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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Challenge of Sustainability

Air Date: Week of December 17, 1999


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Greek mythology, Cassandra, the daughter of the kind of Troy, is given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, but cursed because nobody believes her predictions. Author Alan AtKisson calls this Cassandra's Dilemma, and writes in his new book, Believing Cassandra, that nature has a Cassandra's Dilemma of its own. While some people predict a dire ecological future, most don't heed the warnings because, he says, they're missing the big picture.

ATKISSON: You know, when people think about trying to solve our environmental dilemmas, they tend to think that we have to slow our economy down, to cut back. It's all about driving less or becoming a vegetarian, which are all wonderful things, and they do contribute. But what is more needed is a complete overhaul in our agricultural systems. A complete overhaul in our transportation systems. And there are, in fact, signs that these are on the way. It's more important to my mind to spend our energy changing these systems, than it is to worry about the very small changes that a lifestyle means. And if we do that, we're going to see an enormous upturn in economic activity. It's going to be a renaissance economically, the likes of which the world has never seen, and will eclipse, I believe, the computer revolution in terms of what it could mean for people and the economy.

CURWOOD: So, by getting the planet straight, people are going to get rich.

ATKISSON: I think if we don't imagine it that way it won't happen. And I think that in fact when you think through the logic of it, it's the only way it can happen. We can't dismantle our economy. We can't dismantle our technology. We've already loosed demons into the world. We've loosed plutonium and endocrine disrupters and all kinds of materials, that if we don't learn how to clean them up, take care of them better, they will, you know, cause havoc for generations to come. We have to imagine a world where in order to clean it up, we in fact get rich. Because otherwise it's not going to happen from moral imperatives alone, I think.

CURWOOD: Here we are, two people living in one of the richest countries in the Earth. How do you make this argument to somebody who comes from a very poor country on Earth? There are places that are grossly under-developed. They have very little wealth. They're going to hear in your words the notion that, well, you can't do what the affluent part of the world has done. Otherwise, we'll be overwhelmed ecologically. Or will they?

ATKISSON: Oh no. I think that in fact the whole notion of leapfrogging even expands in its understanding when we think about Third World development. It's possible to imagine, if we use the wealth of the First World to stimulate a renaissance in technology, the likes of which it's very difficult to imagine now. But for example, bringing the cost of producing solar cells down to way cheaper than coal or nuclear, then it's possible to imagine spreading the benefits of energy to places which right now are just desperate for basic power, even clean water. You know, I have friends, for example, who have developed a clean water technology which just uses a little bit of energy and an ultraviolet bulb, and can clean, you know, the water for an entire village on just, you know, pennies. And that's the kind of technological breakthrough which, if we redirect our resources, can uplift Third World living standards all around the world.

CURWOOD: I'd like you to read for us, for a moment. If you could turn to page 130 there?

ATKISSON: Sure. (Turns pages, reads) "To escape Cassandra's Dilemma and prevent global collapse, we need an idea that is both visionary and profitable. A solution that can appeal to both the ardent altruist and the hardened venture capitalist. We need a source of hope that is also a business opportunity, a hot investment that is also intensely idealistic. We need something that will challenge our higher natures and attract our baser instincts, coaxing us into the game of transformation without polarizing society or fomenting revolution. We need something that has not been seen since humans first began plowing up dirt, building skyscrapers, and messing around with atmospheric chemistry. We need something that has the power to command a lifetime of allegiance, even though it does not truly exist yet in practice and may never fully exist except in theory. We need something we can barely begin to describe in tangible, concrete terms. But fortunately, we have a word for it."

CURWOOD: And the envelope, please -- the word is?

ATKISSON: The word is an ungainly six-syllable word, called "sustainability". Sustainability is like democracy. It's an overarching vision of a social ideal. In very specific terms it has to do with not using non-renewable resources, using renewable resources at rates that can be replenished, and not dumping stuff into the Earth's ecosystems at rates faster than they can absorb.

