The society of Man has reached a critical point in its evolution. Through the means of human innovation, an infrastructure has evolved that has allowed for rapid population growth and material affluence. However, in our sprint towards progress we have unwittingly developed an infrastructure that will no longer sustain our now inflated population. We have reached a point, where simply curbing population growth will not suffice: We must instead, curb our infrastructure. The majority of the population seems to believe and understand this seemingly undeniable fact: And they are willing to change their consumption habits, for the greater good. Unfortunately, due to obstacles that exist in our current infrastructure, this willingness and intention does not translate into sustainable consumer behavior. The obstacles or behavioral barriers originate in the areas of information, convenience, affordability and product performance. Allowed to continue, this level and pattern of consumption will result in environmental devastation and a global resource crisis. The key to avoiding this dire outcome is to get the potential sustainable consumer to act on their intention. This will be done by influencing the values of potential sustainable consumer and setting into motion a cycle that will begin to modify our infrastructure.
Born of nature, Man has been given an unprecedented gift: A conscious mind. The human brain allows Man to understand and effect the world on a level unmatched by any of Earths creatures; past and present. Man is not the biggest, fastest nor the most agile of Earths creatures in his physical form. He is instead the most clever. It is Mans wit, which allows him to think abstractly and create tools and infrastructure, which make up for his physical disparities.
From the first tool forged to the splitting of the atom and deciphering of the genome, man has progressively become more aware of his universe. Our population has swelled to enormous proportions (currently ~6.8 billion) and as a whole we live more comfortably than ever before. With the basic goal of perpetuation: Our species, in a sense, has outsmarted natural selection. A child born, strong or weak, is given a greater chance to live than ever before. We are no longer hunted, nor have the need to hunt. There is no longer a constant struggle against the elements. We have the ability to combat and cure many diseases. Man is constantly finding ways to adapt to this world and as such has adapted the world to suit himself.
With the basic needs of food and shelter turned into a convenience, we are able to focus our minds on other pursuits, allowing our understanding of the universe to grow. As our understanding matures, our comforts grow and we progress. Our understanding, abilities and population have developed to the point where we have dominated our planet. We currently are a planetary society. We are limited to the materials, energy and space provided by our planet. Given that we do not go extinct, by our own doing or otherwise, the logical progression of our species is to go from a planetary to a solar society and perhaps to the more farfetched concepts of a galactic and finally a universal society. This would be an ideal evolution of man, but it hinges on our development and survival, which in turn relies on the choices we make as a society today.
Man has reached a critical and unprecedented point in his evolution. As a species we have matured to dominate this planet. We have even stepped off of it and onto our moon. We have peered into our solar system, galaxy and beyond. Within recorded history Mans understanding of his world has grown exponentially. With today’s worldwide, instant communication, growth in knowledge is in a constant state of acceleration. The implementation of this knowledge is manifested in Mans creations. In this past century, Man has developed this knowledge to a point where he has the means to his immediate destruction. With the knowledge and ability to harness the energy of atom, came the atom bomb and the means of our immediate destruction. In a worst case scenario, by our own doing, every human-being could be turned to dust by the end of the day. With our current knowledge base and technological capabilities there are a number of scenarios, which could lead to an immediate apocalypse. While Man should focus on not destroying himself today, he must also have the good foresight and sense not to seal his fate for tomorrow.
In Mans circumvention of the natural selection, he has drastically altered earths ecosystem to suite his immediate needs. With little exception we do so in a credulous manner. Whether intentionally or not we have polluted land, air and water, caused animals to go extinct and destroyed many environments. Having grown so powerful in such a short time, Man is unfamiliar with the responsibility that comes with his achievements. Up to this point changes in Earths eco-system have evolved at the speed of geological and biological time. Biologic changes evolving to accommodate slower geologic changes over millions of years. Dramatic changes in the ecology happened too gradually to be perceivable in a lifetime. These systems are so intricate and interwoven that while there are different scales of organization, it is logical to say that the global ecosystem effects simplest organism and by association the simplest organism effects the global ecosystem.
An individual human life is short, when considering geologic time. We consciously and subconsciously avoid the thought of death and the causes of which we will die in our lifetime. It is thus, with little astonishment, that we lack concern for the death of mankind. Through our growth, inexperience with a changing ecosystem and relative lack of concern we have created an infrastructure of short-term sustainability. It is simply the rate and the way we have become accustomed to using the planets natural resources. We are using and wasting at an exponential rate in order to sustain our increasing demand for goods. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, natural resource consumption by humans is currently 125% of Earth’s bio-capacity and is projected to rise to 170% by 2040. Earth's bio-capacity is the measurement of the ability of the Earth to generate an on-going supply of renewable resources and to absorb its spillover wastes. Unsustainability occurs if the area’s ecological footprint exceeds its bio-capacity.
