Friday, September 04, 2009

Sustainable Consumption - Our Only Hope for Immortality

Break it down again
No more sleepy dreaming
No more building up
It is time to dissolve – Roland Orzabal

Mankind has always been motivated to create something larger than itself, to seek immortality, and to leave a legacy. The Egyptian pharaohs are a perfect example. The pyramids have lasted thousands of years and will last for many more centuries. Today, we are awed by the majesty of these monuments. Hundreds of our most intelligent brothers and sisters have and will become Egyptologists. Millions of our brethren visit these monuments annually. Most visitors report that the experience of being there is like nothing else that they have experienced in their life. The emotion of elevation is felt by most who visit. The same things can be said about the Great Wall of China, the Roman Coliseum, Versailles, the Taj Mahal, and many other great monuments.

Not only do most of these monuments that honor the capacity of human ambition, creativity, and industry represent times of tremendous inequality among humans (masters and slaves). But they represent moments in time when humans had little or no consideration for the impacts that these massive constructions had on the environment. If anything, they were planned and produced in spite of the environment – they were not only representations of man’s capacity for greatness, they represent man’s dominance and control over the land and the other creatures with whom they share the Earth.

We are impressed by what we have built. We travel the world to experience firsthand the magnificence of our creations. We are perhaps moderately saddened but the number of slaves who lost their lives during the construction of the pyramids. But we rarely feel remorse or embarrassment about the environmental effects that such constructions would have had.

This is one of many components of the human condition that works against a sustainable future. Man’s instinct for a legacy works counter to having a small footprint on the Earth. Having little impact (either physically or figuratively) requires tremendous humility. Most of us are not that strong. We prefer that our constructions be viewable from outer space just in case trans-universal visitors happen across our mostly blue planet.

Much of what we build is symbolic; symbolic of our strength, our courage, and our industriousness. These symbols also play to our needs, desires, identities, and our pursuit of meaning. For many, a small environmental footprint symbolizes a life of little meaning or significance. Though most of us will leave little or no legacy whatever, we feel a deeply rooted hope for something much more. Playing down our lives is counterintuitive for us. We can feel pride for limiting the environmental impacts of our lives. But it is a pride in the sense of martyrdom - paying the ultimate price for doing our part to lengthen the life of the Earth, and to improve the lives of those who follow us.

What can be done? How can we get past this innate striving for something greater than ourselves? How can we alter this innate force to guarantee our survival? If this nut can be cracked, then there is hope for a sustainable future. If we do not crack this nut, we (and all of the other living things on the Earth) are likely doomed. What we are talking about here are the psychological forces within us. I propose that these forces hold the key to a sustainable future. Without unlocking the beliefs and emotions that are causing our inevitable destruction, we are fooling ourselves.

For sure, there is a vibrant sustainability movement afoot in the world. Programs such as “An Inconvenient Truth” have had significant impacts. These impacts have been, for the most part, rooted in awareness. We are learning that our actions are damaging our only home in the universe. We are recognizing the reality of the situation. We see it. But do we own it?

Some people own it. They are working toward a sustainable future through everyday actions and organizational involvement. They are affecting change wherever they can. So far, most of this work has been persuasive in nature. The solutions, up to this point, have been predominantly technical. How do we separate the items in our trash for recycling? How do we reduce our CO2 emissions? How do we convince others to change their habits? What laws can be passed to limit pollution? These actions have been effective. There is clearly a ground-swell of support for much of what is being done.

I argue that these actions are a good first step, but we need to take things to the next level. We need to tap the minds of our greatest thinkers in psychology, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, and other disciplines focused on the human psyche in order to beat a path to the door that leads to our ultimate survival. The irony is that, if immortality is what we truly seek as a species, then only sustainable living will get us there. The old ways of building great monuments to represent our immortality must come to an end. In a sense we need to deconstruct for our survival. We need to deconstruct our physical environments. And, more importantly, we need to deconstruct our minds. If we can identify those emotional levers that will direct our behaviors to be more sustainable, then we can start working those levers in ways that provide for more sustainable living.

It has taken us thousands of years to recognize that our activities are harming the environment. It will likely take us hundreds more to be able to change our minds about what is important, and have that change be in perfect alignment with our beliefs and emotions. This is a problem that will require much more than technical solutions. The great pyramids were built using technical solutions. But the inspiration and reasons for their construction are found in all of us – our deeply held beliefs and emotions. In the same way, sustainable living will require more than just technical solutions. We will need to get to the sources of our inspiration and meaning before we will be successful.


Kringle said...

You may never view this as I am mindful you haven't stopped by in awhile.. you post and profile captivated me as I too am in psychology and occupational therapy... the premise of positive psychology has always intrigued me as I am about creating healthful happy lives, yet too I have come to realize that perhaps it is only when we fully experience the happy and sad that we fully come to know the real beauty of life. Blessings to you

DC Portland said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am delighted that you stopped by. For an abundance of useful and timely information on positive psychology, I encourage you to take a look at

All the best...