Air Date: Week of April 19, 1996
Commentator Bill McKibben has a new understanding of the term "sustainability." He believes it has something to do with maturing, as opposed to growing.
CURWOOD: Our economic system thrives on the concept of growth. More is better, we're prone to say, and that's why the concept of sustainability and the notion of limits to growth get a cool reception in many quarters. But commentator Bill McKibben says the problem isn't the concept of sustainability. The problem is the buzzword itself.
McKIBBEN: For some time now, environmental advocates have been converging on a similar idea: that the world's economies and societies now need to cease their pell-mell growth and begin the search for a stability that will keep them safely inside the planet's physical bounds. The buzzword that we've been using since at least the mid-1980s is: sustainability. But as buzzwords go, it's been unsuccessful in capturing the attention of most people.
The reason that sustainability has excited no one outside of narrow policy circles, I think, is because it refers to nothing in human experience. We are born. We grow. We die. These, therefore, become powerful metaphors. A growing economy. A dying civilization. These make intuitive sense to us. But we do something else in our lives, too, at least if we're lucky. We mature. We cease to grow physically, and instead begin the process of developing spiritually and intellectually and morally. And that's what we now must start to do as economies and societies and as a species. All the signals suddenly flashing back to us from the natural world -- the rising temperatures, the higher concentrations of CO2, the sudden spike in extinctions -- all these are signs that we've grown large enough as a civilization. That we must now mature.
Simply saying so doesn't get us very far, of course. The transition to an economy not based on growth will be extraordinarily difficult, calling on every intellectual resource we can muster. But words do count. They count enormously. Since at the moment the only good we can perceive is growth, that's where our energy goes.
And maturity could be a naturally attractive idea. We admire mature people. In many ways we admire them more than the people who have only energy to offer. We know, too, that maturity is a process, never completed, always a struggle to become more the person we want to be. And finally, we realize that self-restraint is the key virtue of maturity, the ability to sacrifice some impulse for the greater good of one's family or friends or nation.
Now we need to summon that same virtue as a society, even as a species. We need to be able to see that just as there is a certain wise satisfaction in foregoing a sports car to save for your child's education, so there's a certain satisfaction in beginning to share the world's wealth more equitably, so that the countries of the poor world needn't follow an environmentally ruinous course to development.
At the moment, our culture admires Donald Trump because he's grown his wallet so quickly. Our economists admire, say, China, because its economy has expanded so fast. But if we took a different measure of value, we might admire different people, different naions. Just as with a child, physical growth is much to be desired for a time. But just as with a child, the time comes to stop growing, at least in external ways, and start the more complicated, more interesting, and ultimately more fulfilling task of maturation. For this planet, that time is now.
CURWOOD: Author Bill McKibben lives in upstate New York. His most recent book is Hope: Human and Wild.
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