February, 2009 Archive

The Culture of Sustainability (2)

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

An Address to Focus the Nation II Cal Poly
February 5 2009

The words of Bob Dylan’s 1964 anthem, “The Times They Are A Changin’” have never rung truer than during the last few years of apocalyptic uncertainty, threat, and promise. It’s been a period of sudden collapse–from the Twin Towers and the Global financial system to species diversity and climate stability–and of miraculous growth—from the Internet and biological research to community organizations and acceptance of diversity.

Change, when you’re in the middle of it, is mysterious, lacking adequate name or narrative. The package isn’t labeled, the story is still unfolding. In the sixties, before the words “hippy,” and “counterculture” were coined, we referred to our transformations of consciousness simply as “the Movement.” The positive change going on today remains unnamed. In his latest book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken calls it “the largest social movement in all of human history.” He claims “noone saw it coming.”

But Hawken is one of the visionaries who have seen what’s coming and have provided it with various names and stories. His earlier books, The Ecology of Commerce, and Natural Capitalism, envisioned the present as one of “Restorative Economy” and “A Second Industrial Revolution.” E. J. Dionne calls it “The Revival of Civil Society,” Thomas Berry, “The Great Work,” David Korten, “The Great Turning.” I’m calling it the Sustainability movement.

One way to make sense of this movement is to place it in historical context.  As I look back at my own story, I remember childhood in the nineteen forties and fifties governed by postwar, coldwar, economic expansion, consumerism, suburbanization, homogenizing TV, and patriarchy. The sixties and seventies rejected all that in favor of peace, community living, spirituality and ecology. The eighties and nineties reacted again, privileging individualism, greed, branding and technology over nature. The new millennium took those tendencies to an extreme and then reversed direction toward where we are now.

Such a pattern of oscillations was characterized by Friedrich Hegel as thesis-antithesis-synthesis. He believed history was driven by the progress of the collective spirit of humanity expressed in science, art, and philosophy. Changes in ideas were then manifested as material progress in technology, economics and politics. Karl Marx famously turned the pattern on its head, claiming that economic arrangements, particularly the flow of financial capital, provided the base that determined the rest, which he called superstructure.

This dialectical pattern can apply today. The movement we call Sustainability seems to synthesize the sometimes unrealistic idealism of the sixties and seventies with the shrewd yet often short-sighted materialism that followed. Sustainability is grounded in science and deals with resources, technology and business, but it’s also grounded in consciousness and deals with morality, aesthetics, and religion. Its trinity of values—Environment, Equity, Economy—can be emblematized not as base and superstructure, but rather as a triangular recycling moebius.

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