Established 1826 — Oldest College Newspaper West of the Alleghenies

The Necessity of Discomfort: Science and Sustainability in the 21st Century

What are you willing to give up for a living planet? What should we be willing to do to reverse the circumstances that have brought us to this point? What is all the worry about? These questions run the gamut of environmental thought today. The Al Gores of the world, liberal environmentalists, seem to think that just a reorganization of the current energy infrastructure into a "green and sustainable" one will allow us to continue "enjoying our standard of living." I used to believe that, but then I slowly realized it was just that -- a belief -- and not an understanding of the present situation. I wish to challenge this set of assumptions.

Education is destroying what you thought you knew yesterday. The definition of research is that one gathers materials to reach NEW conclusions. Unless we are prepared to depart with the idols of today, we are not serious.

We can choose either a living planet OR an industrial economy. The world's wealthiest people (North America, Europe, Australia) are choosing an industrial economy. Outside the "core" nations of the world, the negative effects of industrial production and organization are exported to "peripheral" regions and the propagandists call this "development." Make no mistake: if the world's poorest 3 billion people disappeared today there would be no significant change in global emissions of carbon dioxide. The burden of becoming RESPONSIBLE bears on the conscience of the world's wealthiest people. If you are reading this newspaper, that means you (and I).

Environmental thought in the 21st century will have to break with current ideas of sustainability. First: ask yourself how much of what you think about sustainability has been supplied to you by the strategic communicators from various industries. These industries, mind you, have terrible "track records" of behavior and in reality no one should trust their environmental advice, no matter how appealing and well designed.

Sustainable "solutions" under this view would leave destructive forms of living unchallenged. This is a place where everyone could live in a green fantasy world powered by wind farms and solar panels. This of course would make a lot of money for General Electric. The truth no liberal environmentalist wants to talk about is that greenhouse gasses (e.g. sulfur hexafluoride) produced by plasma etching equipment are tens of thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Or that the rare-earth minerals extraction process to make cell phones, laptops and most electronics equipment are some of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs on the planet. Just run a search for Baotou, Upper Mongolia. Note I did not insist you use the internet. These are just two of the myriad failures of our current environmental thought paradigm.

The second and perhaps greater challenge is to make what seems like a difficult and impossible task now into an enjoyable series of (dare I say) adventures instead of self-assigned austerity. State-enforced austerity already exists. This austerity comes in the form of deep cuts to healthcare, education, library and public parks spending; for thinking human beings these are basic social services. If you care to visit any small town in Ohio, or you come from one (like me) you can understand the impact of this austerity. We cannot continue to force the world's poor into drudgery; we must free them and free us all. However, our idea of freedom has a lot to do with something someone else told us, and that too must be seized and revised.

The necessity of discomfort is twofold. We are going to have to become intellectually uncomfortable. To discard the idols of the previous two centuries is going to require walking away from allegiances to those who convinced us we needed them: ideas of comfort, of success and of value. To be patient in an emergency will also be a terrible discomfort. We may have to become physically uncomfortable as well; learning skills that deal with reality instead of everything we "trained" for in college. This might require for more people the use of the body in working and a serious engagement with the mind and confronting the non-human world and trying to get along with them instead of USING them. To build movements around a meaningful environmental ethic that has no allegiance or bias for the current arrangement of affairs will be either the beginning or the end of this century.