Getting from Here to There

April 20, 2015

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World Scientific Publishing Co., 2014

Business-as-usual is sure to deliver us a future that is both unsustainable and undesirable, with climate change arguably our most pressing problem. Had we begun to tackle it when first identified, incremental changes and modest actions along the way might have done it. With all the procrastinating, transformative change is now necessary.

The same goes for other issues, from biodiversity loss and species extinction to air pollution and declining water quality. With the range and magnitude of environmental challenges we face, it’s easy to become discouraged.

That’s why we need a focus and a plan. The focus is a clear vision of the kind of future we want. The plan is how to get there from here. This book offers both. It is a compilation of thoughtful articles (essays, really) from a broad range of academics, research scientists, policy specialists, politicians, and others—thinkers all.

Readers of this journal will find familiar thoughts here, as most of the chapters are versions of articles previously published in these pages. But the book isn’t just a bunch of ‘reprints’—there is great value in having them all between two covers. Together, they weave a compelling vision of the future and suggest multiple and complementary routes to getting there.

The opening paragraph says quite simply, "Creating a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable future is the most critical task facing humanity today. This vision must be of a world that we all want, a world that provides permanent prosperity within the Earth’s biophysical constraints in a fair and equitable way to all of humanity, to other species, and to future generations."

The book is divided into four parts and takes a step-by-step approach. Part one, ‘Introduction,’ includes four chapters on visions and visioning. I have been involved in my share of visioning exercises over the years and admit that sometimes my eyes glazed over. But there is a convincing case here for the value of the process.

Chapter two is a timeless piece—drawn from a talk given by Donella Meadows at the 1994 meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in San José, Costa Rica. "We need clarity about our goals," she said. "We need to know where we are going. We need to have vision. And that vision has to be articulated, it has to be socially shared, and discussed, and formulated." She went on to advise: "Remember, when you envision, that you are trying to state, articulate, or see what you really want, not what you think you can get."

Part two, titled ‘Future Histories: Descriptions of a Sustainable and Desirable Future and How We Got There,’ includes nine chapters, all assuming that we are in the future and have already created the world we want. They describe this future and reflect on how we achieved it. Contributors in this section include Herman Daly, Joshua Farley, Tim Jackson, and Juliet Schor.

Part three, ‘Pieces of the Puzzle: Elements of the World We Want’ ranges over 12 chapters. Wendell Berry’s short piece, ‘What Else?,’ describes his wish for the coal economy of Eastern Kentucky to be transformed into a sustainable local economy. It will ring true with others concerned about long-term reliance on our extractive industries. Another chapter, ‘The Future of Roads: No Driving, No Emissions, Nature Reconnected,’ is authored by what would seem an unlikely pair—a landscape ecologist and a civil engineer.

Part four, ‘Getting There’ focuses on practical solutions and is my favorite section of the book. Included in the 21 chapters are ones on sustainable shrinkage, millennium consumption goals, building bridges between science and policy, and how to apply resilience thinking. Contributors here include Van Jones, Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, David Orr, and William Rees.

To achieve the vision of a different and better future, policy makers and business leaders among others will have to buy into it. To this end, it would be very helpful if elected officials at every level had to study and pass a course we’ll call "Sustainability 101"—before taking office. The same should go for all business owners, managers, and entrepreneurs. In fact, it should be universally required—to help provide the knowledge, skills, and understanding needed for thoughtful and appropriate living in the 21st century. This book could surely serve as a core text for the course. It’s both a good read and a great reference.

The book’s last chapter (by Peggy Liu) provides a fitting conclusion to a wide ranging discussion. It includes details of the China Dream campaign, with a goal no less than to reimagine prosperity arising from a healthy and fulfilling way of life. She notes that it can tap into traditional Chinese values closely aligned with sustainability—personal health, respect, harmony with nature, and avoiding waste. Not a bad idea, given that chasing the American Dream, an activity widely embraced in the developed world, is a big part of what has got us into this predicament in the first place.

Tags: ecological economics, policy, Sustainability