What It Will Take to Build a Sustainable U.S.


The nature of nature is change. Sometimes it hurtles into fast forward, tripping radical shifts. Think of it as nature's regime change. For the first time, people are causing it on a planetary scale.

Andrew Revkin reported in the New York Times that "The physical Earth is increasingly becoming what the human species makes of it. The accelerating and intensifying impact of human activities is visibly altering the planet, requiring ever more frequent redrawing not only of political boundaries, but of the shape of Earth's features themselves."

Mick Ashworth, editor-in-chief of the annual Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, said his staff of 50 cartographers now updates their databases every three and a half minutes. Commented the editor, "We can literally see environmental disasters unfolding before our eyes."

Environmental disasters are always human disasters. Satellite pictures of Burma over the past three years have recorded the extermination of over 3,000 villages of the indigenous Karen people and nearby tribes, displacing half a million people. The main culprit is the corporate hunger for oil and gas, backed by the murderous local military junta.

Google Earth will leave you google-eyed. An overrun resource base is visibly shrinking at the same time our population keeps growing. Honey, we shrunk the planet.

The bottom line, of course, is we're living beyond our means. Nearly two thirds of the life-support services provided to us by nature are in decline worldwide and the pace is quickening. We can't count on the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations. This is new territory.

The big wheels of ecological governance are turning. Regime change is the actual technical term some ecologists use -- for instance, when the climate flips from one state to another. It can be irreversible, at least on a human time frame. These evolutionary exclamation points unleash powerful forces of destruction and creation, collapse and renewal.

We do have a compass of sorts during these cycles of creative destruction. As Charles Darwin observed, "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."

Change is not linear, and sudden shifts sometimes remake the world in the blink of an eye. We know we're approaching mysterious thresholds that mark the tipping points of ecological regime change, and we may have already crossed some. The closer we get to each threshold, the less it takes to push the system over the edge, where the degree of damage will be exponentially greater. Societies slide into crisis when slammed by multiple shocks or stressors at the same time. Climate change is propelling both natural and human systems everywhere toward their tipping points.

When huge shocks transform the landscape, structures and institutions crumble, releasing tremendous amounts of bound-up energy and resources for renewal and reorganization. Novelty emerges. These times belong to those who learn, innovate and adapt. Small changes can have big influences. It's a period of creative ferment, freedom and transformation.

Ecological regime change means a radical realignment of the human enterprise with nature's governance. We stand at the threshold of a singular opportunity in the human experiment: to re-imagine how to live on Earth in a good way that lasts.

The name of the game is resilience. It means the capacity of both human and ecological systems to absorb disturbance and still retain their basic function and structure. Resilience does not mean just bouncing back to business-as-usual. It means assuring the very ability to get back. But if regime change happens, resilience means having sufficient capacity to transform to meet the new management.

A network of ecologists and social scientists called the Resilience Alliance outlined some of the rules of the road in their book "Resilience Thinking." The first principle of resilience thinking is systems thinking: It's all connected, from the web of life to human systems. "You can only solve the whole problem," says Huey Johnson of the Resource Renewal Institute. Manage environmental and human systems as one system. Taking care of nature means taking care of people, and taking care of people means taking care of nature. Look for systemic solutions that address multiple problems at once. Watch for seeds of new solutions that emerge with changing conditions.

Resilience thinking means abandoning command-and-control approaches. We're not remotely in control of the big wheels of ecological governance or complex human systems. Greater decentralization can provide backup against the inevitable failure of centralized command-and-control structures. Think decentralized power grids, more localized food systems, and the Internet. Always have a backup. Redundancies are good failsafe mechanisms, not the waste portrayed by industrial efficiency-think.

The heart of resilience is diversity. Damaged ecosystems rebound to health when they have sufficient diversity. So do societies. It's not just a diversity of players; it's the diversity of how they respond to myriad challenges. Each one does it slightly differently with specialized traits that can win the day, depending which curve ball comes at you. Diverse approaches improve the odds. Diverse cultures and ideas enrich society's capacity to survive and thrive.

