April 1996



Our first reaction when someone brings up the issues of depleting resources, rampant ecological damage, overpopulation, and the need for "changes" - is often fear. Fear of "going back to the stone age", of shivering in ragged blankets in a tarpaper shack with an empty stomach. That might be a result if we continue to follow certain habits of thinking and acting, but there are some unexpected and even exciting other possibilities in front of us.

Our greed/growth society and the sustainable one which we need to become operate on totally different principles and values. They also generate fundamentally different kinds of costs and rewards as well as immensely different effectiveness in meeting life's needs. Looked at seriously, a sustainable society offers some real surprises compared to our present one. Asking a few questions about our present patterns suggests that alternatives might be easier than expected.

How much of our work and resources are we spending right now just to pay the demands of growth?

We currently invest immense amounts of our work, energy, and resources to accommodate growth. Every generation we double the number of our houses, cement plants, electrical generating plants, coal mines, cities, roads, and water systems - and prematurely demolish existing ones - to accommodate more people and more "things". And we spend even more educating and feeding those extra people. What do we gain, anyhow, from more people?

Stabilizing growth totally avoids that expenditure. And that expenditure is significant - amounting to somewhere between 33% and 40% of our total work. Avoiding that is equivalent to a gift of 2-3 hours a day, 13-16 hours a week, or 16-21 weeks a year of free time to every person - just for saying NO to more crowding and to jostling for belongings. Choosing not to let our population expand or to have more per capita consumption turns out to hold a massive reward to us as individuals and as a society.

Is it impossible to stabilize growth? It really only requires a commitment to do so. Other countries have stabilized their populations. China even, has made the more difficult decision to reduce its population - aware that it has more people than it can continue to feed. Many people familiar with the problem say that economic equity and security, education, empowerment of women, prevention of unwanted births, and reduction of the advertising, promotion, and incentives for greater consumption are all that is needed to achieve stabilization.

How much of our work and resources go to pay for inequity?

Another significant share of our resources is used to support inequity in our society. The enormous concentration of wealth by a few in our society consumes vast amounts of resources to benefit only those few. The median US household income for wage-earners is currently $31,000, with more than 13% of households under the monetary poverty level of $15,000. A fully equitable distribution of personal income would amount to $59,000 per household.

An equitable society could totally eliminate poverty and support EVERYONE at the current median income level of $31,000 per household. And surprisingly, to do so would need 47% less work, and equivalently fewer resources than our current society uses to maintain poverty and inequality!

Is equity impossible?
It only requires reversing the tax breaks for the wealthy foolishly approved over the last 30 years under the belief those tax changes would help us! Instead, they have transferred massive amounts of wealth from our pockets to the wealthy, and made us believe our society is suddenly poor. In contrast, Great Britain changed their tax structure towards equity after W.W.II, and moved from a far less equal society than ours to one with far greater equity. Finland manages to live quite happily with almost no income spread between poor and rich compared to ours.

Without growth and inequity, every American could live as well as the average American family does now. At the same time, we would save TWO-THIRDS (67%) of the resources, work, and ecological damage involved. And this is without investing a dime in energy efficiency, improved industrial processes, institutional change, or change in the kind of rewards we get from life!

What would we save just by living on income instead of in debt?

To pay for growth, we have become trapped into paying for personal expenditures, corporate expansion, and governmental infrastructure consistently through debt purchasing. Our federal government is sinking ever deeper under a massive and growing public debt and imbalance of trade. Just the interest on this debt alone - not even to begin repaying the debt itself - represents a 25% surcharge on other government expenditures. State and local governments finance virtually all capital improvements - building schools, sewers, hospitals, airports, highways, etc. through selling public bonds. These result in our ultimately paying double or triple the apparent cost of those improvements. These costs never appear, of course, in discussion of how much is being borrowed.

Our personal finance situations are as bad. Interest costs on home purchases double and triple the actual cost of a home. We finance purchase of one automobile after another for 40 or 50 years, gaining nothing out of the process beyond the first purchase. Interest on continuing credit card balances amounts to over $300 billion per year. We can't buy any more on credit. We just end up paying more for what we buy - up to 20% more. Here again, consumer debt represents 20% of disposable income. Corporate debt loads represent a similar 25% surcharge. Together, overall debt costs represent more than 20% of our cost of living - a cost which can be drastically reduced.

