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A Call to Engagement

Tom Prugh and Michael Renner

Sustainability is a socioecological problem. Although most of us never consider it, human society is embedded in, and completely dependent upon, the earth's natural systems. Human economic activity takes place within the matrix of these systems, both influencing and being influenced by them. In general, for most of the two or three million years of our hominid history, our share of that influencing was minimal. But at some point in the nottoo-distant past, we entered what has come to be called the Anthropocene period, a time in which the sheer number of human beings and the power of human activity to shape the biosphere have exploded and, in fact, have become the main drivers of deeply troubling planet-scale changes. These now-familiar trends—a warming atmosphere and oceans, accelerating species extinctions, and so on—threaten human welfare and perhaps even the viability of human civilization.

The irony is that this is all the result of people doing what comes naturally. As John Gowdy argues in Chapter 3, humans have evolved a complex mix of traits that includes cooperation as well as competition. Human cooperation and sociality were key to our evolutionary survival in a world of fierce competitors, many with claws, teeth, speed, and other traits that we could not match. Living in small bands of hunters and gatherers, our governance institutions were commensurate with our lifestyle, i.e., relatively simple.

But sociality also became our ticket to growing populations, colonization of most of the earth's lands, and, beginning about 10,000 years ago, agriculture. When humans became farmers, we joined the small group of species (including ants and termites) that Gowdy calls ultrasocial. Ultrasociality is characterized by role specialization, information sharing, collective defense, and complex city-states, all in the service of production for surplus. In humans, ultrasociality has led to vast population growth, highly hierarchical societies, the domination of the planet, and an apparently perpetual mindset of More.

Once past the turning point to ultrasociality, governance was no longer simple—and we have been struggling with it ever since. As Gowdy remarks, “Ultrasociality is an evolutionary outcome, and evolution cannot see ahead.” We have only begun to be dimly aware that perhaps our evolutionary record has led us down a blind alley. Production for surplus on a planet of finite resources, the limits of which we are already crowding, is not a sound longterm survival strategy.

In this book, we use a broad definition of governance: the formal and informal mechanisms and processes that humans use to manage our social, political, and economic relationships with each other and the ecosphere. (See Chapter 2 by D. Conor Seyle and Matthew Wilburn King.) By that definition, our governance institutions are stumbling. Nowhere is this clearer than in our transnational failure to come to grips with climate change, a problem for which all nations are culpable (either in action or in aspiration, although some much more than others), which threatens all, and which requires cooperation among all to solve. But it is also evident in our collective indifference to rigorously maintaining the biological diversity that supports Earth's web of life, in the large and widening gaps between the rich and the poor within and between many countries, in the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples, and so on.

Despite our fondness for the technologies that we are so good at inventing and our hammer/nail tendency to yearn for (and apply) technical solutions to our problems, the failure of the human sustainability enterprise cannot magically be corrected in that way. Alternative, more appropriate technologies do have a role to play. But a boundless faith in techno-fixes may mislead people to believe that we can actually squeeze still more resources out of the planet and get away with it. Or that, if bad comes to worse, we can somehow just (geo-) engineer our way out of the problem. Technology per se is as much the problem as the solution.

Nor will simply continuing to deepen our understanding of the complexities of the earth's systems be enough. Never before in human history have we had access to so much data of all stripes as today. The Internet and the encroaching digitization of life have made accessing this information easy. But information does not equal knowledge or wisdom, even when it is essential information. As Monty Hempel points out in Chapter 4, for a variety of reasons ecoliteracy is necessary but insufficient to create action; in fact, at most universities that teach ecoliteracy it is consciously divorced from exhortations to act or from discussion of the ethical obligation to do so.

Finally, it now seems clear (particularly after the latest recession) that markets will not be riding to the rescue. Their operation without vigorous and conscientious government oversight clearly tends to be self-serving and often self-destructive. Market mechanisms are tools that need to be understood and used wisely when appropriate; they are not equipped to run the show. Among the strongest champions of unconstrained markets are multinational corporations, which have demonstrated over and over that their size and power causes them to behave according to an internal logic of their own that is very often contrary to the public's interests, and the planet's.

The problem is also not a lack of institutions and mechanisms that can handle complexity, especially of the sort that requires revamping nearly the entire economic system. Think, for example, of the organizational acumen required among commercial operations that source raw materials or other inputs from far-flung places around the globe, and that maintain a finely timed flow of products and services delivered to consumers at the other end. Or consider the operations of postal services, handling the 346.5 billion letters that were sent worldwide in 2012—nearly 1 billion pieces daily. And even in the sometimes sordid world of politics, the machinery underlying democratic elections is a marvel to behold. Millions of votes are collected in the span of mere hours, and outcomes announced in almost no time, because modern societies have come to expect virtually instant results. It speaks to the efficacy of the underlying organization that instances when things do go wrong—like the infamous “hanging chads“ of the 2000 U.S. presidential elections—are the exception rather than routine. Appropriate technologies, ecoliteracy, markets in tune with the public good, organizational capacity—these are all indispensable tools in the quest for sustainability. And yet, they are not enough. The problem runs much deeper. We can only put ourselves on the path to sustainability by somehow applying what we know about good governance to the economic and political relationships that bind us to each other and to the planet we live on.

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