Sustainability means finding a balance of economic and social goals with ecological awareness in order to minimize damage to the environment. Obesity, the result of an extreme imbalance of high food intake and low physical activity, serves as a good metaphor for neglecting sustainability.
Addiction to food (obesity)
Last October, the World Heath Organization reported that more people now die worldwide from being overweight than hunger. Apparently, obesity results from more than super-sized fast food meals or receiving double portions at American sit-down restaurants. Now, people not just in the U.S. and Western Europe, but also in places like Mexico, India, and China wrestle with bulging waistlines.
The relationship between food and health is fairly simple. A certain amount of the right kinds of food fosters good health. Too little or too much food is unhealthy. Extreme overweight makes physical activity difficult, exacerbating the weight problem. The body, incapable of sustaining that weight, develops such problems as heart trouble and diabetes. Obese people can regain health, but it requires intense discipline both in eating much less and exercising much more.
With obesity as a metaphor, it is possible to identify other addictions we have, not as individuals, but as society at large. It will likewise require intense discipline to make progress. I might add that sweeping government mandates will do more harm than good. As The Biggest Loser indicates, tough trainers can keep contestants working, but can’t make them motivated in the first place. No one has ever succeeded in losing weight simply because someone else insists.
Sustainability works from the efforts of individuals and businesses operating from their own motivation and values. As important as its involvement is, government has only a supporting role.
Addiction to oil
America, as President George W. Bush famously put it, is addicted to oil. Transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, construction, and heating and cooling our buildings all require tremendous energy. Emerging economies, seeking the same lifestyle choices and comforts we enjoy, use more and more energy all the time. Some products, including many that people discard after a single use, require oil as a raw material as well as energy to run the plant.
Overuse of oil and other fossil fuels has effects comparable to obesity. Analogous to heart disease and diabetes, the planet suffers polluted air and water. It must also endure the economic and geopolitical problems caused by the fact that countries that use the most energy cannot supply it from their own resources. They must purchase it from other countries, more likely than not politically and diplomatically unstable. The world, and America with it, cannot sustain the current pattern of energy usage.
Addiction to material things
America is likewise addicted to stuff. The media carry stories with alarming regularity of pack rats whose homes become unlivable. Most people get rid of stuff they don’t want any more, including large quantities of packaging material and plastic bags. Planned, or even forced, obsolescence guarantees a tremendous volume of trash. Tons of irreparable and useless, but sometimes hazardous, items get discarded every year. We say that we throw them away, but in fact, there is no such place as “away.” Whatever cannot be repurposed must eventually either be burned or buried.
Waste disposal creates its own pollution problems. When a landfill fills up and closes, finding another suitable site is difficult–and not only because no one wants a new landfill moving close to them. Waste disposal therefore becomes increasingly expensive and contentious. We cannot sustain the current pattern of discarding unwanted stuff.
Sustainability is not a concept invented by a few left-wing kooks. It is a means by which everyone can make incremental changes that will have a huge impact with minimal social disruption. It does not require sweeping government mandates, although it does require some level of government involvement.
As American businesses find new ways of going green–make money by building, manufacturing, and packaging things using fewer resources, we will have less stuff to discard. As American businesses find ways to make money from renewable resources, ways of using less fuel and ways to make more fuel-efficient products, we will become less dependent on foreign oil. As American people become more sensitive to their own environmental impact and continue making greener choices, many different environmental problems will become less dangerous.
Otherwise, we are a society suffering from a kind of obesity: getting less and less healthy by continuing behaviors that have caused our condition.