Three Steps Toward Sustainability

Steps in Transition

The shift in priorities that our civilization needs to undergo to accomplish long-term well-being will not take place in a single bound. Grasping the nature of a sustainable economic order will come in stages. Industries adopting the Natural Step, Extended Producer Responsibility or other programs, as described in Chapter 12, can move us toward sustainability by reducing fossil-fuel use and the waste they produce, while at the same time conforming to the principles of the economic expansion model. Renewable energy provides a further bridge. With its foundation in the material production of equipment, its positive effects can be multiplied by the application of intent through conservation. Health care and education are of unquestionable importance. They will have a presence in any social structure, and they provide an exemplary way to move the focus of society away from the limited realm of material processing and toward the unlimited realm of life-based potentials.

By stepping away from accumulation and consumption as the purpose of life, security would become the product of working respectfullywith natural cycles. By extending respect to other people, adversarial competitiveness would give way to caring cooperation, and the possibility would expand for creating a truly elegant culture through co-intelligence and participatory democracy.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy provides a toehold for the new legitimacy. Unlike petroleum, where long ago the energy was captured and rendered almost ready for use, renewable energy and storage systems require sophisticated manufactured equipment, making them expensive. A cost-benefit analysis would show that more comfort and service can be derived from investing in conservation measures than in building additional equipment. Understanding that conservation can accommodate human need better than expanding production is crucial.

Energy conservation combines elements from both paradigms. From one perspective, it is a full participant in the “investment- production-compete-for-market-share” world of the growth economy. Energy-efficient light bulbs, motors, appliances and vehicles are all products of profit-motivated businesses. From the other perspective, conservation involves recognizing limits and taking steps to live within them. While this impulse can still lead to product purchases, it gives legitimacy to considering one’s lifestyle and choosing less-consumptive activities. Through this window, the focus shifts toward the sustainability perspective.

The conventional wisdom around energy supply has oscillated notably since the early 1970s. Up until then, energy was strictly a growth industry. Following the 1973 oil crisis, concern for energy conservation reached a high point. Programs were instituted to encourage the insulation of homes and businesses, speed limits were reduced to boost fuel efficiency, and subsidy programs were initiated to advance the development of wind, solar and small-scale hydro-electric generation. Pioneering low-consumption lifestyles was not part of the official response to the energy crunch, but it was a natural inclination for conscientious people. The vision has been growing ever since.

Between the high price of fossil energy and encouragement to conserve, consumption levels did drop, and the energy producers were not pleased. Among the first things that Ronald Reagan did after his election in 1980 was to cancel the funding for alternative energy programs, slowing progress in those fields to a crawl. Speed limits were increased, and a blind eye was turned to the promotion of sport utility vehicles and 4X4 trucks for personal transportation. Exempt from the fuel-efficiency requirements of personal transport, yet sold by the millions, these heavyweight vehicles ended energy conservation in transportation. Claims of increased safety have since unraveled, leaving the public with inefficient transport and increased danger of pollution, fuel depletion and large volumes of steel traveling at high speeds. A review of the Ford Motor Company’s 2003 vehicle lineup showed that only one of those models gets better mileage than the 35 miles per gallon with which their 1912 Model T cruised the highways.

Such was the first oscillation of legitimacy between producing energy to maximize monetary returns and extending the utility of a resource through conservation and the development of alternative energy sources: one was driven by monetary growth, and the other carried within it the seeds of the “life perspective.”

As anxiety mounts again over petroleum reserves, another oscillation is presently taking place. With well over 500 billion barrels of oil consumed since 1973, most oil fields outside the Middle East are past their peak of production and in decline. Those who still believe in perpetual expansion continue to muster vast military forces to secure remaining supplies so that they can continue with business as usual. Those who view the world from the sustainability perspective are moving slowly forward, developing energy-efficient and renewable- energy-producing equipment. These new businesses fit inconspicuously into the old legitimacy as ambitious growth industries preparing to fill a growing need. At the same time, they are important components of a sustainable economy and are increasing the legitimacy of their complement — conservation.