Ecological governance is also operating on much grander time frames than quarterly reports and mid-term elections. Think dozens, hundreds, even thousands of years. Sustainability means staying in the game for the long haul.

We know some other keys to resilience.

  • Build community and social capital. Resilience resides in enduring relationships and networks that hold cultural memory the same way seeds regenerate a forest after a fire.
  • Empower local communities to solve their own problems. Governance usually works best when it's closest to the ground and includes all stakeholders across all levels.
  • Beware of systems being too tightly connected, because one shock to the system can cause them all to crash at the same time.
  • And above all -- learn, experiment and innovate.

The one non-negotiable is to face our vulnerabilities clearly and collaboratively. Windows of opportunity are finite and fleeting. As Yogi Berra said, "I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early."

Fortunately the climate is changing in more ways than one. A starburst of creativity is also warming the globe with what ecological designer John Todd calls "human ingenuity wedded to the wisdom of the wild." With any luck, we may be able to avoid catastrophic ecological regime change by embracing societal regime change.

Some of the most inspiring models are the National Green Plans well underway in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and Singapore, as well as in the European Union. In the UK, the movement to Transition Towns is weaning whole populations off imported energy, food, and material goods.

The Dutch National Environmental Policy Plan made sustainability and environmental recovery a national goal. Since its inception in 1989, it has achieved a formidable 70 percent of its mission. This new societal regime aligns business with biology and the state with the public good.

The Dutch took the solve-the-whole-problem approach and had strong political leadership. In 1989 Queen Beatrix used her traditional Christmas Eve speech to appeal to the nation. She reported that although the Netherlands had some of the best environmental regulations in the world, scientists were warning her of the real possibility there would be no Dutch great-grandchildren. In a country where a third of the country lies below sea level and holds two thirds of the population, the threat of rising seas from global warming is up close and personal. The Green Queen's speech precipitated a political sea change.

The Dutch mobilized around a bold goal: total environmental quality recovery in 25 years. They welcomed new ideas. They built on the successes of others, saving loads of time and money. They generated rigorous and transparent data unpolluted by special interests. They've made it freely available to the world because no country can do it alone.

But the process really kicked in only after business got on board and took the lead. Fate lent a hand. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Eastern European nations were eager to establish a market economy. They asked a few key Dutch business leaders to advise them on how they achieved the excellence of Dutch public education, health, and housing, all within a robust business climate.

Upon arrival, the Dutch business leaders literally could not breathe from the out-of-control pollution left by an unaccountable one-party state. Seeing children condemned to grow up in these bereft conditions vaporized their opposition to independent government regulation.

They returned to Holland with a surprising proposal: Have government set the standards, and let business figure out how to achieve them. While business proved pivotal for the first step in the National Plan, government became the key player. Together they developed a twenty-five-year plan, as well as annual plans that report on progress and challenges. If business fails to meet the specific voluntary goals, government will intervene with mandatory controls. To guarantee transparency and accountability, the government funded environmental NGOs as watchdogs to transmit their findings to the media and the public.

The European Union, representing 490 million citizens in 27 nations, has begun to adopt many of the same approaches.

"What planet are we on?" you might wonder from here in the Wild West of Western civilization. Isn't it time for a U.S. Green Plan? We have a golden opportunity to regenerate our waning economy at the same time we seriously correct environmental degradation and rampant social injustices. We are a brittle superpower bedeviled by an aging infrastructure so decrepit the American Society of Civil Engineers gives it a pitiable grade of D. We're ill prepared to deal with disasters, especially the natural and industrial disasters that present far greater threats to the nation than terrorism. Our declining public health and educational systems rank among the lowest in developed countries. Real wages are at a 59-year low and corporate profits at an all-time high. Extremes of wealth and poverty rival the Gilded Age of the robber barons, while the military economy is fast bankrupting our future.

