Yesterday I was keynote speaker for World Environmental Day at the University of Melbourne. Below I have posted the transcript of my talk:
Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for that introduction, Professor Kvan, and thank you all for being here to mark World Environment Day.
It was Buckminster Fuller who once said: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’
This approach to social transformation essentially expresses the idea that examples are powerful; that examples can send ripples through culture further than we might ever think possible, creating cultural currents, that can turn into subcultures, that sometimes explode into social movements and which, on very rare occasions, can spark a revolution in consciousness that changes the world. In age when it can sometimes seem like there is no alternative to the carbon-intensive, consumer way of life, being exposed to a real-world example of a new way of living and being has the potential to expand and radicalise the ecological imagination. In those moments when we are able to break through the crust of conventional thinking we see, all at once, that the world as it is, is not how the world has to be.
Today I would like to share with you a demonstration project I’m involved in. With a nod to Buckminster Fuller, the motivation for this project is not so much about fighting the existing reality, so much as it inspired by the belief that real, attractive and ecologically responsible alternatives are waiting for us, waiting for us to live them into existence and thereby show not only that other worlds are possible and that they are desirable, but that here-and-now, we can begin to build the new world within the shell of the old.
Let me begin, however, by saying that we probably need to approach the task of social transformation from both angles – that is to say, we need to challenge the vested interests that underpin the existing reality as we build the new model or models of ecological practice. Buckminster Fuller, I suspect, would probably have agreed.
The Fossil-Fuel Divestment Movement, for example, is a promising example of a powerful strategy for change that very much focuses on confronting the existing reality, the existing system, in an attempt to undermine the fossil fuel industry that currently profits from the causes of climate change. Divestment is a movement that calls on us all – as individuals and institutions – to vote with our money, to vote for a world beyond fossil fuels.
Having said this much, it would be a dereliction of duty not to take this public opportunity to say that any university with the courage of its convictions would withdraw its financial support for the fossil fuel industry, for pain of glaring intellectual and moral contradiction. Surely no academic institution, as a matter of principle, could pay their climate scientists with money derived from fossil fuel investment. You would think that this would be too obvious to require a movement, a campaign, or even a request. But such is the state of things at the University of Melbourne. I am told that the university council is meeting in a few days to address this important subject. Let us hope that it chooses to lead rather than be left behind.
The slogan for this year’s World Environment Day is this: ‘Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.’ The perspective I am to share with you today addresses this theme quite directly, but I hope that it also challenges you to think hard about what sustainable consumption really means, because I worry that this important notion has come to mean little more than turning the lights off, buying ‘green’ products, and taking shorter showers. I want to challenge you to think hard about what it would mean for seven billion people, soon to be eight or nine or ten billion people, to live well on our one and only planet. What, I ask you, would living on a ‘fair share’ ecological footprint look like?
By now we are all familiar with the notion that if the North American way of life were to be universalised and sustained, we would need around five planets worth of Earth’s biocapacity. If the Australian way of life were to be universalised and sustained, we would need around four planets; the Western European way of life, we’d still need more than three planets. Needless to say, we only have one planet, and every year the global economy is ecological overshoot, the biophysical foundations of our existence, and that of other species, is undermined.
As I have said, all this is well known. What is far less widely known, however, is that even the world’s most successful and long-lasting ecovillages have yet to attain a ‘fair share’ ecological footprint. Take the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland, for example, probably the most famous ecovillage in the world. An ecological footprint analysis was undertaken of this community, and it was discovered that even the deep reductions and transformations they have achieved still left the community of Findhorn consuming resources and emitting waste far in excess of what could be universalised. Put otherwise, if the whole world came to look like one of our most successful ecovillages, then we would still need one and half planets worth of biocapacity. The global economy would still be in ecological overshoot.
Let us dwell on that for a moment. If the whole world came to look like one of our most successful ecovillages, then we would still need one and half planets worth of biocapacity. I do not tell you this to depress you, although I admit that it conveys the magnitude of our ecological predicament with disarming clarity. Nor do I say this to criticise the noble efforts of the Findhorn community, which does far more than most. Rather, I tell you this to make the following two points.
First, because it is a reminder that turning the lights off, buying ‘green’ products, and taking shorter showers – important thought these steps might be – provide a grossly inadequate conception of sustainable consumption. If that is what people think sustainable consumption means, then it will merely entrench the status quo at a time that is calling urgently for disruptive innovation and transformative action.
