March 28th, 2011

People, Society and Sustainability

By Christopher A. Haines

Introduction – The Human Factor

When discussing “a sustainable future” most writers expect we will be using “renewable energy”, driving more efficient cars and be far more efficient in our use of resources.  Those are items they recognize will have to change, (a good step) but it appears they expect the rest of life to be pretty much the same.  Additionally, climate change and sustainability are presented as technological problems that will be solved by “the vast potential of human ingenuity and technological innovation”[1].   While I am not apposed to sustainable technological solutions, and can’t claim to have a crystal ball, I believe this approach misses the point.  Our greatest sustainability challenges are psychological and social, in our denial of approaching problems, in our inability to envision a future significantly different from the present, in our cumulative lack of self control in so many aspects of our lives, in our difficulty in changing attitudes, beliefs and expectations and the social and legal structures that are based on them and in our failures to forge the political will that will allow a sustainable future to unfold.

While the world is now focused on climate change as the environmental crisis, we actually face five other environmental crises:  (1) population growth; (2) resource depletion; (3) environmental destruction; (4) pollution and (5) most significant, the human paradigms and believes that underlie all of them.  Of course these crises are related and can only be separated conceptually, but this separation provides a useful framework for describing our condition.  I will briefly discuss each of these crises and how human beliefs and choices impact them and will then consider some of the specific elements of those human paradigms and their role in our environmental future.

People and the Five Environmental Crises

Population Growth

It could be argued that population growth is the environmental issue as it leverages all other environmental problems.  The world could probably survive at a western lifestyle and grow to include the under-developed countries if there were less than a billion of us, but we passed that mark about 1800.  It has also been argued that the problem is consumption in the western world and not the rise in population in the under-developed world where footprints are minimal in comparison, thus placing the blame squarely on our shoulders.  However viewed, the addition of people to the planet increases the demand on natural capital.

The birth rate is a matter of human choice or indifference.  In cultures without a safety net for the elderly, multiple children are the best, and maybe the only, protection parents can provide themselves for their old age.  We will not decrease population growth until people choose to stop having too many children or we experience a major die-back.  Social systems that can assist in lowering birthrates include education, access and acceptance of birth control, an emphasis on women’s rights, changing a myriad of social customs and traditions that have prevented these changes in the past, financial security for the elderly and perhaps other economic changes that provide opportunities and promote social welfare.   These are people issues.

A population decline, as is now occurring in some eastern and western European countries will force structural changes in economic systems as the aging population increases in relation to the younger working population.   As a people issue, let’s consider getting away from the Ponzi scheme mentality for funding retirement and work towards developing sustainable solutions.

A population die-back has historically been the realm of the three apocalyptic horseman; war, famine and pestilence, to which we now add toxification.  This could result should we fail to address overpopulation and allow failure of the systems required to support that population.

Resource Depletion

Resource depletion impacts the remaining stocks of energy, water, seafood, fertile soil, forests, biodiversity and other resources that we depend on.  Many past population collapses we know of have been the result of resource, usually food depletion.  Human beliefs and paradigms play heavily in the consumption or conservation of these resources.

In a very simple sense, our lifestyle is the difference between our income, based on our labor and the cost of the materials we consume.  In a wealthy lifestyle, materials are wasted because they are not worth the labor required to salvage them.  As long as we see this in a strictly economic perspective, we will not conserve materials unless they are valuable in relation to our labor.  Conservation will be required in a sustainable world.  A perspective of economic value condemns us to a poorer lifestyle in order to achieve that sustainability, but as a people issue, cannot we find the increased spiritual value in having less material wealth and more time and quality relationships?

Our desires for new, more and bigger everything play heavily in the quantity of materials that are consumed.  New houses have been growing in size until recently, and they tend to tear down old ones and replace them instead of adding on or refurbishing.  Our demand for new cars, appliances, clothing, electronics and other material goods is also consuming vast resources and causing additional pollution.  The extra consumption of materials is unnecessary when much of the older items could be made perfectly useable.  It is our perspectives on relative values that drive this consumption.   A change in that thinking is needed to bring us closer to sustainability.

In 1956, M. King Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak in 1970 but he was ridiculed and ignored for many years.   In1970, as the peak was occurring, the oil industry was criticizing the peak theory because “we have never had so much oil” exactly the definition of a peak.  In 1978 Jimmy Carter tried to tell the country that energy was a major problem and we needed to address it as “a moral equivalent of war”.  He was ridiculed and voted out of office.   How different our situation might be now if we had listened to Jimmy Carter then.   Others are now documenting dangers in our energy, food and water supplies and in many other areas of society.  Our very human capability to deny and/or ignore warnings is important in our preparation for the future.

