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June 14, 2005


One problem I can see with the sustainability approach is that developing nations might interpret such a program as little more than maintenance of the status quo, where they (India and China particularly) must hamstring their breakneck pace in order to keep in the good graces of the powers that be. For them, conforming might be a mug's game...while making economic gains in large part due to unsustainable practices, I suppose they'd be content to say 'you go first, and if it seems workable in five years, maybe we'll think about it'.

So then, it would come back to carrots and sticks if we wanted to really simplify things, where the hegemon tries to dictate global economic development based in part upon upstanding virtues of having a planet to stand on a hundred years from now (present leadership excepted of course), and also in protecting its charmed position by stunting the growth elsewhere that seems to pick up as our's wanes.

Kind of rambling here for lack of sleep, but I think it's a hard sell and in this case seems likely for key players to view it as a zero sum game.

Well, we could start by ending agricultural subsidies. It'd be a quick way to show some really poor developing nations we're serious. Ditto, we could release developing nations from the debt and economic development agreements they've been stuck under for the last couple of decades; if they could retain subsistence agriculture with some boutique products, they'd be better off than by competing on the commodity market against a bunch of other equally cheap producers. And heck, if they could invest in education, rather than charging the poor for it, they'd be a lot better off.

And it's clear that some developing nations--particularly China--are aware they can't provide everyone with an American way of life. Several people in China's government have admitted how unsustainable their growth is in both economic and particularly environmental terms.

I don't want to diminish your criticism; I think it's a real problem. But I think there are a lot of ways we could show our good faith. That is, if we really were serious about it.


Now that I think about it, I guess that's what the question of sustainability comes down to--is there a point at which Americans will be happy that approaches the level where we'd only be using our fair share of stuff?

Right now, the average ecological footprint in the US is 24 hectares. We'd have to cut that to a fifth--to 5 hectares per person--to be really sustainable. I'm a fairly frugal person (high mileage car, little driving, I eat low on the food chain, and have a small house), but I'm still only a fifth of the way to where I need to be to be sustainable (and that doesn't account for all my plane flights).

But to me, it keeps coming back to necessity. For a long time we've been able to use five times the resources as the rest of the world. But that was before 4th G warfare and global warming have made that impossible--to say nothing of peak oil. So we might as well start figuring out a way to adjust now.

I mean acres. The average American has a footprint of 24 acres.

You're right that there are many ways that the US could show leadership in the world, and I'll try not to bemoan the fact that the sort of leadership you propose (which I agree is the right direction) is just not in high demand with the American electorate. There is the sort of 'fat and happy' obliviousness to everything that makes such proposals a nonstarter at present.

My thinking is that people just don't really care until it hits them where it hurts, until then, or unless the progressives can find truly charismatic leadership that knows how to drill the message simply, bluntly and effectively, people won't vote to change our course (4 dollar a gallon gas would probably the least painful way for people to get shaken out of their dumbass slumber, IMO). It's pessimistic, sure, but just like I feel that any move in China towards political liberalization will require a catalyst/crisis, so too do I think that a true shift to deep progressive ends here will require some major catalyst...or we could find inspiring leaders, but I don't see any in the field that can shake the habitual Republicans to go Dem for the sheer sake of common sense and their children.

wd, I think you're basically right.

I do think the gas crunch might make people take a bit more attention pretty soon, though.

Ben P

I agree with you but wonder how you sell sustainability to our elites and the population. Sustainability might not be able to compete well with fear, especially now that the prospect of terrorism can be manipulated by our own leaders. And I wonder if sustainability implies a kind of self-restraint that would be described as weakness. Sustainability would also have to compete with our national fantasies of abundant consumer goods. I hope I'm wrong, but sustainability might have to overcome our militarism and commdoity fetishes.

I think sustainability would require a bit of a long sell. But it's a long sell that at least has the advantage of accounting for where society will be headed and what crises we'll be seeing.

Some ways to pitch sustainability to begin to get people attracted are to talk about self-reliance and security. A bit of old-fashioned convservatism (in the environmental sense and in terms of talking about the good old days when we didn't have 2 hour commutes every day) would help. Then, with every crisis that comes up, we maintain message discipline. "California's economy tanking because the housing bubble popped? Well, that's why we need to return our economy to something sustainable, like small-scale manufacturing, again." "5 hundred-year hurricaines the second year in a row? Well, that's why we need to start doing something about global warming. If we don't start thinking about sustainability, then it will seem normal to have this kind of crazy weather--and everyone will need to move out of Florida!"

IMO opinion, the biggest challenge will be to wrest control from the speculators, who stand to lose the most. (Isn't it nice, btw, that Joe Biden can claim to be the calm and sane one while he's basically a whore for a house of cards economy?) But a bit of old-fashioned class warfare might do the trick. "Those fatcat capitalists who want you to import your food from Brazil instead of buying your neighbor's peas? They're just trying to get rich off of other people rather than doing hard work, like your neighbor."

I was one of those people who regularly talked (to friends, quietly) about how vulnerable we were to a terrorist attack pre-9/11. I look back now and realize how badly those of us who expected an attack played that. We said (Richard Clarke avove all) that no one would listen. So we didn't call out warnings loudly enough. It's not that I think people will necessarily listen to the warnings (although, with increasing insecurity, a lot of people WOULD choose a more sustainable life if given the choice). It's that I realize we really need to own this debate before the first OBVIOUS examples hit Fox news, so we can direct what we'll do in those circumstances.

The word 'sustainability', has a tree-hugger feel to it. Try framing it as self-reliannce instead. Self-reliance has a rugged, pioneer image that fits with American history. It builds naturally on George Washington's call to shun foreign entanglements, and reminds us of our traditional concern for our neighbors.

Yup, I've actually used self-reliance in a few places. I'm going to test it in a big way this weekend with my bigoted Republican brother--I got his son two "Harry Thoreau" books (picture books with Thoreau's concents to them) for his birthday. I'm curious to see if they've been read--or trashed.

Really excellent series of posts, Emptywheel. This is an idea that need s a lot more attention. Kids take to this sort of thing very well in my experience, and if we had an enlightened leadership (economic as well as political) here, sustainability or self-reliance could become very, very cool. But profit drives it all, so I am afraid we don;t see progress until companies fear being left behind in the race to produce more sustainable technologies and products.

It really has to do with whether you feel a sense of connection to and responsibility towards others in space and time (the future)--a broad sense of community. I personally think this is one of the ways in which we are much less well off than in my childhood and youth. Our parents really had that sense of responsibility and were willing to sacrifice in many ways for a better future for their children.

Hegemony and exceptionalism sound so masculine and tough, but they are really a dead end for both our country and our planet, and I hope that some sort of genuine alternative vision can be generated by our party in this area as well.

Thanks Mimikatz.

I'm just hoping we can find the voice on which to hang just that sentiment, that we had a broad sense of community in our past (Feingold would be great if he weren't busy with the divorce). I can never be accused too often of being too idealistic, but I think it might appeal to a broad swath of the electorate.

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