Finding the path to a sustainable future


Have you ever wondered why some people think the way they do? Sometimes we doggedly believe our solution is best and can’t see that the other person just may have a good point. We have our firm ideas about what it will take to find the way to a sustainable future.

But is focusing on one solution good enough? We are making unsustainable demands upon the earth, that’s clear. But how do find our way to a more sustainable path before it’s too late?

In Eric Lambin’s book, The Middle Path: Avoiding Environmental Catastrophe (The University of Chicago Press, 2007), the author believes that we can find the path to a sustainable future if we act quickly. What we will need to do, he argues, is find the middle path. We must open our minds to views from optimists and pessimists and chose from everyone’s best ideas.

Personally, I have adopted what Lambin calls the “smaller portions” solution. Most of us who write about living more sustainably urge recycling, vegetarianism, living closer to where we work, and reducing waste. We come up with lists of ways to cut back, save, and conserve. We buy small cars, install low-flow toilets, use energy-saver appliances, and hang our laundry on the line to dry. Now, if we’d eat smaller portions, the U.S. wouldn’t have such a pressing obesity problem as well as high levels of diabetes and coronary disease. If everyone would just cut back . . .

Okay, we’re right, to some extent. But Lambin tells us that the “smaller portions” solution is not enough. To find the sustainable path in time (and he clearly explains and documents what he means by that), we need to look at other solutions and think about how we can incorporate and encourage the best aspects of them as well.

I found it instructive to consider the other prevailing points of view he lists.

  • For example, “fewer mouths to feed” is a solution that the Chinese have embraced. If we could gain control over our population numbers, would the human species be able to sustain itself? Can we make the choice to have smaller families?
  • Proponents of the “bigger pie” solution feel that radical measures like cutting back and cutting down wouldn’t be necessary if we could find solutions through technology and related innovations.
  • Those who take a step beyond “smaller portions” encourage us to “return to the candle,” to grow our own food and live in manner more like our pre-Industrial Revolution ancestors.
  • Are we encouraged to live unsustainably by our capitalist economy? “Equal shares” is an alternative economic approach that offers complete information and competitive equilibrium.
  • “Tend the garden” is a solution being fostered by the church as congregations are awakening to the importance of environmental stewardship. Christians are taking up the biblical mandate to care for God’s creation.
  • Finally, the “privatize the pie” solution posits that private markets more efficiently deliver many goods and services than can government. It has been argued that lower prices and improved quality will result.

The Middle Path calls on readers to think like the Buddah. By positioning ourselves in neutral, looking at the problem from different points of view, and analyzing the findings, we will make reasonable conclusions. Buddhism encourages thoughtfulness and action.

Lambin’s view is that we be realistic and less idealistic. What works? What else will it take? Time is short and the path to a sustainable future may not follow the most scenic route.

Are you considering ideas that are different, ideas that will move us toward a sustainable future faster, even though they might not be ones you would ordinarily embrace?