CURWOOD: Okay, what's the difference between this and environmentalism?

ATKISSON: Sustainability is the answer to the question that environmentalism raises. To be an environmentalist, you say "No." You say we can't do this any more, it's trashing the planet. The sustainability perspective is the yes. It's what we can do instead. It's the vision. It's the innovation. It's the new way of doing things that meets these criteria that we've only recently begun to understand, for what it takes to have six billion people on planet Earth.

CURWOOD: So you prefer to see yourself as an advocate of sustainability, rather than an environmentalist.

ATKISSON: Well, I do, but that doesn't mean that I don't support environmentalism. In fact, if we're going to have the motivation to change, we need not just a strong environmental movement but a stronger environmental movement, to help push us from, you know -- push society from behind. Sustainability is about what's tugging it from the front, essentially trying to attract it toward a new way of doing things that is not destructive. That is in fact both profitable and protective.

CURWOOD: Is this all theoretical we're talking about here? Or do you have some concrete examples you can offer?

ATKISSON: There's a large carpet company in Atlanta, Georgia, called Interface. One point two billion dollar company, which, because of the leadership of its CEO, is reorganizing itself to become a sustainable enterprise. And they have made enormous strides toward reducing their energy consumption, reducing their toxic emissions. In some places they don't even sell carpet any more. They lease it. They rent you the service of carpeting, so that they can just take back the carpet tiles and recycle them into carpet once again. And they're in the process of essentially showing other companies how to do that. And I had the pleasure of being at the Nike Corporation just last week and watched that company begin to re-imagine itself as a sustainable enterprise.

CURWOOD: The Nike Corporation. They oversee sweatshops that we've heard complain about, a sustainable company?

ATKISSON: There's no perfection in this world yet. Nike's made significant strides toward addressing the issues that have been raised around child labor, but I'm not going to defend them on that score. They deserve all the flak that they've gotten and are going to get. But at the same time, having been called to the carpet on those issues has motivated them to rethink what their vision is as a corporation, and that's included thinking about how to become a sustainable enterprise. How to retool their industry over the long run so that it's not causing any damage to the Earth. They're really trying to imagine a company that doesn't poison the Earth, and that in fact is a social good in addition to being an economic winner.

CURWOOD: This would be amazing for Nike, because they make a lot of their money because their shoes go out of style so quickly. I mean, the kids on the block here in the U.S., I mean, this year's design, the design even from six months ago, is not as cool as the one that comes out right now. They have a lot of planned obsolescence in their product. Do you think they can change that much?

ATKISSON: Well, I think the jury's out. I'm certainly not going to sort of hold up Nike as a sterling example of sustainability. But I will say that in fact that planned obsolescence could work, industry-wide, in our favor. Because if we begin to introduce new materials that are designed to be biodegradable, to essentially break down in compost heaps to be used as fertilizer, or to be used again as shoes or clothes or whatever else, we need to be testing those materials at ever-increasing rates. The innovation has to be pumping through our system ever faster, you know, and I can think of no better industry than the clothing industry, which is fad-driven, to allow us to make those experiments on a grand scale and find out what works and what doesn't work. You know, we're not going to get rid of these companies. I have a lot of friends who would love to just see companies like Nike go away. I'm more interested in seeing what will it take to use those massive engines of capital to transform the systems that are currently trashing the Earth?

CURWOOD: Okay. We stand, like Garret Hardin, in the eye of the hurricane, and we know that from now on we'll never have more than ten years to turn things around and we'll always be ten years too late. Why? Why? Why try? What's the incentive? And am I being too pessimistic here?