If the extraordinary efforts of Findhorn still fall short of one planet living, then let us acknowledge that tinkering with the existing cultures or structures of the globalised growth economy, or hoping for a techno-fix that could safely universalise our affluence, is a strategy-cum-ideology that is now causing the problems it claims to be solving. Given the extent of ecological overshoot, we simply cannot dematerialise our affluence sufficiently to produce a sustainable way of life. It follows that we must seek prosperity beyond affluence, in far more modest levels of consumption, but for too many people this remains unthinkable. For too many people, living more simply in a material sense seems to imply going backwards somehow. They do not grasp the paradox that less can be more.
The second point I’d make is that this insight into the Findhorn Ecovillage tells us that, even after five or six decades of the modern Environmental Movement, we still do not have an ‘example’ of what living well on a ‘fair share’ ecological footprint might look like. Isn’t that both interesting and disturbing? How are we suppose to envision the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, if we don’t yet have an example of it, even as a microcosm, which we can see and touch and feel and try to understand. How can we be expected to mobilise communities for deep societal transformation if we don’t yet have an example to hold up as a map to say ‘this is more or less where we need to go’?
Those are some the questions that animate my academic work, as well as my non-academic work, and having now provided this introduction, I would like to provide a whirlwind tour of the demonstration project I mentioned earlier, a project that is seeking to explore a deeper green conception of sustainability, in order to see how far down the path of ‘one planet’ living we can get.
The project I am developing, with others, is called Wurruk’an, which is based on a 20-acre block of land, water, and bush in the Gunai district of Gippsland, Victoria. Wurruk is the local indigenous word meaning both ‘Earth’ and ‘story’. K’an is the Mayan term for ‘seed’. We invented the term Wurruk’an to signify our attempt to ‘seed a new Earth story.’ As a strategy for social change, this small and evolving project is seeking to build the new world within the shell of the old.
Although there is much overlap here with the traditional ecovillage movement, there are two points of difference that I think are deserving of note. First of all, we are aware of the ecological footprint of Findhorn, which we interpret as a challenge to push the boundaries of ecological practice a few steps further, even if the ultimate vision is not as glamorous as that which is presented in glossy environmental design magazines. Wurruk’an offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.
Secondly, whereas many ecovillages have been criticised for being somewhat escapist, our aim is not to escape the system but to contribute to its positive transformation. We are trying to create a demonstration project that helps people think through the radical implications of our ecological predicament and envision what I provocatively call a ‘prosperous descent’. Through this practical inquiry we hope to provoke a broader social conversation about the need to transcend consumer culture and advance toward a simpler way of life based on notions of sufficiency, frugality, mindfulness, local economy, and appropriate technology. We’re also in the process of making a documentary that we hope is able to share what we are doing and learning.
Among other things we’ve been building passive solar-designed small houses out of mud or reclaimed wood and tin, growing organic food, capturing water from the skies, learning the skills of self-sufficiency, experimenting with alternative technologies and systems, reconnecting with nature, practising self-governance, and moving toward systems of renewable energy. Although these are still early days, with much to be done, the emerging vision is aglow with promise and potential.
Let me quickly show you a few photos of our progress so far.
I’m sure this brief introduction has raised as many questions as it has answered. If you’d like to learn more, please see our website at wurrukan.org. But let me briefly just anticipate and respond to one question or concern that might be on your mind. At Wurruk’an we are not trying to create a blueprint that can be applied and reapplied independent of context. The practice of sustainability demands creative interpretation and application in context specific ways. Rather than a blueprint, what we are trying to do is to challenge dominant conceptions of sustainability by exploring the radical implications of moving toward a ‘fair share’ ecological footprint. First and foremost, this means reimagining the good life beyond consumer culture and embracing lifestyles of material sufficiency.
In an age of gross ecological overshoot there is no escaping the fact the overdeveloped nations – including Australia – need to initiate a degrowth process of planned reduction of energy and resource consumption. While this can be achieved, in part, through techno-efficiency and design improvements, the more fundamental challenge is restructure our economies in ways that promote cultures of consumption based on an ethics sufficiency and moderation. These are not terms you see discussed in environmental literature very often, and they are unspeakable in mainstream political discourse. But I contend that sufficiency and moderation is what sustainability means, and if the dreams of seven billion people are to be realised on our one and only planet, then that is what sustainability demands. To borrow the words of my friend Mark Burch: let the record show that we chose to thrive in simplicity rather than perish in affluence.
In closing, let me just say that my talk today was supposed launch my new book, Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits, which is available over there. It addresses the themes I’ve been speaking of today. Unfortunately I’m not a very good marketer of my books, but let me try: I’ve written a new book; it’s very good; you should buy it.
If you aren’t able to buy it, please subscribe to the Simplicity Institute website and you can receive a pdf copy for free. It seems I’m not a very good businessman either.
Thank you for your attention.