The viral effect of sustainable thinking

June 27, 2010 7:54 pm

A woman sitting next to Toby on his Dallas flight last month asked him where he was from. “Oregon,” he replied. “Oh that’s where all the sustainability people live, right?” she asked. This brief interaction speaks so aptly to the state of environmental consciousness in much of the United States – or perhaps environmental unconsciousness would be a better term. Why, as the woman’s question suggested, do so many Americans feel disconnected from a lifestyle that harmonizes with the Earth we live on? And how has the issue of how to live in balance with our natural resources become a polarizing (and political) issue of “us” versus “them”? And why has the importance of sustainability seemed to take root deeper and stronger in the Northwest than in other areas of the United States? Of course, the answer to these questions would take a truly inspired encyclopedic blog entry to fully unpack. But I believe that in a very basic sense, the answer is linked to the idea of ideas, memes, which Richard Dawkins famously wrote about in The Selfish Gene. From a meme standpoint, the simplified answer is that the notion that living sustainably is important to you as an individual has not sufficiently taken root – that is, it has not enjoyed the mass appeal of the diametrically opposing meme of that a healthy economy is supposedly based off endlessly increasing consumption of resources. In short, seeing oneself as a responsible individual actor in an entire world system that will either achieve balance with the Earth or eventually perish is an idea that has not quite caught on. This meme is no competition for the individual accumulation of newer , shinier, bigger, and faster things. To date, there is only one antidote to this very uneven contest between harmony and infinite consumption: Individuals who, as soon as they know better, make harder (often painful) lifestyle choices that favor long term collective security over short term prestige and gain. Memes are ideas that spread among humans much like viruses. The most successful of them –that is, the ones “work” the best (think of successful genes in evolutionary theory)– reach tipping points swiftly, catch on and can spread exponentially in short periods of time; some memes spread more slowly, and unsuccessful ones die out all together. There is no doubt that the meme of sustainable living has taken root in the Northwest and will continue to grow, but has yet to spread to many segments of the population here and elsewhere in the county. Adding steepness to the uphill climb of the sustainability meme is the struggling economy. For example, cities like Ocean City, Maryland (and others) on the east coast are ending their recycling programs to save money in these tight economic times (Huffington Post, June 2, 2010). A flagging economy has led cities, as well as individuals and companies, to make an illusory choice in paradigm which pits what’s sustainable versus what is necessary to survive. It is a myth, of course, that the two cannot co-exist; but the meme of sustainability, which favors overall health and collective security over the long haul, has a terrible time competing with the health of the bottom line in the short term. According to Toby, the costs of social unconsciousness will need to be paid sooner or later: “We’ve been profit-taking on the backs of future generations and it’s why this economy isn’t going to be turning around anytime soon. Sooner or later we’ll have to pay the real price of things and the sooner we shift direction the less damage we’ll end up doing. I love Chinese adage, ‘Unless we change direction we’re likely to end up where we’re headed,’” he says. Toby’s work focuses on spreading the meme of authentic sustainability in the jewelry business and beyond. Thanks again for reading the new blog — we always welcome your comments and additions to the dialogue. Until next time!