Health Care and Education

The scope for shifting paradigms expands further in the fields of education and health care. Critical to any society, the way these sectors are developed changes significantly depending on which values a society holds. Despite the seemingly self-evident truth that a population is far more productive when it is healthy and well-educated, the money paradigm considers health care and education expendable when accounts get tight: the returns are less concrete and often longer-term than suits conventional monetary expedience. Loan payments are due monthly, economic performance is measured quarterly, and governments are reviewed on their performance every four years or so. A basic education, on the other hand, can take a decade or more, and like health care, is most effective as a life-long process. Unfortunately, from a monetary perspective, which legitimizes only profit, the gains from industry and speculation are more tangible than the returns from good health and education.

Unlike material production where technical innovation can increase the amount of work each person can do, the work of teachers, doctors and nurses requires dealing one-on-one with students and patients. Efforts to increase “productivity” end up lowering the quality of the service. When the measure of all things is money, working directly with people suffers. Technological innovations in manufacturing and some services enable higher pay through increased productivity per person, without disrupting the customary balances between wages, profit and prices. For the wages of teachers and healthcare personnel to keep up with that of their peers in manufacturing, however, additional revenue must be found or other services cut. The money paradigm says the additional costs should be carried by those receiving the services. Such policy in health care and education, however, creates serious divisions. In health care, it divides those who would receive treatment for their illness from those who might die for lack of care. In education, those who must study long years to take on challenging jobs are divided from those who must live by menial labor. Such harsh divides frequently lead to deep resentment between classes and to social instability.

Education in the money paradigm aims to train people for jobs. Raising the price of education limits the number of people who might seek jobs in professional fields, virtually assuring that only the children of those already well off will fill those jobs. Education for life aims instead to produce emotionally stable, confident citizens, with a variety of knowledge. While skills by which individuals can contribute to mutual provision are important, so too are history, philosophy and the arts. These subjects help people understand the world, make informed choices about democratic options and increase the quality of human experience. The sciences are learned, not simply to expand production, but to assure that such production can co-exist harmlessly within the social and natural environments. Furthermore, education is a bountiful component of the life paradigm. By pursuing education for the wonder of knowledge itself, satisfaction can be gained for entire lifetimes with almost no additional material throughput.

Except for the cost of living for the teachers, from the sustainability perspective, education costs almost nothing to deliver compared to a transportation system or consumer products. Once developed, knowledge is free. A teacher can explain a topic to many people. While all will know more than they did before, the teacher loses nothing for passing the knowledge along. It is possible for poor countries to have a very well-educated population. Once basic support for those who enjoy learning is provided, they will be able to absorb and share the bounty of information that humankind has produced. Unfortunately in the Money End Game, developing countries are told to reduce investments in education when lending agencies pressure them to gather money for interest payments.

In the realm of health care, the economic growth model finds opportunity in sickness. Diabetes was mentioned earlier, and drug prices are another infamous example. The extension of patent protection for drugs was a concrete action to accommodate economic growth. Patented drugs are often sold for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of times as much as it costs to produce them. This makes drug companies among the most profitable investments around and assures that their sales will continue to inflate the GDP for years to come. While the resulting increases in GDP, with minimal increase in material throughput, is promoted as a win-win solution for growth and sustainability, the moral repercussions of charging inflated prices for badly needed medication are compromising.

Cancer is a growth industry. Tens of billions of dollars are spent annually treating the poor souls whom it afflicts, and many millions more are spent studying the disease and looking for a cure. In all the research, however, the obvious connections between increasing concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in the environment and the increasing incidence of cancer are largely ignored. Making money doing practically anything is so revered that it is considered almost anti-social to try to solve the problem at the prevention level. It does not bode well for preventative solutions as long as we are entrenched in the value structure of growth everlasting.

Nevertheless, the new paradigm is making appearances here and there. The successful legal suit against the tobacco industry mentioned in connection with full-cost accounting is a landmark example. The legitimacy gained for prevention in that one case will make it easier for future cases where money-making activities threaten well-being.

The expensive equipment and complex procedures that drive medical costs up are the tools necessary for curing illness after it has taken hold. Maintaining good health is not an expensive undertaking when it is approached from the angle of prevention. Mostly what good health requires is knowledge about the factors that contribute to individual well-being and the will to encourage each other to lead healthy lives, rather than promoting the consumption of products and lifestyles that undermine our health. Knowledge, as discussed above, is the product of attention, thought, communication and goodwill. Research to determine the causes of problems can be expensive, but once it has been conducted, the understanding can be reproduced indefinitely at little or no additional cost. Nourishing food, exercise, a community of friends and the opportunity to participate in mutual provision and the decisions that affect one’s life will keep most people in good health.

