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Sierra Magazine
Getting it Right

Prepare for victory today:
An eclectic group of environmental visionaries gathers at the electronic roundtable.

It's been a dismal thousand years, environmentally speaking. We cut down most of the earth's forests, drove most large carnivores to the brink of extinction, spread disruptive exotic species around the globe, manufactured poisons on a monumental scale, and set in motion a potentially catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.

Now, with the blank slate of a new millennium before us, we have a chance to get it right. To figure out how we can do better, we've turned to some wise friends for advice. These include author Bill McKibben, whose The End of Nature and The Age of Missing Information established him as one of the country's premier environmental thinkers; Paul Hawken, who cofounded the gardening retailer Smith & Hawken and went on to become a leading proponent of ecological economics through his book The Ecology of Commerce; Anne Ehrlich, associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University and a Sierra Club director; Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford and author of the 1968 conservation classic The Population Bomb; Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History and author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; Homero Aridjis, author and founder of Mexico's leading environmental organization, the Group of 100; and John Sweeney, the head of the AFL-CIO, representing more than 13 million union members. Moderating the discussion, conducted via e-mail in the fall, is Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

Carl Pope: As we reach the end of the millennium, I am struck by how public attitudes, both in the United States and globally, have shifted dramatically in the last third of this century. Last year, for instance, I returned to the Indian state of Bihar where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer some 30 years ago. Ranchi, once a bucolic hill station of a few hundred thousand, now has about a million residents. Located in one of the most poverty-stricken, poorly educated states in India, it is hardly a cosmopolitan place. Talking with a shopkeeper, I told him I had been away for many years, and was curious how things had changed.

His response stunned me: "Oh, there are way too many people. We are cutting down the forests around the city, and air and water pollution have skyrocketed. Now we are even changing the climate. We used to have this miserable heat for two weeks every year. Now we have it for two months."

These are the same concerns we hear from Sierra Club members. If Main Street Ranchi is this close to Main Street America, something profound has happened in the world. But the actual practices of our societies have changed much less dramatically than public attitudes. We are headed off an environmental cliff, but governments and corporations continue to operate on short time horizons—resisting popular desire to minimize technological risk, for example, or exposure to toxic chemicals. Indeed, they may lag those they nominally serve by as much as a generation.

So the question I would like to pose is this: How can our collective behavior catch up with our individual concerns? How, in the next century, can we translate public attitudes into real environmental progress? Is there a magic button, a single lever, an obvious first step to get it right in the next millennium?

Bill McKibben: On a local level we're doing at least OK—winning a fair number of battles over everything from toxics to wildlands. My attitude may be biased because of my location in the Adirondacks, where Republican Governor George Pataki has bought large parcels of land, and where we’re even having reasonably civil discussions of things like wolf restoration. My sense is that in many places local legislators have gotten the message; in these very concrete battles, groups like the Sierra Club and the many small and ad-hoc organizations can often hold their own.

But on the national and international level, it seems to me we're losing ever more all the time. Partly, I think, we fail politically because we can’t manage to prioritize—all "environmental" issues get the same weight in the movement, even though in physical terms they are vastly different. If anything, the single most important issue—climate change—gets the least attention, because it’s the hardest to act on politically, and because it demands real change on the part of everyone, including environmentalists. (In fact, American environmentalists are likely to be found in the demographic group that should change the most). As a result, even environmentally minded politicians, like those in the Clinton administration, spend all their time on technological fixes (hydrogen cars!), which are at most half the solution.

Until the national mood coalesces behind the issue, it will be hard to change anything. We are in the Bayard Rustin/A. Philip Randolph phase of this movement, waiting for our Rosa Parks or our Dr. King to emerge—someone who can figure out how to galvanize attention on this ultimate wrongness, our wholesale alteration of the planet’s ecosystems. It may not be a great leader that we need. It may be a book ( la Silent Spring) or more likely it may be some display from the earth itself, like a Category Five hurricane striking Miami Beach—something big enough to actually capture the emotional imagination of a public so removed from the natural world that it doesn’t take physical reality as seriously as abstractions like the economy. One prays that when it comes it’s not so dire that we just react defensively—sandbagging cities instead of building mass transit.

In the meantime, there's organizing to be done. Assembling the networks of people who understand and care about this issue; electing people to office who want to do something about it, and educating those mayors and state senators and others who are potentially open to the message; protesting the absurdities of our age, like the 19-foot-long Ford Excursion. When the moment comes, we need to have large numbers of people ready to respond in creative ways, and we need to have coordinated leadership from our national and international environmental organizations, not the current infighting. I realize that's as far as you can get from a magic button, but it's as close as I can come to the actual truth.