Is paying off the federal debt impossible? A one-time, one or two year excise tax on the wealthy could pay it off immediately. (That wealth represents what was left over from having so much income they couldn't even spend it all.) This would allow federal revenues to return to funding the programs they were intended for rather than paying debt service. It seems appropriate that those who can afford to contribute do so. It also seems appropriate that those who made a killing from junk bonds, leverage buyouts, and Savings and Loan and bank failures (which by themselves cost us taxpayers more than W.W.II) pay part of the bailout cost to our government.

Is cutting the cost of public capital improvements in half impossible? It would only take a law requiring the repayment cost of bond issues be included in advertising of bond issues, and a law requiring public agencies to project, prioritize, and pay for capital improvements out of revenues rather than debt. Together, these could cut real financial costs of public capital improvements by more than 50%.

Is radical reduction in our consumer debt and interest costs impossible? Several states already regulate credit card interest rates to within a few percent of prime interest. Japan prohibits carrying a continuous balance on credit card use. Revolving loan funds can eliminate interest costs on home purchases. Car savings plans can encourage savings for purchase rather than paying interest on loan payments. Check out for yourself the difference between using the same monthly payments to save to buy cars rather than to pay to borrow the same money time after time.


How much of our work and resources are needlessly wasted on inefficient products and services?

More efficient cars, homes, industrial processes and institutional operation offer incredible magnitudes of savings. Well-documented research over the last twenty years has shown and is beginning to produce factor of ten savings (90% reduction) in energy and resources needed in a vast variety of situations throughout society.

This means two hundred mile-per-gallon cars, safer than today's, and totally recyclable. They're due on the road in four to five years. It means homes that require only sunlight and rainfall to operate. Prototypes are already in operation in almost all of our climate zones. Water?'s toilets and showers already have reduced water use 75% from fixtures only a few years ago - and more improvements are on the way. Forestry practices are available now - requiring no new technology - that maintain all forests in old growth condition, while doubling timber production, increasing the economic benefits from timber production nine-fold, and increasing total forest value many times more.

How about a higher education system with resources available - free to all, worldwide - via satellite TV? Housing that costs only one-tenth of today's, through improved durability, energy efficiency and financing patterns? Industrial products with virtually zero ecological impact and magnitude lower production costs? All these and more are immanent or already being implemented today.

Impossible? It is already happening around us. Amory Lovin's Natural Capitalism documents more than fifty examples. The work of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany; the Rocky Mountain Institute's work on energy, water and other issues; the work of John Todd in sewage treatment; Pliny Fisk in building systems: and even my own work on forestry, education, housing, energy, and transportation give further examples.

Add these efficiency improvements to the benefits of a no-growth, equitable, and debt-free society. That's ten percent of 80% of half of 66% of what we now spend. With these four changes alone, we would be operating at a cost of only 2.6% of what we currently do! That's the equivalent to only working 12 minutes a day to live as well as the average family does now.

It is unlikely that we would ever follow such possibilities out to these extremes - if for no other reason that we decide we want to work more, or we want to do better for ourselves and all life, and ask for higher levels of performance in all we do. But even if we decide to only achieve two-thirds of each of these savings, that still adds up to an 82% reduction from our present patterns - almost exactly what is projected to be needed to operate on a sustainable basis.

We've also looked at these questions briefly and in isolation. In reality they are interactive. Some give resource savings but not financial or employment ones. Others, as in any ecological system, have multiple and interactive effects and savings. Hours worked would likely not drop to the equivalent 12 minutes a day, as these alternatives are often more employment intensive. It is unlikely, though, that they would exceed one hour a day (13% of now). What is important is that the savings possible are far more than enough to totally transform a heretofor frightening prospect of change into an opportunity for betterment of our lives in a variety of way!

Just to be certain, let's add on a couple of less sweeping questions:

How much of our work is really unnecessary and could be avoided?

Our patterns of large corporations and brand-name products and services are not efficient producers. What they are efficient at is centralizing profit into a few pockets. But if we eliminate the advertising that adds $55 billion to the cost of our purchases, the shipping of things back and forth, and all the hours of paper shuffling to manage such large enterprises, the truth is what has been documented again and again. Local production from local resources for local needs is considerably more efficient.

