How shall I live?

Second in our series, Walk With the Elephant

The curious thing is that no matter how different they are, the people are all pre-occupied with the same thing, that is: how to live. We have to eat, we want to make money, but in every pause the question returns: how shall I live? Jeanette Winterson: The World & Other Places.

The way that the imperative of sustainable development now requires us to think about social, economic and natural environment matters together raises some interesting possibilities: that sustainable development might actually comprise a lens, or tool, through which we can understand and deal with the wider world, and in doing so, provide us with an answer to the age-old question of how we should interact with the natural and social systems around us.

The shifting of the discourse from one solely about “the environment” to one encompassing connected environmental, social and economic matters emphasises the point – that sustainable development cannot be seen as its own self-contained field, but must permeate all endeavours. Indeed, sustainable development is the world itself.

In this view, sustainable development, perhaps reassuringly, becomes not something new, but simply a new reflection on that timeless dilemma – how should we live? This view is explored by Simon Chew, a forestry scientist, in his 2001 study of how different civilisations over the past 5000 years have interacted with the biophysical systems upon which they rely.

He found that as each civilization grew, excesses in population growth, consumption, which he termed “accumulation”, and urbanisation established the conditions for a subsequent “environmental dark age”. This period saw the demise of the structure of that particular society and reduced living standards for the subsequent population.

In some localities, natural systems were so degraded that permanent deforestation and desertification resulted.

It is not difficult to see, if we look around us, evidence of just such a situation now. Simon Chew’s findings resonate with Paul Ehrlich’s now famous (1969) equation – that Impact = Population x Consumption x Technology.

Of particular interest though, is that Chew identified another feature embedded within each society he studied – the existence of a different but parallel voice to that which established that society’s interaction with the environment. This dissenting voice spoke against what it saw as unsustainable behaviour and typically called for restraint and the re-establishment of closer affinities between humans and the non-human world.

Invariably, these calls were not heeded sufficiently to avoid collapse. It is not difficult, in this long-view of history, to see the current discourse on sustainable development as a similar dissenting voice: a call for restraint parallel with the more dominant condition of population growth, expanding urban areas, degrading natural systems, and increased consumption. A difference is that today the implications are global.

But while illuminating, Chew is also somewhat chilling in the limited way in which he draws his long-view conclusion that as humans we live without the usual checks provided by predators and as such are destined for demise by destroying our particular – now global – ecological niche.

In this view, we can only ever be, to borrow the term of our own Tim Flannery, “future-eaters”. So can the voice of the dissenting strand ever do more than delay the inevitable? Can such environmental histories suggest lessons for us to draw on in order to change the situation Chew and Flannery describe?

Fortunately, Jarad Diamond, in a similarly scoped environmental history published in 2002, comes to our rescue. Diamond charts examples of both societies that have collapsed and societies that have endured for thousands of years.

He concludes that the reasons for collapse or endurance come from a wide and complicated interaction of factors: self-inflicted environmental damage; climate change; relations with neighbours that determine whether resources are spent on trade or war; and overall cultural attitudes.

The case for hope

He adopts the more hopeful conclusion that contemporary society, with its global scale and expanded access to knowledge, is the only society in history that has had the means to learn from both the past and from the diverse responses that others are making now. Thus, as he states: “… at least we have the choice of what we want to do about it”.

The real question, then, is: what will be that choice? Will we respond merely in the darkened manner charted by George Myerson in his reviews of media discussion around the time of the millennium in the United Kingdom – where apparently separate events (the outbreak of ‘mad cow’ disease, unseasonal flooding, and a petrol shortage) were grouped together under the one umbrella of ‘the environmental crisis”?

And where their unpredictability, immediate local impact, and an apparent lack of control generated a new fear he termed “ecopathology” – where “… the small details of ordinary life fill with the darkest meanings”?

Or in the similar narrowness that sociologist Ulric Beck termed our ‘risk society’ – an aversion that leads to a fear that paralyses us into inaction, and a rhetoric, as suggested by George Seddon, that wonderfully perceptive commentator on things social and environmental from Western Australia, that induces despair?

But, and fortunately again, there are more positive views on what our choice should be. Contemplate the exuberance in the Canadian commentator Robert Theobald’s advocacy of our current age as “a healing century”; and in the urging of the cultural historian Thomas Berry for all of us, together, to adopt what he calls “The Great Work”: a move from being a disruptive force on the Earth to a long-term benign presence “where humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner”.

Here one should also be inspired by the similar expansiveness of Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Perth’s Curtin University of Technology, when he contends that “sustainability has a disarming quality … it is driven by hope. This is its magic …” And so is this newsletter