Paul Hawken: America is going through the most spectacular gilded age in all of history. At no time has so much financial wealth been accumulated by a relatively small group of people so quickly, so fantastically. Rapid accumulation of wealth has a highly disorienting effect on society, as dislocating as earthquakes and fire. We don't know when and how it will end, but we know it will end. When it does it will bring about a powerful realignment of values, primarily because of dashed dreams and sinking fantasy horizons.

This new wealth is being created in part by an exponential increase in the rapidity of communication and many other functions. In turn, this compression of time is squeezing out most vestiges of traditional social models—of community, family, relationships, place, and work itself—because the physical and emotional spaces for them are disappearing. It’s as if our interior landscape is being covered by an informational and chronological sprawl. Lives are slowly fragmenting, and the emotional, physical, and spiritual toll is very heavy.

Furthermore, there is an astonishing concentration of corporate power and ownership in media, food, energy, transportation, banking, and more. There are only four major publishers left in New York, and everyone expects that number to go to three. Three companies—Monsanto, DuPont, and Novartis, whose origins go back to cancer-causing saccharine, gunpowder, and toxic aniline dyes respectively—strive to control 90 percent of the germ plasm that provides the world with 90 percent of its caloric intake. Whose idea was that? It is the very opposite of the biological redundancy that is at the heart of ecosystem resilience and sustainability.

Having said all that, I would suggest that the very idea of a lever, of some Archimedean fulcrum upon which we can pull and move mountains of opinion is antithetical to the environmental (some might say sustainability) movement. This movement is vastly different from anything the world has ever seen. Bill McKibben pointed out that we do not have our Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks yet. But what if the strength of this movement is that it never will? What if we don’t have to figure out where the lever is, but continue to do what we are doing, and do it better? What if what we need to do is start being more respectful of our own diversity? What if we need more than anything else the conviction, against all cursory evidence, that the broad understanding that informs our work will absolutely prevail? What if we need to start thinking about how to prepare to actually win, instead of worrying about being right when the ship goes down? By "win," I do not mean that someone or something will be defeated. I mean prevail as in a phase transition, ice becoming water. Of course we are losing when measured by any acceptable indicator, social or ecological. Yet that doesn’t mean the current worldview will continue or can prevail. It cannot.

There are in the United States today at least 30,000 nongovernmental organizations dealing with sustainability in the broad sense of the word. In the world, there are approximately 100,000 such groups. Numbers themselves, however, do not convey the power of this movement; what does are the underlying mental models and frameworks that inform it. In the past, movements that became powerful (Marxism, Christianity, Freudianism) started with a set of ideas and disseminated them, creating power struggles over time as the core model was changed, diluted, or revised. The sustainability movement does not agree on everything, nor should it ever. But, remarkably, it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the earth and how it functions, and about the necessity of fairness and equity for all people in partaking of the earth’s lifegiving systems. This shared understanding is arising spontaneously, from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts. And it is absolutely growing and spreading worldwide, with no exception. No one started this worldview, no one is in charge of it, there is no orthodoxy.

What we need to ask ourselves is, how can we better recognize what we have already created, and what is proliferating worldwide? We should also ask if we are preparing ourselves for leadership instead of loss. I am reminded of Vaclav Havel who with his compatriots spent years practicing democracy, with shadow ministers, parliaments, and real debates. They were arrested, jailed, harassed, and when they were released from prison, they practiced some more. When democracy came, suddenly, unpredictably, and improbably, the Czechs were ready. Russia was not. The difference is telling. Are we practicing for that time when a new worldview will prevail? There is a difference between blind, heady optimism and the deep conviction, Gandhi-like, that no force can counter the truths we share and hold so deeply. The latter is what we need, more than levers, more than magic, more than instant results. We are not going to win by “uniting” and we need to recognize that and put it aside as vestigial. We are going to win by being true to our model of life. We are going to win by diversity and differentiation.

Carl Pope: I concur with Paul Hawken that we shouldn’t look to the “one big organization” or the “correct analysis” models as our salvation. But I’m skeptical that we can win solely through a “phase transition.” It seems to me that we not only need a personal commitment to model and practice sustainability, but some fundamentally new concepts of how to embed that ethic in human institutions, which are now global in scale but hopelessly parochial in vision.


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