Energy education and training programs are typically the cheapest, most cost-effective means to reducing energy consumption.  In a previous paper [Haines, C., “Energy the Real Issues,” Environment Institute of Australia, Dec. 2000] I documented 31 fields that impact on energy consumption and only a few are technical.  Psychology, medical science, policy, education, and many others have huge impacts on energy consumption.  One study in weatherization programs showed energy use dropping 30% more than projected because people “got it” and stopped wasteful behaviors   Many colleges and universities have recognized the value of this approach and are implementing education and behavior change programs for Faculty, staff and students to assist in meeting the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment to become carbon neutral.  These are people issues.

Environmental Destruction

Environmental destruction is the result of behaviors and actions that damage the ecology, reducing natural capital and nature’s ability to re-generate.  This destruction frequently occurs in construction of homes and buildings but also in roadways and parking lots or anywhere the soil is dug up or moved.   It also occurs in material extraction from quarrying, mining, or forestry and particularly fracking for natural gas extraction and mountaintop removal as now practiced in coal mining.

I was hiking recently in a state park where the motto is “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”.  Yet each footprint of thousands of visitors along mountain trails dis-lodged a few particles of soil and created depressions that provided pathways for water that lead to further erosion.   The trails were hollows, sometimes a foot or more below the undisturbed areas.  While there were no convenience facilities provided in the campgrounds there were simple gravel roadways and gravel camping areas.  While very minor in their impact, the forest ecology was disrupted by these modifications and nature’s ability to heal itself was diminished.  This simple destruction pales in comparison to construction sites, quarrying, mining and mountaintop removal, but is similar except in scale.  Although we don’t want to see the connections, our actions as consumers encourage business behaviors that cause this destruction.

While technology may improve our production efficiency, it is the human demand for materials that drives the destruction.  If we could reduce those material demands, we would reduce the destruction consuming those materials causes.   But there is a multiplier in that for each unit of product sold, up to 69 units of refuse, waste and packaging are generated and added to the waste streams[2].  This effect is compounded by a society that seeks low-cost products, even if low cost means low quality and a short lifespan.  This has resulted in only 1% of the materials purchased still existing after six months[3].   Convincing consumers to buy cheap, discard and replace has brought huge profits to many companies, but huge problems to our ecological home.


Litter is the visible side of pollution and the results can be seen along any highway or after any large social event; legions of “sanitation workers” picking up tons of trash.  These are materials that human actions indiscriminately dropped on the environment.  With enough workers, the materials will be thrown “away” and the site will be cleaned until the next event.  Unfortunately, there really is no “away”.   The material is burned, or taken to a land fill to be buried, but that does not really solve the problem.   One thinks of the garbage barge out of New York many years ago that nearly circled the globe seeking a location where it could unload its cargo.  The “great pacific garage patch” is thousands of tons of such trash, largely plastics that cannot fully decompose, caught in slow moving ocean currents.  The impacts on the ocean, marine life and the environment are tragic, caused by human actions, or the lack thereof.

But pollution is not limited to litter.  There are estimated to be about 100,000 chemicals released into the environment, some in huge quantities and we don’t know the effects of many of them.  However, these heavy metals, carcinogens, endocrine disruptor’s, and many of these are known to be very dangerous.  Even so, we continue to dispose of these into an environment with few defenses.  Lead batteries have caused major pollution problems in Central and South America, while modern electronics are routinely shipped to Ghana, the Ivory Coast, China and similar destinations where regulations on their disposal are non-existent and locals trying to earn a living are ignorant or ignore the dangers out of desperation.   Even so, the appeal to consumers of new and better technology maintains the draw of planned and perceived obsolescence and we add the components of one more phone, computer or monitor to the world’s soil, air and water.

We drop litter almost unconsciously.  We dispose of toxic substances down the drain, without any idea what happens to them after that.  We ignore an oil leak in our car that dribbles onto the roadways and parking lots and then washes off to the waterways.   We replace our computer with a new model.  Our personal contribution is so small it seems harmless and changing our ways is too hard unless everyone else does so as well.

