Environmentalism and Sustainability

This is an edited transcript of the keynote speech given at the “Spirituality and Activism Conference,” St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Austin, TX, March 29, 2008.

Over the past few years I have come into contact with several different indigenous movements in different parts of the world, including where I live, in Canada. One of these indigenous peoples are the Nasayuwe of Cauca in southern Colombia, and they describe our economic system as a ‘proyecto de muerte’, a ‘death project.’ When they reclaim their ancestral territories or prevent paramilitaries from entering them, they say that they are defending life. What is rational from the perspective of defending life seems insane in our system, in our culture. Environmental problems are deadly serious, as serious as problems of war and peace, and to give ourselves a chance at survival we have to be willing to think in ways we might not be accustomed to and break taboos. I hope to break some taboos here, and I just wanted to warn you in case that happens.

Taboos and Irrationalities

An architect named William McDonough and a chemist named Michael Braungart have a book called “cradle to cradle.” It imagines an industrial system in which all of the things we use are reclaimed after we use them. You use a computer, say. But you don’t buy the computer. You just pay to use the computer for some amount of time, and when it’s done, you give it back to the manufacturer, who designed it so it can easily be disassembled and its parts used to make another computer, perhaps an upgraded one. We have ‘recycling’, but McDonough and Braungart don’t think what we have merits the term ‘recycling’. Instead, it’s ‘downcycling’. Cars are made of high-quality and low-quality steel, for example. But when they are ‘recycled’, these are all blended together. The resulting alloy can’t be used to make another car. High-quality paper is recycled into lower-quality paper. The way we ‘downcycle’, we are just creating a brief stop on the way to the landfill. And in any case, if you’ve seen The Story of Stuff, an amazing 20-minute movie you can watch online, you know that industry produces 70 tons of garbage for every ton produced by consumers. If we accept the “cradle to cradle” philosophy, there’s no reason there should be any garbage at all. No waste. Living systems, ecosystems, don’t waste. The results of natural processes are always food for other natural processes, whether it’s a carcass left behind after predation ultimately enriching the soil or a standing dead tree left behind after fire providing habitat for birds. But our economic system does waste, an awful lot. For that to be different, everything would have to be designed with its ultimate fate in mind.

We are very far from that, today. We have global industries producing massive amounts of stuff, planned for obsolescence, made of toxic petrochemicals that are mined, hazardous to workers and users, shipped across the world in tankers and trucks (using more petroleum), used very briefly before being dumped in a site where they will remain, leaking toxics into air and water and soil, for thousands of years.

We come now to our first taboo, something not normally talked about in polite company: human waste. I recently read a book called The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins. He starts out by saying, there are two kinds of people in the world. People who defecate into bowls of drinking water and people who do not. In North America we have evolved very sophisticated technology for cleaning water that has been fouled by humanure (I am deliberately avoiding the word ‘waste’, following Jenkins). What we have not tried is not putting it in the water in the first place. Jenkins describes a very simple composting system that he says doesn’t smell (and he uses it), isn’t dangerous or toxic, and results in reclaiming the humanure for the valuable fertilizer that it is. He lives in the country and uses it in his own garden, but he describes, plausibly I think, a system that could work in an urban setting as well. Humanure creates very serious public health problems when it gets into water. But properly composted it is a resource for agriculture. This waste, and now we can call it waste, is a window into our agricultural system. I could imagine a system where food was organic, local, used these kinds of closed loops, in which people’s ability to think and design worked in concert with the self-design of ecosystems so that people could eat and drink very well, and even in cities take part in gardening and cooking, and without having to worry about toxins or genetic modifications in the food. There are such systems that exist, in Cuba, for example, where people in the city grow an impressive proportion of their own food using organic methods.

How does our food system work, instead? It is not based on farming so much as mining soil, pouring petrochemical fertilizer and mined nitrates into the ground and using pesticides to ensure that only one type of plant can grow — increasingly a type of plant that is genetically modified to better handle the pesticide. All this produces a massive amount of a single crop, harvested by machine and processed by people who we pretend don’t exist most of the time, people who work for less than minimum wage, have no protections or benefits, and are expected to do the work and disappear again. The crop is then sent off to manufacturers (on trucks, using petroleum) to process even more, with more petrochemicals, into syrups and starches and food that comes in plastic-wrapped packages and metal cans. And these workers are also insecure, poorly-paid, vulnerable to workplace accidents and unemployment. Then trucked off (petrol again) to stores or fast-food restaurants to be sold for very cheap — more processed food is cheaper than fresh food, and in many neighbourhoods fresh food just can’t be had at all. And people need to eat this stuff because they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet and don’t have time to cook, or money to afford fresh food, or time to seek it out.