More than half of the work done in our society is now "white collar" - all of us in offices pushing papers. Like advertising and much of our transportation, this does not represent "real work" like growing food, building buildings, or caring for the sick. It's "secondary" work. More direct patterns can avoid need for much of it, as well as being more rewarding. And it actually feels good sometimes to get our hands dirty and have the satisfaction of actually growing food, fixing a car, or doing something needed by others.

What hidden costs of our way of life don't we acknowledge?

Our statistics try to tell us how well we are doing. Increases in expenditures and incomes are lauded as increasing well-being. Yet having to spend more on medical care can represent the cost of greater illness as easily as greater care and resultant health. Transportation expenditures are as much a cost of not being where we want to be as much as they are "improvement in mobility". How much of these costs could be avoided?

And there are very important things we are so blinded to that we don't even measure, and aren't aware of the connections between. We see crime, drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, terrorist bombings, homelessness, and other "problems" as puzzling, costly, and unsolveable separate issues. Yet in reality they are all symptoms of the same disease - a disease of the spirit arising from our ignoring the human, emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions of our lives.

Our patterns of work, living, education - indeed all our base values and institutions - prevent the healthy self-esteem, mutual respect, being of value, joy, happiness, grief and pain which are inherent dimensions of a healthy life. By taking rather than giving, by the overt and covert violence of our agriculture, medicine, forestry, business management, and personal relationships, we create immense hidden costs and damage to our lives. These are not, of course, reflected in the indicators we focus on of what our way of life does do successfully. But they show up as unanticipated and costly problems elsewhere that we have to pay to deal with. Dealing with their root causes can improve our quality of life as radically as reducing our cost of living.

Another simple way of achieving greater productivity is sharing the results of our work rather than "owning" separately. Sharing often has other benefits, and by extension, "owning" also has hidden costs.

Do we need current levels of government expenditures for police, criminal justice, military research and operation and aid to the poor?

If we eliminate poverty by creating an equitable society, we eliminate the need for poverty programs. If we make an order of magnitude reduction in our demands for resources, and help the rest of the world to do the same, we dramatically reduce the need to fight over resources, or pay to send troops to the Persian Gulf. Listed and unlisted military costs constitute more than 30% of federal governmental expenditures, yet already the justification for much of that has dissolved. Economic equity also eliminates much of the desperation, fear and anger giving rise to crime. Restoration of self-esteem, mutual respect, and being of value to our communities heals the diseases of the spirit that lay behind our drug and alcohol addiction, spouse and child abuse. These are some of the interconnected secondary benefits of these actions.

Three quarters of our prisons are filled from minor drug-related offenses. It's clear, however, that Prohibition hasn't worked any better for marijuana than for alcohol. (Every society seems to have demanded some means of taking a break from everyday reality.) Separating the disease of addiction from the crimes of trafficking heavy drugs, taking the profit out of drug sales, and eliminating the economic and emotional poverty that underlies addiction can accomplish more for our health and security than our massive expenditures on jails, drug enforcement and crime programs.

How much of our work and resources are wasted by not knowing our real goals in life and chasing after illusory substitutes?

At root, what we want out of life is to feel our lives are of value, that we are successful in doing something meaningful. We want to be loved, respected, and appreciated. We want to be a part of the joy of creation. We want to feel deeply the power that arises out of meaningful relation with other people and life.

When our lives are split between "producing" and "consuming", when our work and our play do not give us those satisfactions, we end up all too frequently letting expensive "consumerism", shopping, and the petty and transient feelings of happiness that they produce pinch-hit for what we really want. These things we really want involve little of the energy, resources, and work that are needed for the material possessions we pile up around us. Monetary poverty is not the real poverty that poisons our lives and society.
Our true rewards in life are the inherent result of meaningful patterns of work and relationship and meeting the real needs of existence for ourselves and others.

* * *

With these magnitudes of changes possible, our conditioned first response may well be, "If there's that much slack, if we can do that much better, what's wrong with our just continuing to grow?" The answer is that the magnitude of savings we are talking about also happen to be necessary - now - to reduce our demands to levels which can be sustained. Our lifestyles have been dependent upon tremendous consumption of finite reserves of fossil fuels. We've already used up more than 60% of the entire world's supply with most of the world's population only beginning to duplicate our consumption patterns.