Cuba provides an excellent example here. The island has been under an economic blockade since 1962. Without the benefits of unrestricted trade and finance, the most abundant resource available has been the life-based capabilities of the people. Even so, in 1988, Cuba was awarded the Health for All medal by the World Health Organization (WHO). The medal recognized it as the only developing country to attain the health goals that the WHO hoped all developing countries would achieve by 2000. Cuba received the medal again ten years later for having more doctors serving in other countries than the WHO itself, and for having lowered its infant mortality rate from 60 per 1,000 births in 1959 to 6.5 presently. By comparison, the US has an infant mortality rate of 6.9 per 1,000 births.

A recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine said of the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana: “[It is] sponsored by the Cuban government and dedicated to training doctors to treat the poor of the Western hemisphere and Africa. Twenty-seven countries and 60 ethnic groups are represented among [the school’s] eight thousand students.” Of these, 88 are from disadvantaged parts of the US. In exchange for free education, students are required to commit to practicing medicine back in the poor communities from which they came.

Another example is China’s “barefoot doctors.” A Canadian, Dr. Norman Bethune, started China’s present medical system during their revolution in 1935. Bethune had already achieved notoriety for a variety of things. These included the procedure, which he first performed on himself, for curing tuberculosis by collapsing a lung, and the creation of the first mobile medical unit upon which Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) are now modeled. Before going to China, Bethune had been a professor at McGill University in Montreal. To this day, in his honour, each year two professors are chosen from the McGill Faculty of Medicine to tour China and lecture at medical schools there.

My father, Dr. Mark Nickerson, was head of the Department of Pharmacology at McGill when he was chosen in 1975 to be one of the Bethune Professors. One of my dad’s specialties was post-traumatic shock, the sort of complication that sets in after a severe injury, such as a very bad burn. In China, he was expecting to deliver a talk on the methods he had been developing, but before the lecture, he was given a tour through a large hospital. To his surprise, the post-traumatic-shock complications he was accustomed to dealing with here in Canada were almost nonexistent there. In North America, 20 percent of serious burn victims might develop such complications. In China, the figure was around one-half of one percent. The “barefoot doctors” were responsible for the difference.

Because the new order arising in 1935 had almost no medical services available, Bethune trained people to train others in medical procedures. A kind of voluntary pyramid scheme of medical information sharing developed. By the time of my father’s visit, if someone in China didn’t have a job, he or she received first aid training. If there was still no work, they received more sophisticated training. Over time, a great many Chinese have been trained in all manner of medical procedures. One in every 80 people there is a healthcare provider. What this means to accident victims is that sophisticated first aid is available anywhere in the country soon after an accident. The shock complications don’t develop because of the speed with which accident victims are treated. My father’s specialty was irrelevant, and it was necessary for him to quickly come up with another topic for his lecture.

Even today, China is not yet rich by Western standards, but 30 years ago it was far less so. The difference in this healthcare system, at that time at least, was that medical procedures did not have to respond to the structural scarcity of a debt-based money system. Human ingenuity could be directed toward other ends.

We have some of the advantages of the life-based approach with Canada’s medicare system. Although it is heavily influenced by a profit-seeking drug-manufacturing industry, and tight restrictions on who can provide medical care, the services are primarily in the interest of a healthy population. Even as powerful lobbies campaign to allow for-profit medical facilities, there is a trend to shift medicare’s focus from treating illness to promoting wellness. While we aren’t training welfare recipients to give their neighbors first aid yet, there is a growing effort to keep people out of the “medical treatment market.”

Many communities in Ontario are fortunate to have community health centers. The doctors on staff are paid a salary rather than per visit and, as a result, have nothing to gain from people getting, or staying, sick. The primary focus of these centers is to encourage healthy living. By helping people to understand how health is affected by stress, pollution, quality of employment, income distribution, exercise, nutrition, participation in decision-making and the like, communities are prompted to work toward improving the quality of life for everyone.

Health care straddles the line between the material focus, which can be lucratively harnessed for monetary expansion, and the life focus, which can provide significant increases in well-being with almost no material requirements beyond the sustenance of those providing the services. The economic growth approach might be seen, from the life-based perspective, as taking undue advantage of people’s weaknesses, while the life-based approach would be considered worthless, distracting or counter- productive where monetary expansion is the measure of success.