ATKISSON: No, I think there's a place for pessimism. I mean, my book's subtitle is An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist World . And that of course brands me as an optimist forever. But I also believe there's a place for grief, and there's a place for knowing that we've lost a lot of stuff that we can't easily replace. And there's also a place for dealing with the emotions that come from bearing up with the fact that we're still going to lose things that we can't replace, that there is so much momentum in the system that there will be species that go. There will be ecosystems that go. At the same time, pessimism is not a strategy for change. And having a vision for transformative change through innovation, through dedication, essentially, to a long-term vision where our children and their children are living not just in a different world but a rebuilt world, a restored world, is, you know, the only way that I can get up in the morning.

CURWOOD: Or you could look at it this way. If you're a pessimist, maybe you're right and so, therefore, it's all going to come to naught. And if you're an optimist, and maybe you're right, things will be wonderful. But if it turns out that things will come to naught, you will have tried. It's sort of like the agnostic praying, you know? If there is a God, well, then, they're in great shape if they wind up at the pearly gates.

ATKISSON: Well, you know, Henry Ford, who caused a lot of the problems we're dealing with right now, by designing the mass-production automobile, said that whether you believe you can or you can't, you're right. So I tend to believe that we can, and I tend to promote that notion by doing my bit to spread information around about what kinds of new ideas have come forward and been implemented at the national level, at the city level, at the corporate level.

CURWOOD: I'm looking at this book here, and it has this rather handsome guy on the front cover with a computer and a guitar. Looks like maybe a Martin guitar.

ATKISSON: It's a Martin.

CURWOOD: And on the back cover, same guy has got -- he's smiling, he's holding a guitar. That's you.

ATKISSON: Yeah. I've developed a strange career where I on the one hand will go talk to corporations and city governments about transformation strategies and sustainable development policy, and on the other hand I'll pull my guitar out and sing them a silly song about the Gross Domestic Product set to a Latvian drinking melody.

CURWOOD: Do you have a guitar with you here?

ATKISSON: I don't have the guitar with me, no, but we have CDs.

CURWOOD: Let's hear the song set to the Latvian drinking melody.

ATKISSON: (Laughs) You know, this is a song about the Gross Domestic Product, which is how we measure progress in this country. And so I'm trying to demonstrate that no matter what we do, the GDP goes up. So the first verse -- I'll do the second verse, you know. (Sings) The Exxon captain went below and told the mate to take her slow. But no one saw the reef ahead and now a million birds are dead. But GDP is a-rising. GDP is rising. Bye, bye, bye, dollars in the sky, la, la, la, la, la, la -- hey! (Curwood laughs) And it just goes on for like 20 verses like that. And you know, so I'll get everybody singing along the Latvian part, as I say.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) You write in your book that many feel that laughing at this kind of situation, like, you know, a million birds dying in Alaska, is inappropriate. But you seem to really encourage laughter.

ATKISSON: Well you know, I asked my 16-year-old niece what part of the book she liked the best. And she said she liked the sentence that said, "Absurdity is an enormously liberating idea." And the fact that we are stuck in a rather absurd situation is cause for tears, but it's also cause for laughter. You know, I wrote a breakthrough song for myself, which is on the album that comes with this book, Believing Cassandra. And it was called "The Dead Planet Blues." And so singing this really dark humor song, "The Dead Planet Blues", was essentially a kind of a liberation for me. And it became, you know, something of a little cult song. I sang it all over the place, at conference and whatever. And I encourage people, essentially, to do that. People have told me that this is, you know, playing with fire essentially, because it stirs up emotions. But you know, if we can't deal with the absurdity of our situation, then we can't deal with the seriousness of it, either.

CURWOOD: Okay. And how does "The Dead Planet Blues" go?

ATKISSON: (Sings) Pull up a star and hear my tale of woe. I built a planet just a few billion years ago. It was a lovely little blue-green ball. One of my life forms became self-aware. They started messing with my recipe for air. And now that planet's got no life at all, yeah, it's a dead planet -- and I'm just getting back from the funeral. Dead planet -- don't you hate it when they leave the casket open? I got them old dead planet blues.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

ATKISSON: It's a great pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: Alan AtKisson's book is called Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist World. It is published by Chelsea Green.



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