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Dance, Don’t Drive: How to Live In Tune With the Planet

On the road ahead, comfort, security and meaning will no longer be determined by ownership, but by membership in a robust community that can provide mutual aid in tough times.

The fundamental contradiction of our time is this: we have built an all-encompassing economic engine that requires constant unending growth -- a contraction of even a percent or two is a crisis. But we are embedded in ecosystems that are indeed limited. There is only so much fertile soil, so much fresh water, so many fish in the ocean, the atmosphere can only absorb so much CO2 and stay benign. As Kenneth Boulding memorably remarked, “Anyone who thinks exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Shedding a way of life based on limitless growth, the celebration and reward of excess, and deeply ingrained habits of acquisition, consumption and waste is going to be an overwhelming challenge. The culture of "faster-bigger-more" will not yield easily to a new orientation where sustainability is the rule. We are going to need all the expertise we can muster to understand how we have overloaded the carrying capacity of our planet and its ecosystems -- and how we can tread from here on with a lighter footprint. Innovations in technology, law, policy and practices are absolutely essential. We must change the goals and rules we live by and create incentives and constraints to shape sustainable behaviors. We need new models.

At a deeper level, I believe that living within the boundaries of nature requires a profound shift in perspective: we stop seeing nature merely as a limitless source of lifeless commodities to be used and traded and start seeing the natural realm as an astounding web of living communities that includes us. And we see that we do not live above and beyond the dynamic of the earth’s operating systems that sustain life itself. After centuries of driving economies, we must learn to dance with ecosystems.

When you see your habitat as a collection of dead, disconnected commodities to be manipulated for power and profit, you try to steer and control nature. If you see yourself embedded in an ecosystem that is fluid, that has thresholds, that is so thoroughly interconnected, self-organizing and emergent that is not only more complex than we thought, but more complex than we can think, then you don’t drive nature, you dance.

Let me offer some dancing lessons. Our understanding of ecosystems tells us that biological diversity is key and can be translated into resilience when an ecosystem is disrupted or stressed. We would be wise to heed that in the cultural realm as well, where intellectual diversity and lots of open and inclusive feedback are also key. As someone who has organized campaigns to hold polluters accountable, I can attest that the health of one’s physical/natural environment is a direct expression of the health and vitality of one’s civic environment. Decisions about how to protect human health and how to conserve ecosystem vitality are more likely to be wise and precautionary when they are made openly, when they are inclusive, informed, and accountable. Creating an active democratic culture, then, is key.

If you look to where sustainability -- or at least a hopeful transition to sustainability -- is actually being attempted, you find citizens acting at the grassroots, neighbor to neighbor, rebuilding their communities’ civic environments while aiming to be sustainable. This is often happening under a different banner than sustainability, per se. People talk about peak oil, for example, and the potential for crippling shortages and price hikes. They understand that nature is loaded with disturbances -- earthquakes, hurricanes, firestorms, floods, droughts, and pandemics that could interrupt our far-flung food and energy supply lines.