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Rethinking Complexity

A Sustainable Earth Needs Lobbyists More Than It Needs Visionaries

By February 19, 2015February 19th, 2018No Comments

In a recent column, Thomas Friedman proclaimed that “the Earth is full.” We’ve reached the point where we have too many people using too few resources, and trying to keep on keeping on this way will only lead to more trouble.

The good news, he suggests, is that this makes fundamental transformation inevitable.  Friedman quotes environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Gilding: “Our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”

We will move from a production and consumption based economy to a satisfaction and happiness based economy, which is great. I’m sure most everybody reading this post is in favor of that, but Friedman skips a few crucial steps and fails to answer a simple question: How do we get there?

However much we know we need to be creating a more sustainable future, the way we are using our existing resources seems to be entrenching our position:  We’re trying to make the current system more efficient, rather than re-inventing it.

Alex Marshall has noted that major cities are pouring new resources into ports to better facilitate the trade channels of the global economy;  this involves major shoreline reconstructions in order to facilitate fleets of massive new tankers and cargo ships taking processed goods from continent to continent.

Talk about “dramatically mobilizing” for sustainability is well and good, but the old order is building new fortifications as we speak.

“The continual rise and importance of ports and the huge ships that service them have a number of implications, not all pleasant,” Marshall writes. “The possibility of environmental and other sorts of “black swan” catastrophes is almost certainly made larger when so many eggs are put in one basket.”

In the meantime, though, “give a nod to your port when you drive by. Your life is depending on it.”  To someone reporting on where resources are actually going, the production and consumption economy looks increasingly inevitable. Our lives depend on it.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that one of the most effective ways local governments can reduce their consumption footprint—consolidating services, functions, and even offices—is being actively resisted by local populations.

Consolidated governments (or villages that merge into towns, towns that merge into cities, cities that merge into counties) offer economies of scale and the opportunity for meaningful regional planning—key elements of a less wasteful approach to public life. But in New York, Michigan and across the country, many local governments are digging their heels in: their independence might be wasteful, but they like it.

It’s hard to argue with someone who wants to preserve their way of life.  But that’s the point: Friedman and Gilding’s assumption that we’ll just naturally mobilize into an economic revolution flies in the face of the world we live in. Some people want to keep the status quo because they’re the winners;  some people want to keep the status quo because they like their lifestyle;  some people want to keep the status quo because they fear interdependence. Some people just need a good reason to change.

All of them need to be convinced.  All of them need to be shown that they have a place—a substantively better place—in the new world Friedman and Gilding are talking about. And those interested in facilitating this change need to understand how to lobby so that resources are put into establishing the future rather than reinforcing the past.

That’s going to take more than platitudes: it will require a toolbox of strategies to talk to people from all walks of life.

Maybe those of us who want to work for sustaianability need to think of ourselves less as visionaries and more as lobbyists.