Possibly, our second taboo, which is to say something negative about one of North America ’s most sacred institutions: the automobile. I live in a city, Toronto, but I grew up in a suburb, called Mississauga. The suburb I grew up in looks like every suburb in North America. Subdivisions of homogeneous detached houses with lawns and driveways and cars, malls and plazas with parking lots around them, big, wide roads and lots of highways, and now plenty of big-box stores. These places were designed not for people, but for cars. The simplest way to tell is to try to meet someone else in the same suburb. How will you get there? You can ride your bike in the city, it’s not too far. Or take transit, it won’t take two hours waiting for the bus to go along a convoluted route that will get you there by the end of the day. It’s not different people who live in the suburbs, it’s just structurally impossible to get around without a car.

The problem isn’t just that every place starts to look the same, or that you have to drive everywhere, or that not everyone can afford a car and people who can’t are basically excluded from civic life. The transportation system is responsible for a huge part of CO2 emissions that are changing the climate.

But we want our stuff, right? We want our plasma TVs and our fast foods and our fast cars and SUVs and gasoline, right? We want to flush toilets and run faucets and not worry about where the water comes from or goes, right? Until we stop wanting these things, aren’t we hypocritical to say they are absurd?

Well, do we really want these things? How could we know? People are adaptable to all kinds of situations. We have certainly learned not to miss things that we are missing — like time to spend with our loved ones, or work that is fulfilling, or being able to feel safe among people at night. We could probably adapt pretty quickly to life without plasma TVs and SUVs too. But I would go even further. One clue about what we really want comes from the advertisers. They sell fast food with images of families or friends eating together: community, human connection. They sell cars with images of mountainous, forested, and coastal landscapes: a connection to nature. They sell stuff by implying that it will increase your status, make you more sexually attractive, healthy, smart, comfortable. The stuff is a means to some end. They know this. But when someone points out the consequences of the way we get all our stuff, they are ready to point the finger at consumers and say — it’s your fault, you want the stuff. Our society is set up so you can’t do without it, and if you could, the systems would continue, unless they are consciously changed. More on that in a minute.

Means and Ends

First, a little more about means and ends. We are in a church, so it seems a fitting place to talk about what the real ends are, what it really is all about. An important thinker on energy issues is Amory Lovins, who wrote Soft Energy Paths back in the 1970s. I thought of this means/ends distinction reading his passage early in the book, where he says something like, people don’t want electricity, they want warmth, light, and the comforts they get through it. We can take that analysis deeper. People don’t want things, they want the ends that come or that they think will come from having those things. What are those ends? I’d invite you to think about them. I came up with about seven. Mine are health, safety, knowledge, relationships (to people and nature), comfort, freedom, and meaning. You can play around with the list, subdivide the categories or come up with your own categories. But you’ll notice that when you look at it this way, there’s no particular technological level, no particular lifestyle, that is automatically better than another. Health can be served by high-tech medicine but harmed by high-tech chemicals, helped by clean air and water and food but harmed by parasites or predators.

If you accept that these (or some others) are (or ought to be) the real ends of life, then you can take these and use them to evaluate our system, our society. You can evaluate our society against past societies, or against some possible future. And you find that we are doing something other than serving our real ends, then we should change what we do.

And means? Again, I’d invite you to think on it more. But I came up with four. I was following the late Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani scholar and activist who taught at Hampshire College. He listed the four elements of nationhood as land, water, culture, and leaders. I am not talking about the elements of nationhood but the means of survival, so I would modify the list to be: energy, water, life (or land, or living systems, what I want to express is the self-designing, self-propagating aspect of life, that human and nonhuman life both depend on), and culture.

Look at this list of means, and I think the problem with our system becomes a little clearer. Our system is destroying the means of survival. We can go one at a time. Energy? Oil, and other fossil fuels, are being sucked out of the ground faster than it ever was, and the carbon from it is going into the atmosphere and wrecking the climate. There is probably enough fossil fuel to wreck the climate very badly before we run out. Water? Most of the surface water has been fouled and aquifers are being depleted everywhere. Climate change is changing the hydrological cycle, killing people both through droughts and floods. Life? Every year there are fewer forests, fewer fish, less agricultural land, more soil erosion and loss, more poisoned ecosystems, more wild species going extinct, more genetic pollution of plants. Culture? Measuring the loss of culture is a little harder. I have definitely had a feeling that people on roads and in routine bureaucratic interactions are becoming more antisocial all the time, that things like road rage just get worse and worse every year, and that people are losing their basic capacity to relate to each other as humans. But there are other ways of measuring cultural destruction. Languages with no speakers? Skills and techniques for making and doing things that no one knows how to do, because we can just buy a thing to do it and throw the thing away? Now maybe that is just progress, but what if we find out later that it might have been good to know how to store vegetables without refrigeration, or compost manure, or p lay an instrument?

