Can’t Touch This:
The 2 Topics in Global Sustainability that No Political Leader has the Nerve to Call Us On

Renewable energy, cradle to cradle thinking, reinventing business: we love all of this stuff and commend the leaders who are taking those issues on. BUT there are 2 big fat elephants in the room in the fight against climate change: 1) the fact that a global economy based on massive personal consumption is not sustainable, and 2) the sacred cow of National Sovereignty. These are unpleasant structural challenges which no one wants to address (can you say “political suicide”?)- too many people in power have a perceived stake in keeping things the way they are to really step aside and prepare for a fundamental shift.

Attention: There will be no rebooting of the Consumption Economy as we knew it

The intersection of our massive personal credit hangover, our dramatically increased environmental awareness and the definitive findings by happiness researchers (not to mention personal experience of disillusioned boomers) that more stuff doesn’t make us happier …. can only lead to one conclusion: there will be no rebooting of the consumption economy as we knew it. It would be better if we didn’t drive our policies around the assumption that there will be. Even if we move to 100% renewables and make everything recyclable we will still have to just plain consume less- and it’s going to be a shock to the structure of our current economies. But you can see the problem- are you going to be the politician that says retail sales may be in permanent decline? That contrary to the retailers’ December lament, a 17% drop in sales is not a catastrophe- Katrina is a catastrophe, not the fact that people are making do with what they have.

If you aren’t one of the 4 million people who have you seen the 20 minute online film Story of Stuff it’s worth your time- it’s an informed cartoon. This, along with Inconvenient Truth, and media like Grist, Discover, Sundance, National Geographic— has changed the awareness of our cultural impact on the planet and what our daily decisions mean. We’re waking up- and once you wake up, you can’t go back to the old way.

Once Upon a Time, in a World Far Away, there was this Thing Called “National Sovereignty”

Nations solve national problems, but our problems today transcend borders. Are we willing to subsume to a global will on issues of atmosphere, oceans and ecosystems, as well as the uniquely contemporary challenges of a mobile global population, including things like international crime and pandemic? The persistence of nationalism eliminates the potential for swift coordinated global action. In the vacuum of coordination, we abdicate decision making to global corporations and their shareholders, who are making choices for how we evolve our collective standards through their policies- sometimes pushing faster than governments are willing to move, and sometimes putting the breaks on reforms they don’t like and moving their business elsewhere. For example, WalMart can have more impact on Global Sustainability standards through its purchasing policies, than the collected voices of the nations of the world under the current structure- and move a LOT faster. With good leadership, this can be of tremendous positive force- but it’s by no means democratic. (note: 51 of the top 100 economies in the world are corporations)

Further, sticking with our own nationalism offers a banner under which all manner of national bad actors can stand, and from that justification undermine the commons- whether its the Norwegians and Japanese on overfishing , or the United States stubborn refusal to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, these countries are basically saying screw the commons- we’re not in it together- our individual interests supersede the collective. The UN is trying to provide a forum but is hamstrung by its charter to not intervene within a country’s borders, as well as its old school top-down structure. The G-7 and the many Davos-like summits in so many venues can only go so far.

Who’s Going to Make the Call?

In the name of the common good, are we in the west willing to live joyfully on this planet with a lot less STUFF to form the exoskeleton over our fragile mortal bodies? Are we willing to be localized implementers of a global agenda, and let our collective national egos fall away? All that’s in the balance is human sustainability; the Earth will be fine-as a friend of mine like to say, “Mother Nature will always bat last.” Who’s got the nerve to call us on this game?

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