Pollution is also frequently concentrated in poor areas where land is cheaper and the residents have less power to complain.  Landfills, dump sites, industrial facilities and trucking terminals that foul the air with hundreds of diesel engines coming and going all day frequently locate in poor neighborhoods.  Social justice beyond NIMBYism is required for a sustainable future that would require a major change in human cooperation.

Climate Change

The world is focused on climate change as if the other problems did not exist.  At least people are now paying attention to energy efficiency and are beginning to address some of the waste that has been happening for years.  This is good news.  Unfortunately, this is largely an engineering calculation that frequently misses the real picture and focuses on balancing numbers.   Green buildings have taken front stage in the design field and LEED is gaining adherents on a regular basis.  [Haines, C., the Role of the Architect in Sustainability Education, Journal of Sustainability Education, May, 2010] Unfortunately, ISO 14000 and the Living Building Challenge have not yet received much of that attention.  Renewable energy sources are gaining more attention and some people are looking at zero net energy as a real goal.   Again this seems to be largely an engineering exercise in balancing energy projections instead of a real look at what energy means to society.

Vehicle efficiency is being considered more than in the past.  People mostly do not want to give up their trucks and SUVs perhaps out of fear of being hit by a bigger vehicle.   Diet is not yet getting as much attention as it should as a contributor to greenhouse, but healthy eating, organic foods, CSAs and some other positive developments are gaining adherents.  Embodied energy and the energy impacts of material choices of new vs. refurbished material is getting some attention in the architectural and design worlds, but has not seemed to have made a dent in mainstream products.  Even many in the environmental fold can’t wait to replace their computers or phones to the latest and greatest.  Durability has not been widely considered even in the construction field and several LEED buildings have experienced premature problems.

While the problem is far from resolved, humankind made significant progress on ozone depleting chemicals, one form of gaseous pollution.  World scientists recognized the cause and came together to ban the use of substances that were at fault.  This can almost be considered a success.  We have failed to make the same progress against greenhouse gases.  The political will to tackle that problem appears to be missing and individual self control to limit emissions is in most cases less than the allure of comfort and convenience gained from business as usual.

Human Paradigms

Human paradigms play an important role in all of the environmental crises.  Many of these problems are due to economic models that promote consumption and require growth, yet operate within a finite world.  After September 2008 consumer spending dropped a few percentage points and the economy went into the worst tailspin in 70 years.  Every company that sells a product or service was affected and every one had a life or death stake in convincing consumers to buy, buy, buy.  The demands of the world economy surpassed the earth’s regeneration capacity somewhere between 1978 and 1987[4].  Since that time we have been drawing down on the earths capital assets further decreasing regeneration capabilities.  We seek to solve the problem by growing the economy in a new direction.  We will not resolve over-consumption by promoting “green” consumption.

The economic models are based on history, policy, religious traditions, politics, culture, society and ultimately psychology.  Our western traditions perceive our role as dominating nature instead of being part of “the web of life”.  Our legal systems place value on human life—thus murder is a grave crime—but do not protect resource rights.  A mountain or a river is merely property without a spirit or dignity of its own and thus it can be legally defiled by its owner.  When faced with native cultures that took a more holistic view, we dismiss them as ignorant.  This tradition is “in wrong relationship” with the earth and until we face and address that problem we have little chance of making real progress towards sustainability.  While far from a complete list, let us consider a few of the specific patterns that impact our relationship to the earth.  These are people issues.


I now believe that the biggest problem we face in the changes mankind must make is our own expectations.  People live by expectations, and many need the stability of a life they can predict and understand.  We may fail to heed a warning about changing conditions or be able to envision a different future because it does not fit with our past and therefore our expectations for the future.  Life changes are the most challenging times for people and psychologists and sociologists study the effects these changes have.  Even some good changes, a new relationship, getting married, getting a job or a promotion can be hard and some people will resist these because the uncertainty is too much for them. Moving, having kids, losing a job, getting divorced, losing a family member or friend can be even more difficult.

In the 1770s the British first installed central steam heating in greenhouses.  Wealthy individuals had imported exotic plants from the British Empire to London and they would die without heat in the winter.  However, it was not until the 1870s that the British started to install central heating in houses for people.  People did not expect to live in warm houses and it was not until the technology had been in use 100 years that people started to install it in homes.

