The Green Column #7

Can Americans Think In Terms Of Sustainability?

July 20, 2009— Does our history make it difficult to accept sustainability thinking?

Many observers of today’s culture say Americans are stuck in ‘frontier’ thinking when the times demand ‘spaceship’ thinking.

The problem, the conventional wisdom goes, is that all our lives we’ve been imbued with a history and culture based on boundless freedom and opportunity.

The United States began as thirteen tiny colonies on the edge of a rich continent and grew for 250 years with a frontier always beckoning. Yankee traders led the country seamlessly into global development of other continents’ resources whenever ours were lacking.

How could Americans not believe in growth and plenty? Is it any wonder most Americans instinctively yearn in the 21st Century for another frontier? Some see a new cornucopia beneath the earth’s or oceans’ surfaces; some look to the moon, other planets or asteroids; some imagine the future is in manipulating biology and matter.

Americans are said to be poor thinkers about limits or balance or sustainability. Not like people of the Old World who have been forced to live for a long time in less space and more permanence with dwindling resources.

But stop for a minute and challenge this description of American thinking. Another culture is present too. How often have you heard your family, friends and colleagues say, ‘My mother/father/grandparents never threw away anything useful’?

In your family, aren’t limits set all the time? Birth rate, for example, drops with education and income. Isn’t the checkbook balanced every month? Over 99 percent of families did not declare bankruptcy last year. Aren’t most American households examples of rational sustainability?

So who is it in American life that can’t think except in terms of growth and new opportunities to exploit?

I suggest that the answer is powerful elements of big business and industry, in league with their public voice of advertising, where sales are propped up by planned obsolescence, where the bottom line is the quarterly report and where stock price is the measurement of success. The short time horizon of too many CEOs apparently keeps them from taking the long view.

On the one hand, it’s encouraging to see the word ‘green’ appearing in so many corporate ads. On the other, from some companies it’s obviously an attempt to co-opt critics and manipulate public opinion.

What is it about Spaceship Earth that too many business minds resist? Commerce and manufacturing don’t disappear in a sustainable economic system. But without frontiers of new customers, the only direction competition can take is designing higher quality and greater conservation. From the consumer’s point of view, this is welcome news.

Remember the scene from ‘Apollo 13’ where the astronaut in Houston is trying to figure out how to re-power the entry vehicle with only limited batteries? His perseverance discovers an answer and the endangered astronauts in space are able to set course for home.

Our country appears to be in a similar pickle today. No one yet knows how we’ll navigate the end of cheap oil. But many intelligent and persistent brains are working the problem.
One green solution is greater efficiency and less waste. That alone would probably double the time we have to solve the energy problem.

For example, Germans consume half the electricity per capita of Americans. That’s unacceptable. Just as Nebraskans complained about a second-rate football team, we Americans should refuse to accept anything but front-of-the-pack competitiveness in all aspects of our lives.

Let’s not kid ourselves ‘ this is going to cost some money up front. Quality always does. It’s more expensive to buy and install a water heater with a big enough burner to produce hot water on demand, but the lifetime operational cost is less. No one else in the world heats water for an empty house.

As a country, we need to remember the many ways we have profited from being a shining example to the world and guard against becoming a cause of resentment.

One final green suggestion for today: Let’s stop hobbling our commerce and go metric. Our delay is foolish exceptionalism. Only three countries in the world haven’t officially adopted metric ‘ the United States, Liberia and Myanmar. Aren’t you tired of owning two sets of wrenches? Wouldn’t it be fun to drive 120 instead of 75 (while we still can)?

© Lincoln Green by Design