With current projected growth in population and consumption, worldwide exhaustion of oil is expected to take only 20-24 years. The first Arab state has already run out of oil. Within a few years we will be faced with admitting our remaining oil reserves are far more valuable as lubricants and industrial stock than as fuels - and face enormous changes in our patterns. Continued growth ensures a difficult transition at that point.

No finite world, however large, can continue to accommodate exponential growth. We are already passing the limit of what ours can absorb without total ecological breakdown. More people only make the problems far more daunting, and the likelihood of major reduction in our material quality of life far more probable. Providing leadership in the process of attaining sustainable patterns rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the future can also hold immense benefit in a world where we are still firmly interdependent with the lives, resources, and goodwill of others.

* * *

Now, having to work only one hour a day to have what we currently have (not quite shivering in the cold), what if we decide (gasp) that we DO want some different rewards out of life? It's time to ask different questions:

Is it possible that real improvement in our quality of life may depend on our choosing a simpler material existence?

It might. Simplicity does bring freedoms. "Austerity" really means just getting rid of things that are in the way of our achieving the goals we seek in life. Money, possessions, and the material dimensions of life might just become less important to us. Part of that answer is determined by what the biosystem, together with a little wisdom on our part, can support without harm to the rest of creation. But it is important to keep this question in front of us, because it is certain that simpler living can offer important opportunities to us.

If letting loose of our greed/growth/violence values offers such impressive material benefits, what other benefits might it offer?

Safety, for example. Security. Health. Rewarding work. Self-esteem and mutual respect. Meaning. Deep connection with others. Harmony with the rest of nature. Faith.

I've discussed elsewhere, in "Shedding A Skin That No Longer Fits", how change to sustainable patterns involves a shift from a legalistic to a sacred basis for society. It involves release from one of the greatest inner costs of our present values - the closing off our hearts from other people and other life to protect us from the pain of acknowledging the results of our actions. It entail giving play to our vital inner resources in ensuring both our survival and having meaningful and joyful lies. It encompass letting the energy that permeates and supports all life flow through us and develop amazing and unprecedented new manifestations. Even our material transactions change from "taking" to "giving".

These benefits of a sustainable society aren't even measurable in the terms of material well-being used today. When we can meet our material needs as easily as it appears we can, there is little need to even demean these benefits by trying to represent them in terms of monetary value. If the immaterial rewards of a sustainable, sacred society and gift economy are important to us, we can devote whatever time and energy we want to achieve them. Our material needs, in comparison, have become peripheral.

What are the costs and benefits of sharing these new patterns with everyone in the world?

One intriguing aspect of these opportunities inherent in a sustainable society is totally alien to our customary ways of thinking yet holds enormous potential for our future. That is the "giveability" of many of these things. Information, knowledge, and wisdom are a kind of wealth that need not be hoarded like money. They can all be given away and shared freely without depleting what we have - in fact often enhancing our knowledge or wisdom in the process.

Videotaped college lectures, for example, can be broadcast worldwide for virtually the same cost of broadcasting them to one state or region. Shared worldwide, and used year after year, they represent 100-fold cost savings, and most simply can be given free.

The cost and resource saving of building a high-efficiency refrigerator or light bulb manufacturing plant rather than five electrical power plants to supply energy for inefficient lights and refrigerators is merely newly perceived common sense. That kind of common sense is applicable everywhere, and can dramatically lessen our demands.

The impressive savings possible from stabilizing populations, rather than continuing massive investments to accommodate more people, are available - and needed - in every country of the world. The benefits of equity are a lesson of particular value to overdeveloped countries, but applicable to all. And massive inequity is not unknown in even the poorest countries. The costs of debt make it a wise thing for all to avoid.

Our future is inexorably linked with the health and well being of all people and all life. Asking these questions shows that we can easily reduce our own excessive demands for the limited resources of our planet. We can reduce them easily to levels which can be sustained for all, while restoring the health of the rest of the biosphere. Through them, both our own quality of life and that of everyone on the planet can be significantly improved within those same limits of sustainability.

38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© April 1996