We are currently only capable of exceeding Earth bio-capacity as a result of the discovery and utilization of a single resource, fossil fuels (i.e. coal, natural gas and oil). For all the intents and purposes of mankind, fossil fuels are finite. Not to mention the inherent pollution attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. Oil, which is used not only for fuel, but countless material and food applications (including the production of most plastics and crop fertilizers), has already or is soon to be at its peak rate of production. Optimistic estimations of peak production forecast a global decline will begin by 2020. Assuming major investments in alternatives occur and prove viable before there is a crisis, these models show the price of oil at first escalating and then retreating as other types of fuel and energy sources are used. However, pessimistic projections of peak oil claim that either the peak has already occurred or that it will occur in the next couple of years. Not only will this effect transportation of people, goods and the production of many modern materials, but it will effect the production of food. The majority of the population relies on food derived from the foodstuff of giant mono-crop farms. The soil of these farms no longer contains any substantial amounts of nutrients for the crops produced on it. It is virtually a sponge used to soak up fertilizers extracted from oil refinement. On average, for every calorie of foodstuff produced in the United States it takes 10 calories of petroleum to produce and get it to your mouth (as result of the use of fertilizers, pesticides and transportation).
Earths ecosystem is resilient, but not impervious: Its resources are bountiful, but not endless. Earth ecosystem has already taken a beating. The full extent of our effect on this planet is difficult to determine, however there is now abundant scientific evidence that natural ecosystems have declined as a result of human growth. According to the 2006, Living Planet Report, conducted by the World Wildlife Foundation, 30% of the Earth’s terrestrial area, comprising 7.8 million square miles of forest and 5.8 million square miles of grassland, has been converted to urban areas or cropland and 60% of the Earth’s ecosystem services have been degraded in the past 50 years.
Changes in the balance of natural cycles have already proven to have had a negative effect on human existence and the wellbeing of the conservative estimate of 5 million other species that make up the ecosystem. Our recent exponential growth in population reveals our inherent motive as a society and species. We, like all organisms in nature, live for perpetuation. Through our growth in understanding and technology, we have modified the ecosystem to suit our own needs in the short term; temporarily subduing the process of natural selection. However, in creating this infrastructure, which enables our unprecedented perpetuation, we have endangered the possibility for the long-term perpetuation of our species.
It is undeniable that something must be done. Steps towards a more sustainable infrastructure have already begun: Unfortunately, they are not being undertaken with the necessary urgency or speed. The question is simple: How do we move towards a sustainable infrastructure before a global crisis occurs? A sustainable infrastructure will come to be the means and circumstance, in which it does is up to us, now. We will either undergo a crisis, in which many of us will not survive resulting in less mouths to feed and individuals to sustain. A more preferable strategy would be to build a new sustainable infrastructure, while there is still and an infrastructure in place to build it.
It seems that many individuals seem to understand this fact in one way or another. According to a global survey taken by the The McKinsey Quarterly in 2008; 21% of consumers are willing to pay for “sustainable goods” and do, while 66% of consumers a willing and concerned about the environment, but their intention does not result in sustainable consumption. The needs of the potential sustainable consumer are much the same as any other consumer in the areas of function, usability and quality. They differentiate themselves in their personal principles that originate from a sense of obligation to act on environmental and social responsibilities. These principles or values stem from a moral obligation to future generations and create a sense of decency and self-esteem. They are also rooted in social obligation and reflect social/cultural status, creating a sense of social acceptance, belongingness and self-esteem. Under ideal circumstances these values would result in a sustainable lifestyle. Unfortunately, It is hard to live a sustainable lifestyle within an infrastructure that does not operate to facilitate one. As we go about our daily lives, there are obstacles that impede our ability to make sustainable consumption choices. These obstacles or behavioral barriers originate in the areas of product performance, convenience, affordability and information.
Past experiences with inferior sustainable products & the perception that material limitations hinder product performance leads to skepticism in the ability of a sustainable products to meet expected standards of functionality, usability & quality. Simply put, consumers believe that sustainable products will not perform, as well as, the unsustainable ones they are meant to replace. On the same point there is a perception and in many cases the reality that sustainable products are unreasonably priced, leading to an unwillingness to spend beyond the perceived value and to explore sustainable alternatives. There is also a convenience issue: Comfort with ones habitual behaviors developed in their lifestyles over time and the perception that adopting a sustainable lifestyle requires added effort leads to skepticism of feasibility and an unwillingness to explore alternative behaviors. All these issues result in apathy and a continuation of an unsustainable lifestyle. They are also all related to barriers within the area information. Lack of available, comprehensive and reliable information on the issues of sustainability often lead to skepticism and confusion. Questions like: What is a sustainable lifestyle? What are the impacts of irresponsible consumption? What is the value of sustainability? And what makes a product sustainable? Either go unanswered or have answers that are not comprehensive or credible.
The propagation of credible & comprehensive information about sustainability is the key to moving the potential sustainable consumer beyond the behavioral barriers and into a sustainable lifestyle. The widespread practice of sustainability by consumers is what will encourage the necessary transformation in infrastructure to gradually take place. Its is a cyclical and reinforcing process. With increased information comes increased awareness. With a growth of awareness comes an increasing social and moral obligation, leading to a higher demand for sustainable goods. A growing demand gives incentive to producers to create a higher supply of sustainable goods. A higher supply and greater number of producers increases the level of competition, which will, in turn, increase availability, affordability and product performance. With increased availability, affordability and product performance comes more information, going back into the cycle which will constantly reinforce itself.
