift in how we think about and relate to our planet's resources is a requirement for sustainability. And more so, it's an opportunity for humanity to discover our responsibilities within a fundamentally nourishing and sustaining life system. The infinite nature of all the earth's resources can only be discovered when we accept limitations in our lives and work creatively with what's in front of us.
To realize the potentials of sustainability, we can look for guidance from those who have already learned to do more with less.
We are using resources faster than they replenish -- from fossil fuel reserves and groundwater to the thousands of plant and animal species now permanently lost from our planet.
While developing nations are struggling to survive with less -- less water and food in drought-stricken countries; less farmable land in areas depleted by the use of chemical fertilizers; less food, clothing and shelter in impoverished and over-populated countries -- the developed world still holds fast to habitual consumerism that fails to take into account the reality of finite resources or the consequences of our actions on others.
We buy $3 dollar umbrellas on the streets of Manhattan and throw them away after a single rainstorm. We refuse to carpool because we don't want to restrict our individual freedom. And our city planners won't develop alternative energy systems because immediate costs are too high or NIMBY concerns too strong.
The wastefulness of the West is only now being felt collectively through our recent economic crisis -- the near-collapse of a house of cards built on exploitation and the diversion of human creativity toward the satisfaction of greed.
"Our current world population is approximately 6.5 billion and the average person consumes about 25% more than what nature can regenerate."
But it's just the beginning. Our current world population is approximately 6.5 billion and the average person consumes about 25% more than what nature can regenerate. The US alone comprises just 4% of the world's population, but uses over 25% of its resources. It would take three planets to sustain current human consumption rates. And our population is expected to increase to 9 billion people by 2050, further stressing our earth's resources.
If current trends in climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species continue, one half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in less than 100 years.
Cuba offers an inspiring model of how people faced with severe resource limitations can create a sustainable and flourishing, if simple, national community.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cuba was forced to become a self-sustaining country. It lost half of its petroleum imports and nearly all of its imported fertilizers, pesticides, and medical supplies. In the "special period" of four or five years after the collapse, Cuba had to restructure its entire food, transportation, and medical systems. And while the average Cuban lost 20-30 pounds during this time, as a whole the country began to thrive.
Communities worked together to create urban and rooftop gardens. Due to lack of fertilizer and pesticides, gardens and farm cooperatives implemented organic and permaculture methods that helped re-build depleted soil and kept healthy soil healthy. The traditional use of oxen to plow fields was revived, as tractors and other farm equipment that relied on diesel fuel were useless.
Since fuel was scarce to non-existent, bicycles were both imported and built locally. Huge buses were built that could carry 300-400 passengers. The government developed small-scale renewable energy projects, like solar power stations, and set up free medical care with health workers part of every community. Community itself became the new foundation of society -- with local gardeners giving food to those in need, sharing and cooperation became part of the social fabric in new and innovative ways.
Today, Cuba uses 21 times less pesticide than before their special period, instead developing and using bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers that are now exported to other Latin American countries. The average Cuban consumes 1/8th of the energy consumed by the average American, but life expectancy in Cuba is slightly higher, while infant mortality rates are lower.
Given global resource consumption trends, it is quite reasonable to assume that in the years ahead all nations will be forced to restructure our social systems in a similar fashion as Cuba. But why wait to be motivated by necessity, when we can be inspired by the power and creativity of those who have already learned how to live sustainably?
When Cuba's imports and exports were cut so dramatically, the populace had to begin thinking holistically. Cubans had to work together, learn to trust each other, and act creatively with the lives they had -- not focus on the lives they might have wanted.
When we are not thinking holistically, we live with a mindset of dependence and waste. We assume there are things we need that we cannot find locally, and we assume we can get rid of what we no longer want. But the world is becoming smaller and smaller, and that "far-away-place" with all our "throw-away" things is now in our back yard. Everything from spent nuclear fuel and toxic waste to pollution and household garbage has nowhere to go but right here in front of us, or our neighbor. The world is revealing its holistic nature, and we are being forced to face the responsibilities -- and opportunities -- that come with it.
The GreenHouse Project in Johannesburg does just this. A model for sustainable living in the center of a busy city, the project uses and teaches green building and design, efficient and renewable energy systems, recycling, and organic farming. But as director Dorah Labelo explains, the project is also about uncovering people's innate power to live sustainably. "It's about empowering the people so they can realize that they've got all of the knowledge," she says. "They have once lived like this -- they have once produced their own food, they have once built their own houses, they have once fetched their own water, they have once dealt with their own waste.
Anshu Gupta, the director of Goonj, an NGO based in Delhi that serves the clothing needs of India's poor, knows just how far less can go. Goonj collects clothing from urban centers and puts every piece of cloth to good use -- either through recycling the clothes themselves or turning torn or un-wearable clothing into schoolbags or sanitary napkins. For providing sanitary napkin cloth to poor women in rural India who otherwise would share or not use any protection during their menses, Goonj won the World Bank's Development Marketplace award in 2007. A simple piece of cloth is an inexpensive and effective way to reduce disease and illness in marginalized women.
More and more people are realizing that the challenges facing our global community can be opportunities for collaboration and creativity. The project and art exhibit "Design for the Other 90 Percent" showcases design innovations that address problems of the poor. Noting that 2.7 billion people live on less than two dollars a day, Dr. Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, the non-profit behind the project, began developing affordable, effective solutions for those in need, and encouraged other engineers and designers to do the same. Some designers collaborate with local people, learning what can really work on the ground -- like a straw that filters water from un-potable sources, a giant rolling barrel pulled by a rope so water can be carried across vast areas of land with ease, or treated mosquito nets that keep malaria-carrying mosquitoes away up to five years longer than other nets.
Seeing the creative possibilities in our current circumstances instead of always seeking a quick fix from beyond our means is not just a practical solution, it's a spiritual practice that can imbue the material world with our presence and attention. Our caring doesn't just affect the people and animals we love, it can actually transform everything around us. When we relate to material goods and resources with gratitude, treat the wealth of the planet with appreciation, and all life forms with respect, we reveal an abundance within ourselves and our environment, and we give back to life the sustenance that our greed tries so compulsively -- and unsuccessfully -- to gain from it.
"Reflect more on how to be happy with less, and how you really don't need that much to be happy. I think that that is a challenge, a world challenge." ~Rita Pereira
Thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root and grow. It would be hard to look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and complain, "How inefficient and wasteful!"
The tree makes copious blossoms and fruit without depleting its environment. Once they fall on the ground, their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals and soil. Although the tree actually makes more of its "product" than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem, this abundance has evolved (through millions of years of success and failure, or in business terms, R&D) to serve rich and varied purposes. In fact, the tree's fecundity nourishes just about everything around it.
SOURCE: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Bill McDonough & Michael Braungart, 2002, Northpoint Press, pp. 72-73
LifeStraw, a personal mobile water-purification tool, is designed to turn any surface water into drinking water. It has proven to be effective against waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and diarrhea, and removes particles as small as fifteen microns.
SOURCE: Design For The Other 90% : Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum
"You have to follow the natural cycles, so you hire nature to work for you, not work against nature. To work against nature, you have to waste huge amounts of energy." ~Roberto Perez, Cuban permaculture expert
Chris Jordan, Cell phones #2, Atlanta 2005
Cherry Tree - Creative Commons
Design For The Other 90%