Life-based Activity

Renewable energy systems support the sustainability perspective by introducing conservation. Education and health care can take this a step further by showing some advantages of focusing on well-being rather than profit. Both of these can be, and presently are, managed in ways that also serve monetary expansion. Shifting one’s focus from consumption to life-based activities takes one completely out of the money perspective and into the life model. When we make this move, we can expect opposition as it challenges the present order’s deepest illusion — that material things are the essence of wealth, well-being and satisfaction.

Once basic nutrition and shelter are secured, the illusion that life depends on material things is a trap. Until we realize how we, too, are caught by the materialist illusion, there will be a tendency to dismiss life-based solutions as lacking legitimate content. Material goods have built-in tollgates. Those who possess the material can demand money from anyone who wants what they have. Satisfaction derived from life, and from developing the capabilities of aliveness, offers few such tollgates. One might, for example, be able to charge for giving music lessons, but once a student catches on, he or she could well derive pleasure from music for the rest of his or her life without ever paying again. The case is even more pronounced when it comes to gaining satisfaction from a good friendship, or the appreciation of the things we can see, hear, taste, feel, smell and understand. Even when lessons introducing such things are purchased, the return business can be minimal.

Because of our material focus, modern education often neglects the basics of how to be a good friend, what makes relationships work and how to raise children to be creative, self-motivated responsible citizens. We are not taught how to eliminate the undue influence that past traumas can have on present circumstances. Such lessons would produce huge benefits in terms of long-term well-being, but they could also cause a serious setback for GDP. Psychiatrists, lawyers, prison guards and physicians would lose a lot of business, and if people had fulfilling lives with less residual trauma, far less gratification would be sought through consuming material goods and other addictive behaviours. The economic expansion model could be in serious trouble. Investing in such education would only pay off if we measured progress in terms of well-being.

I think again of my friend John’s comment about the “poor” Asians he visited in the early 1970s. When things got tough, they “just huddled closer together in the great love they had for each other and it was okay.” One wonders whether or not such people are actually poor? With access to traditional lands, they could support each other forever, cycling their nutritional needs through natural processes and working together to maintain their shelters and other necessities. In the closeness of community, the gratification that comes from helping those one knows can transform work into passing time with friends. There are few in our money culture who enjoy such security.

One who is content with little, has much.

- Lao Tsu

Financial security always seems to be an issue. The debt-based money contrivance keeps everyone on the edge. After generations of pursuing self-interest, and with television claiming our time and teaching us to want so many things, community bonds are all-too- often absent and the sense of needing something never far away. The material dream requires a lifetime of hard work or exploitation, yet seldom does it provide the sense of having arrived. If our purpose was mutual provision without having to compete over a monetary supply kept scarce by design, a whole new world of possibilities could open up. By recognizing security as having enough to get by in the material realm, it is possible to become still inside and breathe in the wonders of life. Time to live and to help those close by is available to anyone — no gate, no ticket. All that is required is to appreciate sufficiency and open up to what life offers. There is a security bonus in that civilization based on enjoying life has a far greater chance of enduring than one seeking perpetual material growth.

Voluntary Simplicity

One of the fastest-growing trends in North America today is the move- ment of people to simplify their lives. Working long hours can be stressful on individuals and alienating for their families. By avoiding the trap of materialism and, instead, enjoying what life offers, one can have far more time for living and do less harm to the Earth in the process.

A trip to your local garbage dump can provide a firm grasp of this concept. The tradition of “dumping” garbage lost some of its legitimacy in the 1980s, so the facility is now called a “landfill site.” Now, there is likely an associated recycling program, and the garbage will be carefully covered so that rain water runs off and away, rather than percolating through the often toxic contents. Whatever the improvements, however, your experience will be the same; you will still find huge volumes of used goods and truckload after truckload of things upon which people spent good money, days, weeks or months earlier, coming to be buried. Imagine how much was paid for the contents of each of those truckloads. People worked hard for that money; by spending it, they willed the conversion of the natural world into products that they possessed for a time and then threw away. While doing their bit for an obsolete economy, the futility of their efforts is obvious as one watches the trucks unload.

Material security, in the form of excellent nutrition, comfortable, energy-efficient homes, sufficient clothing, excellent tools, close families and communities, and lots of time to be creative and enjoy the wonders all around, can be achieved for all, if we so choose. Even the basic physical gear of education, health care, sports and the arts is within our grasp. What cannot be maintained is the steady and increasing flow of goods that are produced with the intent of being used up and discarded to make way for more of the same.