The reinvention of a green economy can begin to solve our bundle of economic and social ills simultaneously. We can create abundant jobs, prosperity, equity and hope. Our new declaration of independence is from fossil fuels and imperial entanglements. We can make the urgent transition to renewable energy at the same time we renew the higher angels of what it means to be an American.

In fact, the seeds are sprouting everywhere. In the absence of federal leadership, large numbers of cities and states are banding together to lead exactly these kinds of changes. It's a meta-trend called the "New Localism." Political power is decentralizing to effectively address bioregional realities of people and place.

Political boundaries are also morphing. A historic convergence of the environmental and social justice movements is crystallizing in the shared recognition that taking care of nature means taking care of people, and taking care of people means taking care of nature. The environmental community is increasingly embracing social justice as central to the mission. Indigenous communities, our old-growth cultures, are providing visionary leadership as guardians of the Original Instructions for how to live in peace with the land and each other. Leaders in the African-American community, including pathfinders such as Van Jones, Majora Carter and Omar Freilla, are organizing around a green economy founded in green-collar justice and the relief of poverty and racial inequality. In 2006, the Latino National Congress put environment at the top of its national political agenda.

Meanwhile, there are mounting numbers of green conservatives, a.k.a. "Crunchy Cons," stepping up under the banner of conserving the Earth for their grandchildren. Evangelical Christians are calling for Creation Care. Networks of networks are getting connected, collaborating and innovating across divides to solve the whole problem. This is resilience in action.

As David Orr puts it, "Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds."

The odds are especially tough here in the U.S. We need to reclaim our government from the corporate shadow government. It will keep trying to hijack systemic changes that threaten its short-term profits, vested interests and power. There'll be enough green corporate spin to knock the Earth off its axis. We need to reject the role of consumers in a "Democracy Theme Park," as Jane Anne Morris calls it, in favor of exercising our political muscle as active citizens. Simply put, we need the separation of corporations and the state.

We need to attend relentlessly to the deep wounds of racism that continue to poison our society and divide us. As John Mohawk wrote, the history of racism is inextricably tied to class war: the history of civilization as "organized violence in pursuit of plunder." The only Gulf War we need to wage is to end the gulf between rich and poor.

A successful U.S. Green Plan depends on our doing all this -- together, with respect, justice and dignity for all people and the circle of life.

The Mayan people call this epic threshold the "Time of No Time." Ohki Simine Forest, a Canadian wisdom keeper of Mohawk descent who lives and works with the Mayan people in Chiapas, describes the Mayan vision in this way. From here on, we're on Earth time. Mother Earth is shaking to her core. It's a time of madness, disconnection and hyper-individualism. It's also a time when new energies are coming into the world, when people are growing a new skin.

The Mayan vision says that we in the West will find safe harbor only if we can journey past a wall of mirrors. The mirrors will surely drive us mad -- unless we have a strong heart. Some mirrors delude us with an infinity of reflections of our vanity and shadows. Others paralyze us with our terror and rage, feeding an empire that manufactures our fear into resignation.

But the empire has no roots and it's toppling all around us. In this time everyone is called to take a stand. Everyone is called to be a leader.

To get beyond the wall of mirrors, the final challenge is to pass through a tiny door. To do this, we must make ourselves very, very small. To be humble. Then we must burrow down into the Earth, where indigeneity lives. On the other side is a clear pond. There, for the first time, we'll be able to see our true reflection.

In this Time of No Time, we can go in any direction we want -- by dreaming it. Our dreaming can shift the course of the world.

That's our deepest well of resilience.

That's what we're here to do together as bioneers: re-imagine the world. It's going to be a long and winding trek across generations. We're already making some of the paths others can walk toward the dream, toward our many dreams. Countless more dreamers will blaze luminous new trails. The dreams are already within us. One day we may awaken to find ourselves living in our wildest dreams.

May it be so.

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