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Why Aren't We Sustainable?

Changing our culture is the key to creating a sustainable "New Normal"

Submitted by: David Wann

Posted: Sep 18, 2011 – 08:14 PM EST

Tags: sustainability, culture, ethics, social factors, society


By David Wann

The biggest threat to America is the American way of life, yet we cling to it like a sweaty pillow on a sleepless night. How can we become a sustainable and affordable society when long-held routines, rituals, regulations and recipes remain largely unchallenged? It’s our social software that needs to change, since so many of our challenges are deeply embedded in our collective value system. When we agree on a new definition of the word “success,” we are Munchkins, “out of the woods.”

To create a clean and green new normal, let’s use a collective strategy proven to break addictions at the individual level:

  • Admit we have a problem.
  • Seek support, cooperation and cultural consensus.
  • Create a new national identity, as other nations already have.
  • Design and maintain more equitable policies, greener technologies and the social structures to preserve them.

We keep hoping our familiar, comfortable lifestyle will continue without significant changes. If we just screw in some compact fluorescent and LED bulbs and remember to take cloth bags to the grocery, maybe we can avoid rethinking our relationship with the earth? If we bring new technologies on line – such as plug-in hybrid vehicles, super-efficient buildings and huge wind farms – we’ll be there, right?

Not exactly. Until we change the direction of our plug-and-play lifestyle, we’ll continue to generate lethal levels of carbon dioxide as we plunder rich ecosystems to have powerful vehicles, must-have gadgets and nutrition-free, processed food. For example, although mandated upgrades in automobile efficiency held transportation’s share of oil consumption steady from 1980 to 1990, the pampered American psyche demanded larger and more powerful vehicles and we drove them more – erasing efficiency gains, increasing oil demand and literally driving up the price of gas.

The Obama administration has called for fuel efficiency standards like Europe’s – more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 – and American carmakers admit it’s technically feasible. Yet the social question remains: can Americans adapt to smaller vehicles driven as few miles a year as the average European (about 4,500)? This will require better design of cities and communities, stimulated by changes in what we value and demand as citizens.

Two-thirds of Americans say they’d choose to live in a small town if possible, and a similar number would trade their trophy home for a mid-sized home in a great neighborhood, but there aren’t enough small towns and great neighborhoods to go around. In fact, many zoning and building codes effectively make the design of walkable, diverse neighborhoods illegal, partly because they don’t accommodate cars well enough or fit the “normal” pattern.

How can we accelerate the transition to a bright, new normal? Social factors such as advertising, TV and widespread adoption of the “good life” got us into this mess, and social factors will get us out. We’ll create a more sensible way of living by telling and retelling a story that promotes a more moderate, less stressful lifestyle. We’ll build a new civilization the way we built the current one: with incentives, social rewards, changing styles and designs, new kinds of technologies and new ways of meeting our needs. The big picture is that production and consumption will no longer be the defining characteristics of the next era—cultural richness, efficiency, cooperation, expression, ecological design and biological restoration will be.

About David Wann

David Wann is author or co-author of 10 books about sustainable designs, policies and lifestyles. His most recent book, The New Normal, presents 33 points of intervention in dysfunctional systems. Find out more at www.davewann.com.

Readers: What are your ideas about changing the culture to a New Normal? Tell us on Talkback!

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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