“Voluntary simplicity” costs far less than a life pursuing material goods; it is more satisfying because the enjoyment is real in the way our lives are real. It is a vision that we can realistically offer our children and grandchildren. A sense of knowing that we are passing a world of fulfilling possibilities on to our children would be priceless, in and of itself.

A Step in Good Faith

Both feminine and masculine are found in each of us, in varying proportions. Nevertheless, the underlying dichotomy exists and provides a useful reference. While the statements in this paragraph and those following are broad, with many exceptions, “feminine” attributes are most frequently found in women and “masculine” attributes most frequently found in men. Most of the present order is run by men; we are strong, stable and motivated. We are also full of personal ambitions, just the thing for a system that promotes self-interest and competition as the best way to serve the common good.

As the collective human condition shifts from adolescence toward maturity, the qualities of cooperation and inclusiveness become more appropriate. These qualities are more commonly found in women. When making decisions, there is a tendency for women to think, “What will work for the children?” rather than “How can I win?” Considerations of pride, power or conquest are less likely to distract their focus from the common good. Feminine attitudes are the essence of the Seven Generations perspective. We need more of them.

There are women in positions of power today who got there by competing with and winning over men. With women, as with men, there is a full spectrum of qualities. Within the current structures, it takes masculine qualities to get to “the top.” Think back to Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Golda Meir of Israel, both of whom demonstrated that they had “the balls” to wage war. This is not the conciliatory attitude I’m suggesting would surface if women filled more positions of power. Gro Brundtland provides a different example. As the Prime Minster of Norway, she chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development that produced Our Common Future described in chapter 1. That statement of concerns led to the great hope that humankind might rise to the challenges of our times.

George Mully became a friend and mentor as we worked together in the late 1980s on the video in the Guideposts for a Sustainable Future discussion kit. Earlier in his career, he did projects for native communities where he learned how leaders were chosen within the Six Nations Confederacy. He explained that, while the leaders were men, they were chosen by the women. If someone was ambitious and wanted to lead, he was disqualified. Leadership wasn’t about personal ambition; it was about service to the community. How was it known which men harbored personal ambitions and which did not? The women knew, because they had known them since they were babies.

It will take a strong sense of trust, fair play and the will to survive to raise the feminine influence on decision-making up to par with the masculine. A healthy balance is needed. There must be ways for the masculine and the feminine perspectives to coexist. Among mature, responsible adults, it is unnecessary for the boisterous to submerge the accommodating. If a commitment to democratic process exists, opportunities to speak should be possible for those who prefer to let a moment pass after one person has finished talking, before adding another perspective. The technique of consultation (see the appendix) provides suggestions.

Marilyn Waring is the godmother of the well-being measurement movement. She served three terms in the New Zealand government — the first, as the only woman member of parliament. In her second term, she chaired the Public Expenditures Committee. There she learned how disconnected the GDP measure was from much of what is valuable in society. Most of what women traditionally do is ignored in GDP tallies. Raising and educating young children, keeping peace in the home and community and the care of aging parents, to name a few critical activities, are not counted. Because they do not contribute to the GDP, those essential services are officially invisible, and few public resources are made available to assist those providing such services. The lack of compensation, or even social recognition, causes some to feel it is not legitimate work. With people seeking to contribute in ways that are recognized, these critical roles in society are increasingly neglected.

Proponents of economic expansion argue that people express their will through how they spend money. Marilyn Waring believes that our will is more accurately expressed by how we spend our time. If public resources were distributed relative to where helpful time is spent, rather than where money is made, our world would evolve differently.

In the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, in part because of the traditional custom where women were responsible for family wealth and men married into families, but not into control, the women have had a definite say in how that society’s resources are allocated. This has resulted in developed world standards of literacy and health, along with population stability, all on an average income of $330 per year. This, and other examples of what happens when women are empowered, led to the 1994 United Nations Conference on Population making the education of young women a central part of the global population stabilization strategy.

The attitudes of cooperation, and of caring for those who cannot fully care for themselves, are important elements of what we must accomplish. Whether through genetic propensity, cultural training or from the long and loving work of raising children, these are qualities most consistently found in women. The more women are empowered to make decisions in society, and the more comfortable that men become with their own capacity for nurturing, the more influence these qualities will have on the world our children will inherit.