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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's time to revisit eco-awareness of 1970s

By Tom Peek

Aside from arguments over CO2 targets and international aid, much of the talk at the recent Copenhagen climate change summit revolved around funding technologies that make fossil fuel use more efficient and launching market schemes to "incentivize" reductions in industry carbon emissions. No surprise for a conference disproportionately influenced by politicians, technocrats, industry representatives and economists from the United States.

These two strategies will help reduce global warming, but the core solution — little discussed at Copenhagen — is for each of us, individually and collectively as nations, to reduce wasteful consumption while building saner, more sustainable societies. That requires redefining what we mean by raising our "standards of living," or better said, our "standards of life" — things like meaningful and humane work, clean air and water, quality goods that last, and sufficient time for family, recreation and spiritual growth.

Redefining how we measure true social progress means going well beyond the crude economic yardsticks of gross domestic product, consumer spending, per-capita income and housing ownership, an especially urgent task for people in the U.S., the world's most resource-wasteful, consumption-based economy — and therefore king of per-capita CO2 emissions.

I'm surprised President Obama doesn't seem to understand this, or if he does, is reluctant to talk about it. Like me, he was a child of the '70s, coming to intellectual maturity when the ideas of global warming, economic sustainability, resource limits to growth and less-materialistic lifestyles coalesced into a broad social movement that changed — and enhanced — the lifestyles of many in our generation.

This movement — and the 1973 OPEC oil crisis —spawned a serious exploration of these Earth-friendly ideas, producing a number of best-selling books, including E.F. Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered," Barry Commoner's "The Closing Circle," and Frances Moore Lappe's "Diet for a Small Planet." Universities, community organizations and legislative halls buzzed with these ideas. By mid-decade, energy, environmental and even economic policies reflected the buzz, finding root in the Carter administration's programs to conserve energy, promote solar power and infuse human rights into our economic and foreign policies.

But the seeds planted in that period never fully blossomed, perishing in a reactionary flood of U.S.-centered policies promoted by corporate and oil industry elites fearing that conscientious use of fossil fuels and other natural resources would knock the teeth out of their growing economic domains. The political shill for this reactionary campaign was Ronald Reagan and its economic boosters, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

As both political parties abandoned the new Earth-friendly ideas, many Americans got on the bandwagon, including those we derisively called yuppies (young upwardly mobile professionals), baby boomers who eventually became the most wasteful generation in American history, now consuming 32 times the resources of people in third-world countries.

Within a few decades, America, once known for its high standards of life — dazzling innovation, high- quality goods and services, humane labor practices and wholesome communities —became a frenetic, stressed-out, "throwaway" society with two-thirds of its GDP derived from wasteful consumer spending. Much of the rest came from profits made through corporate takeovers, exporting jobs overseas, massive domestic layoffs and forced increases in "worker productivity," which actually meant longer working hours at faster paces with fewer benefits and less time off.

Our social movement lost the battle, to the detriment of our society, economy and the global environment. But many of us kept our commitment to more wholesome lives and the planet's health by finding work outside giant corporations, consuming less and recycling more, contributing time and energy to our communities, and dedicating ourselves to personal and spiritual growth. We gave up some personal material prosperity to live richer, more balanced lives — to live up to the standards of life we embraced in the 1970s.

Watching the Copenhagen summit — with its rivalries between countries seeking American-style affluence and its foolhardy faith in technological and economic fixes — I began to think our movement's time has come again. Certainly many of the young protesters outside the hall recognize the deeper problem and the need for sounder solutions.We just need to change the politics so that at the next summit they're the ones inside the hall.

In the meantime, each of us can start living more sustainable and fulfilling lives by redefining ourselves as Earth-friendly world citizens rather than hungry consumers.