The American System and Change

The economic system we live in, capitalism, uses these means. But it is dedicated to taking these means of life and turning them into money, in the process restricting access to them and killing them. Ultimately all of these things, the fisheries, the forests, the oil and minerals in the ground, people’s time and lives and sweat, they become money — paper or blips in bank accounts. We are asked to go along with this, and in return we get — stuff. I don’t think it is a good trade. How did it happen?

This is actually the American system, and it had some progressive aspects. When the twentieth century, also called “the American century,” started, there were several rival projects in the world. One was socialism, which was based on economic equality and solidarity and came to be associated with dictatorship and the Soviet Union. It is too bad, because there is no reason that economic equality and solidarity have to go with dictatorship, and I think they could exist with democracy. Many working people in Europe and elsewhere, even in America, stuck in poverty and debt at the bottom of a very rigid class hierarchy, came to believe in socialism and struggled for it. The American system offered a different solution, but like those who struggled for socialism, believers in the American system were also betrayed.

The American system was supposed to work like this. Instead of a rigid class hierarchy, there was some class mobility. Instead of mass poverty, there could be mass consumption. Good wages, plenty of jobs, low prices, lots of stuff, and the chance to rise in status, privilege, and education.

Anyone watch The Wire? I discovered it late and I’ve been devouring it over the past three weeks, wondering why on earth I find myself liking a cop show. Then I read that its creator says it’s not a cop show but a show about the betrayal of the working class, and I thought, ah, that’s why I like it. When people talk about the betrayal of working people in this country, they are talking about the erosion of the American system. Technological advances weren’t used to make workers more comfortable, but to automate jobs, move them offshore. Unemployment increased, wages went down or stayed static, prices for stuff stayed cheap but prices for education and housing made class mobility less likely. This happened because of decisions by elites, not environmental limits. Naomi Klein writes about it in her book The Shock Doctrine.

But as the system reaches environmental limits, the environment will become the scapegoat for the end of a system of mass consumption and mass privilege and its replacement with a system of elite privilege, in which access to nature will itself be a privilege from which most people are excluded. This kind of argument was used in forestry, for example, on the West Coast of the US during the Clinton years. The media presented a conservation plan as ‘jobs versus owls’. But the job losses weren’t coming from conservation. They were coming from automation. It was a false dichotomy then. But the idea was that either the environment or working people would have to suffer, so that elites could continue to profit. That is how it was presented and how it will continue to be presented, although the last part, “so that elites could continue to profit”, is never explicitly stated, just an invisible assumption.

I know this is not a catholic church, but my family background is Catholic, and I am an environmentalist, so I know a lot about guilt. Environmentalism is too often about guilt. But, as environmentalist writer Derrick Jensen points out in his fine book Endgame, being guilty about consumption choices or lifestyles confuses what we have choices about and what we don’t have choices about. The system we live in constrains our choices. We can feel guilty for not understanding or trying to change that system, but we shouldn’t forget how constrained our choices are.

I think that a defense of life, changing our society so that it allows people to work towards real ends and preserves and enhances the means of life, will have two steps. The first step, the harder step is to stop the system from destroying what is left and taking control, actual democratic control, of our societies. This is hard because, as insane as this ‘death project’ is, those in power and those who identify with it will defend it, and so turning it around will require a lot of thinking, a lot of courage, a lot of persistence and action. The second step will be, once we have the power to decide, to decide to be a part of a society that provides its members with health, freedom, knowledge, safety, comfort, relationships, and meaning, in ways that do not destroy the means of survival for us and other species.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and activist. He can be reached at: justin@killingtrain.com. Read other articles by Justin, or visit Justin's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rumach said on April 1st, 2008 at 6:37am #

    Well, wel, well. The more I read progressive comments on the internet, not just here but most of the others too
    the more Marxists I see awakening. A very encouraging thing but somehow dispiriting because I fear things have become insurmountable.

    Karl Marx predicted all the present situation over 150 years ago. Well, give him an A+ for foresight!

  2. Ron Horn said on April 1st, 2008 at 3:07pm #

    I am just so overwhelmed by the brilliance of this man’s insights that I don’t know what to write. I am so grateful for the internet, Dissident Voice, and all those who have made this medium possible so that I could benefit from the thoughts of Justin and many others who have contributed to my understanding of the world we live in.

    Unfortunately I think that you are right, Rumach, that it is also very dispiriting, because for every Justin there are millions of gullible people who have been programmed to continue down this path that will surely lead to our own extinction.