In the 1800’s a Friends Meeting (Quakers) had concluded a very long and difficult decision to install a wood heating stove in the meeting house.  Two older women in particular had been vehemently apposed to the “new-fangled” device, but finally agreed.  On the designated morning when the stove was to be installed and operating the people arrived to the meetinghouse and the stove was in place as expected.  Some time after meeting started, one of the old women who had been opposed to installing the stove, became highly agitated and “fainted from the unbearable heat”.  The only problem was that while the stove was in place, something was wrong with the installation and the fire had not been lit[5].

As another example of the effect of expectations, I was involved in an energy audit of an office building some years ago.  On one occasion, somewhat prior to the audit, the air conditioning failed in the middle of the summer.   One woman “fainted” when the temperature in her office exceeded about 79 F.  She was given permission to go home for the afternoon.  She then walked two miles to the train station to go home in the 104F temperatures[6].  One can easily dismiss the motives of the women in question; however, we relish being outdoors (at the beach) on a hot afternoon, while we have a very different perception of temperatures when cooped up indoors.   I see it as entirely possible that she was in fact very uncomfortable indoors but had a very different perception of the weather when outside.

While you may dismiss such stories, people’s expectations are very real and the road to sustainability will have to address the reality of these perceptions

Self control

There are two stark reminders of our societal lack of self control; our expanding waist lines and our accumulating debt, but those are not the only places where our “won’t power” has lost to our “will power”.   Anyone who knows anything about the modern food industry knows that as a society we have lots of help adding to our waist lines.  Never in human history have we had so many choices of so much food, so easily available at any time and so full of fast calories.  The human metabolism is hard wired for salt and sugar and the food industry knows it.   They have done a brilliant job of temping us with just what we want as documented by their success in our weight gain.   However, that weight gain is being done by us alone.  Unless you can show that you ate that “what-not” “by accident,” eating is a choice.

The obesity epidemic is having many impacts on future sustainability.  The health impacts are first and obvious.  The American public is less healthy and that decline is starting earlier in life, with many school age children already badly overweight and unused to exercise.  The overweight tend to eat more, putting pressure on food supplies and the energy required to produce, process and transport the extra food—about ten calories for each calorie of food.  The extra weight is leading to diabetes and that means a dependence on drugs to control the disease.  But the extra weight is now also a factor in transportation in both the size of seats and in the extra energy required to move that weight.  This is now affecting the airline industry as they adjust for the now higher average weight of passengers.

We have done no better in controlling our spending than we have in controlling our weight.  As a society we are head over heels in debt individually, corporately and governmentally from local to state to federal.  Not that it helps but we have a lot of company in Europe and the rest of the world as well.   Individuals were increasing debt levels until the financial crisis put an end to that and have only recently been reducing debt.  But as a result we have a huge foreclosure problem and it is not over yet with large numbers of American under water on their mortgages.  Commercial real estate was similarly under water and got badly hit by defaults.  Some are now warning that the worst may not be over for commercial real estate and the fallout will rattle the financial markets further in the coming years.  Since the Reagan presidency changed us from the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor, the federal government has been largely unable to control its own spending and we will see if the new Republican saber rattling will change that.  Loss of federal money puts further stress on state and local governments who are now cutting services to try to balance books, while tax revenues plummet.

Society has been raised on the promise of fulfilling our impulses and so this behavior is exactly what the companies want.  However, our past behavior leaves us in worse health and with fewer funds to invest in the future, in whatever form that takes.   We will be less able to invest in renewable energy, repair failing infrastructure or reduce sickness payments than if we had better health and less debt.

Likewise, continuing to behave so impulsively will be counterproductive to sustainability.  Energy systems built on the natural balance of sunlight or wind will be unable to expand capacity on a whim as fuel fired systems have done in the past.  Food supplies may likewise be less bountiful and eating well and maintaining health will likely be more important as society transitions to more local and seasonal foods.  While some will consider these changes as limitations, we might be better off seeing them as an education in traditional character formation.

Human Control

There is a huge business in mechanical controls of lighting systems and some of the mechanisms are ingenious.   It is very cost effective to control an inefficient lighting system, which is what drives the business, but better to have an efficient one.  Electronic controls cannot save enough energy from an efficient lighting installation (0.6 w/ft2) to pay for themselves with a normally acceptable payback (and they are even worse where daylight is used most of the time with electric lighting only on a few hours per day) and certainly cannot save as much as people could with a thought and a finger.  Experts want to tell you, with some truth, that people are undependable and thus the control systems are the best we can achieve.  Unfortunately, the control systems are teaching otherwise responsible people to be irresponsible, because “the lights will turn themselves off”. This is not the message we should be putting out.

