Friday, August 18, 2006

Is sustainable development a death sentence?


"Sustainable development" is one of the most contested ideas in the environmental movement in the last 25 years. It refers to a vision of human social progress in which natural resources are consumed at a rate that allows for the satisfaction of human needs now and for future generations. How do we make sure that we live simply so so that people in the future will be able to simply live?

In my interview with Dr. Andrew Light , I was really interested in his claim that city living is perhaps the most ecologically sustainable things we can do. If we live in high rise, dense city scapes we may be reducing the consumption of heating oil, eletricity, and cutting down on automobile emissions. It turns out, according to Light, that the American vision of suburban living is the most unsustainable thing we can do!

Of course, for some deep ecologists the idea of sustainable development is suspicious because it still talks about the environment in relation to human beings. Nature is still conceived of in terms of resources for human consumption and not as a living thing with intrinsic value.

I ran across this article by Charles Shaw that outlines a debate between those who think that we can work to integrate human societies more in sync with nature and others who think that human civilization is unredeemable and leading us to ruin. This second view is more widespread than one might think, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. I have known several students who have either been involved, or have friends or family involved, in groups that hold this perspective and think the only thing to do is to jar all the rest of us into awareness by destroying symbols of industrial civilization, such as SUVs.

The claim that civilization is inherently corrupt has many variations in the history of Western philosophy going all the way back to Plato. But with global warming and poverty becoming so apparent to us now, might the doomsayers have a point?

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