The question is then: How to you get credible and comprehensive information about sustainability into the hands and minds of consumers? A global consumer report by Nielson in 2008 found that consumers trust other consumers more than any other source of information, when making consumption choice. The question is then, not only: How do you get credible and comprehensive information about sustainability into the hand and minds of the consumer? But to alleviate skepticism, how do you get consumers to propagate that information themselves?
It requires a grass roots approach to information propagation. One strategy that I believe could be successful is to use products that traditionally act as external visual symbols of an individuals style, values and status, as a mechanism to get consumers to promote sustainability (i.e. accessories and furniture). Consumers purchase these items based on their functionality, usability, quality, style and price. There is a certain pride of purchase and ownership with these items. If the product suits the users needs and values, the appreciation of its services grows and sense of pride is instilled. The value of the item increases with continued use and ownership. The consumer then consciously and unconsciously promotes the items use through dialogues with other consumers and the products promote themselves via their visual appeal. The opportunity lies within the use of sustainable furniture and accessories designed with an appeal that is not reliant on the quality of being sustainable, as a mechanism to communicate comprehensive information relating to the sustainability of the specific product as well as, general information about sustainability. While the initial purchase may not have been motivated by the sustainability of the product, with the information, it becomes part the pride of purchase and, in turn, a key part of the narrative in its promotion. Initially separate entities, the growing pride of ownership becomes coupled with the practice of sustainability and begins to become part of the consumers values and identity. The intent is that this will affect the consumers future consumption choices and will continually reinforce the consumers identity as a sustainable consumer. The consumer will take pride in there identity and its will bolster their self-esteem. They themselves will become a model and propagator of the sustainable lifestyle, expressed verbally and by their very actions.
Take, for instance, the phenomenon known as the hundredth monkey effect reported by author Ken Keyes, Jr. A team of Japanese scientists set out to observe a monkey they named, Macaca fuscata, over a period of thirty years, on the island of Koshima. In 1952, the scientists began providing the monkey population with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys enjoyed the sweet potatoes, but didn't like the fact they were covered in sand. The scientist observed the monkey population to see how they would deal with the problem. Then, one day, a young female named Imo began washing the potatoes in a stream. She then taught her mother to do the same. Soon Imo's observing playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too. This “cultural innovation” was slowly picked up by various monkeys and in the span of about five years all the young monkeys had learned how to wash the potatoes. It was only the adults who where taught by their children that learned how to perform the task. Then in the fall of 1958, it was reported, that as the number of monkey population with this learned skill neared 100, the entire population of monkeys, that numbered above a thousand, instantaneously picked up the skill. It is theorized that the added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow facilitated a cultural breakthrough.
This parable has been used most recently to describe the potential for large idealogical breakthroughs in society that require a relatively small population of individuals to initiate; giving hope to the those who endeavor to facilitate a change in infrastructure. Perhaps a more relatable example, is the initiation of recycling programs in communities within the United States. For instance in my hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, I observed an interesting and promising evolution from modest to considerable municipal recycling program. In 1988 the EPA shut down the regional incinerator, citing certain health violations. In an attempt to improve their image the city initiated a volunteer curbside collection of recyclables in 1990. Citizens could purchase a recycling bin from the city for a nominal fee and if they were so inclined they could recycle their paper, glass and limited types of plastic. Over a span of a few years more and more citizens began recycling. The red bin at the end of the driveway became less a simple container for recyclables and more a symbol that exclaimed, “this family recycles!” At the same time, the homes without a red bin at the curb on trash day, shouted, “this family does not recycle!” And by association does not care as much about the environment as the neighbors who do. As a result an atmosphere of an unspoken social obligation was created and almost every household in the city owned and used a recycling bin. Though many participated solely due recognition of social obligation, the sense of respect, communal acceptance and feeling of belongingness, resulted in a self-esteem boost. People didn't just feel obligated to recycle they felt good about it. An what began as social obligation, became a moral obligation and a source of pride and decency for individual household. By request the city began the collection different grades of plastics along with lawn clippings. In 1999, due to overwhelming support by the community it was signed into law that every household own a municipal recycling bin. Today Grosse Pointe, Michigan has one of the most progressive recycling programs in the Midwest. They accept all recyclable plastics, used car batteries, motor oil and contractors debris. It only took a few decent people to initiate a big change.
Founding Father Samuel Adams is quoted in saying, “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.” I believe this statement holds true. One person or group need not convince everyone to behave sustainability. It simply requires enough people to start a chain reaction. Thomas Jefferson claimed that, “Every generation needs a new revolution.” I believe that the issue of sustainability will be our generations civil rights movement, our suffrage movement, our end of slavery, our revolutionary war. And future generations will say, I can't believe people used to be so extravagantly wasteful and destructive, just a we say I cannot believe African Americans weren't considered equals, that woman couldn't vote, that people owned slaves and that we were a colony of Britain. The revolution will occur and it may be as simple setting enough brushfires and finding our generations hundredth monkey.