Furthermore, control systems are material, electronic technology that in some way adds to the problems of consumption and pollution.  Of course the question is what are the benefits as compared to the problems and most would see the benefits as worth the losses.  The point is simply that there are negatives and these should not be ignored or assumed not to matter.   Openly considering all the issues of a sustainable solution will likely uncover options and perhaps better solutions will emerge.


Relationships: how to obtain them, how to keep them, what to do if you lose one, dating, marriage and partnerships are one of the most important human challenges and are quite difficult for most people.  They are a major topic of books, plays, movies, popular magazines, TV, the internet etc.  The topic has been popular for centuries and even a play as current sounding as “Lets Get a Divorce” turns out to be a French comedy from the eighteenth century.

One of the very human problems we face in the requirements of sustainability is that our relationships are hard enough now and do not need another problem.   When a partner, spouse, child, sibling does something or fails to do something that has ecological ramifications, (doesn’t turn off a light) do we raise it or let it go?  Do we really need to damage a relationship by picking on such an action?   Where does the relationship go if we are always picking on something?

There has been a long campaign over the past 20 years or so on the slogan “Friends do not let friends drive drunk”.   The problem was the same, not jeopardizing a friendship (just jeopardizing a life) by telling someone they were too drunk to drive. The campaign has been moderately successful as the idea of protecting drunken friends from themselves has at least partially caught on.  However, here the payoff is much smaller; prevent some small amount of damage to the planet that no one will ever know about if you don’t mention it.  This is a very real human problem that no amount of technology will solve.

Conclusion – Right Relationship

A story from about 1800 goes that a traveler was walking down the road when he stopped to watch a farmer building a new barn[7].  The farmer had accumulated stones and was carefully moving them into place to build a five foot thick foundation wall.  This was hot and heavy work, requiring a great deal of skill.  The traveler watched for a time and then asked the farmer “why are you building it five feet thick” the farmer looked up and said “why not”?  While you and I may be able to provide multiple answers to that question, the fact that the farmer could ask it tells me volumes about his view of life, his relationships to the world, his work ethic, in short his paradigms.  It is also abruptly clear that his paradigms are distinctly different from any you will find in this century.   Perhaps that is our problem.

Technology may continue to make strides in finding more efficient and less polluting ways to produce our goods and fulfill our needs.  But even on that front Janine Benyus[8] challenges us to seek completely new ways to frame our technology by following and learning from nature: food crops that mimic a prairie, houses that grow themselves, fully recyclable systems that work off wastes of other species.   Previous writers have looked as such subjects as the architecture of an ant hill or the structure of a wasp nest as great examples of building that we cannot duplicate.  Do physicists still believe that bumble bees cannot fly?  We have so much to learn when we accept that there is so much we do not know, but that requires a re-framing of ourselves and our place in the world.

But it is our mental paradigms that hold us back.  To achieve a sustainable future we need to reduce the population and provide the structural changes to society to make that possible.  We need to stop denying the declines in resources and drastically reduce our demands in line with the limits.  We need to restructure out energy, food and water systems to feed ourselves under changing circumstances.  We need to recognize and stop environmental destruction by stopping mountaintop removal and we need to renovate and refurbish buildings instead of replacing them to limit further destruction.  We need to drastically reduce our waste and pollution to a point where the earth can start to heal itself.   We need to find an economic system that can function within a finite planet and eliminate all need for growing an economy.   Perhaps we need to extend legal protections to natural entities (see JSE on rights for nature in Ecuadorian constitution–

But most of all we need to critically examine our personal and societal expectations and assumption and start a dialog to find ways to meld them with a sustainable future.  It is only once we have come to a “right relationship” with ourselves, our families & neighbors and the planet that we will be able to build a sustainable world.

[1] Bardaglio, Peter Winthrop, Boldly Sustainable, NACUBO, 2009,  p178

[2] Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, video.

[3] Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, video,

[4] Jim Merkel, Radical Simplicity, New Society Publishers, 2003.  Jim claims the 1978 date, others have made other claims.

[5] This is a story I heard many years ago.  I have been unable to track down documentation on its source.

[6] This was related to me by a coworker of the individual mentioned.

[7] I credit this story to Eric Sloane, but do not have the exact reference.

[8] Janine Benyus, Biomimicry, Harper Perennial, 2002

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Comments (1)

  1. Peter Papesch Peter Papesch, AIA says:

    Kudos for a well-written and thoughtful article, Chris!