We face a wicked predicament. Global climate disruption threatens the existence of civilization as we’ve known it. Global population is ballooning. Ecosystems and biological diversity are collapsing. And meanwhile we are running out of key resources on a finite planet.
Each of these problems alone would be difficult to solve, but combined they seem overwhelming. What should we do?
Most people in the world could agree that ideally we all want security, jobs, health, and happiness for all, ongoing. This is true prosperity. How do we get there? Countless ideas have been suggested – recommendations that range from changing policy to changing a light bulb.
Since my background is in psychology and organization development, I frame my analysis in behavioral terms: What are the key behaviors that, if enacted broadly enough, would get us to where we need to be?
I think the list can be boiled down to three. They can be stated as decision rules. When facing any decision, we should choose:
1. The low footprint / high equity option
2. Prosperity rather than growth
3. That which restores and maintains ecosystems
What do these mean and why are they important?
“Low footprint” means selecting the option that uses the fewest non-renewable resources and puts the smallest burden for waste absorption back on the planet.
Low footprint choices are in all our best interests. The Global Footprint Network reports that we currently use the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide our resources and absorb our waste. Clearly the only way forward is low footprint.
“High equity” is a principle enshrined in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It means taking the option that improves social justice. The benefits of equality don’t just accrue to the less fortunate members of society. Inequality has damaging impacts across a nation as a whole. The research evidence supports Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank and author of The Price of Inequality who says, “Widely unequal societies do not function efficiently and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable.”
“Prosperity rather than growth” means recognizing that growth is killing us. Population growth clearly increases pressure on Earth’s finite resources. Economic growth, for its part, drives consumption of materials and energy, which stresses the plant’s finite resources. Furthermore, in many cases we have reached the point where economic growth actually makes us worse off rather than better. This is uneconomic growth.
To begin to appreciate this, consider the growth question the next time you are stuck in a traffic jam or when you learn that drilling for natural gas is being conducted next to your local elementary school.
Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner for the UK Sustainable Development Commission concludes in Prosperity Without Growth: “The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of 9 billion people. In this context, simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilize the climate or protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional.”
Why have we chosen growth up until now? It is because we believed it was the route to prosperity and happiness. But when growth is uneconomic, it leads to the opposite of happiness. Why not aim directly for the real end-goal?
“Maintain and restore ecosystems” means making sure our collective lifeboat doesn’t spring a fatal leak. If the ecosystem collapses, everything else collapses. As economist Herman Daly points out, "What good is a sawmill without a forest, a fishing boat without populations of fish, a refinery without petroleum deposits, an irrigated farm without an aquifer or river?”
Jared Diamond in Collapse recounts the history of several civilizations that brought about their own destruction by neglecting the health of their ecosystem. We can’t let this happen globally.
One of the beauties of these three behaviors is that they are scalable: They can be enacted at the structural, social, and at the personal levels.
Another beauty is clarity: If a choice doesn’t shrink our footprint, if it doesn’t support equity, if it fosters growth rather than true prosperity, if it doesn’t maintain or restore ecosystems, it’s simply not helping.
For those of a religious orientation a further beauty is that these three behaviors align with the world’s great spiritual traditions. All spiritual traditions teach a version of the Golden Rule and teach that there are consequences for making bad choices.
These three behaviors constitute the core ethics for making wise choices and maintaining a livable planet.
Originally published, slightly abridged, in the Boulder Daily Camera, 27 October 2012, (www.dailycamera.com/guest-opinions/ci_21864167)
This article is based on a longer paper that is available, with full citations, at www.hoopandtree.org/3%20Behaviors.pdf
About the author: Chris Hoffman, M.Ed., M.B.A., L.P.C., is a counselor and organization development consultant specializing in organizations committed to sustainability. He is the author of several books, including The Hoop and the Tree: A Compass for Finding a Deeper Relationship with All Life and a number of professional articles in the areas of team development and organizational change. He is also the creator of www.earth-dashboard.org. (More information at www.hoopandtree.org)