Blueprint for a Sustainable Future

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Throughout the ages civilizations have risen and crumbled, many times as a result of their own mistakes and those of their forefathers. Many of these mistakes were, of course, inevitable, because they lacked the necessary technological know-how, and their immediate survival depended on the unsustainable exploitation of their natural resources. In addition, the population was relatively small and natural resources were abundant, so they moved to more fertile lands and friendlier environments and set up new centers of civilization. Because of the availability of a vast amount of resources and the relatively small population, the ecology remained to a great extent sustainable. It has only been in the last century that accelerated growth in technological innovation, along with exponential growth in population, the rapid pace of economic expansion, and a lack of respect for the environment, have brought about conditions that could put us at risk for ecological disaster. As Diamond asserts, the main problem is not the world population itself - although it has been named most often - but the total population impact. If all people living in the third world were to raise their standard of living and adopt the life styles of inhabitants in the first world, we would need twelve times the resources we are consuming and inflict twelve times the environmental damage we are causing today, something the earth can certainly not sustain.

In an excellent book called Natural Capitalism, (1) published by the Rocky Mountain Institute (a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable alternatives) Hawken and Lovins propose a new system in which resource productivity rather than human productivity drives the new economy. By increasing resource productivity, the same output is achieved but less material and energy are consumed. The authors question the widely accepted assumption that what is good for us must also be good for the world, proposing instead a radically new and contrasting paradigm which proclaims what is good for the world will be good for us. To make our lives better we must strive to make the world better, and to make the world better we must first understand it more. The new economy will contrast modern capitalism in that economic prosperity is not measured by gains in material well-being, but by natural capital that includes all the familiar resources used by humans: water, minerals, oil, trees, fish, air, soil, etc., and encompasses all living organisms, humans, animals, plants, wetlands, oceans, and marshlands (2). Furthermore, unlike “industrial capitalism” that considers only human financial and manufactured capitals as important in creating wealth, “natural capitalism” also keeps stock of natural capital (natural resources, living systems, and ecosystems) and includes them in determining wealth. Whether we follow a sustainable or a non-sustainable future depends largely on how we preserve our biological diversity, how much we increase resource productivity, how much of the natural resources we exploit, and how much we leave for our children. According to many environmentalists and ecological economists we have been, and unfortunately still are, continuing many practices that are unsustainable.

To assure sustainability, policy makers, economists, and educators have much work to do. Today’s economy is driven by maximizing profit with little regard to natural capital. Many policies are in place that tax innovation and resource productivity, but encourage waste and inefficiency. For example, we continue to support fishing fleets, even though existing fishing capacity far exceeds the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries. Subsidizing forest industries by building roads for transporting wood has increased logging. Similarly, subsidizing agricultural farms to cover irrigation and pesticide costs has resulted in large-scale land abuse and salinization.

As we discussed earlier, sustainability cannot be achieved unless poverty is eliminated. Many developing countries have been borrowing heavily to subsidize basic necessities and much of their economic development needs. The total external debt of these countries has grown tenfold during the past three decades, from $245 billion in 1970 to more than $2.4 trillion in 2005 (3). These countries’ poverty cannot be eliminated unless there is a sincere effort and a substantial commitment from richer countries in the form of debt relief, transfer of clean technology, international development aids, and reduction of trade barriers on goods imported from poorer countries.

Educators also have a great degree of responsibility for introducing their students and the public to issues related to energy and the environment, and for advising them on policies and practices that discourage wastes and promote sustainability. Unfortunately, even many consumers who claim to favor environmentalism are not willing to pay more, accept the loss of some comfort, or forfeit minor customary features to buy more environmentally friendly products. The number is growing, however, as the sales of consumer products that carry labels identifying them as environmentally-friendly products by such internationally-recognized organizations such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is gradually increasing.7 We believe consumer attitudes will significantly change as health effects associated with increasing pollution, global warming, and depletion of natural resources become more apparent.

Below are some guidelines for what we can do as small steps to move toward a sustainable future or at least reduce the environmental footprint and slow down the damage we are already causing to the environment.


On the Personal Level

Simplify your life – Use simpler machines. Use tools that require more of your muscle power, like bicycles, manual hacksaws, etc., which are also good for your health.
Find a hobby – Participate in leisurely activities like music, sports, arts and crafts. They tend to enrich your life and are relatively non-consuming and non-polluting.
Minimize your energy losses – Repair leaky faucets and water pipes. Replace incandescent lights with fluorescent lights, insulate walls and roofs, and replace old appliances with energy-saving appliances.
Use ecologically friendly (green) materials – Consider using natural or recycled materials when buying new homes or remodeling your existing house. Buy only materials that meet environmental and safety standards.
Change your diet – Eat more vegetables and less meat. Consume organic instead of processed foods.
Reduce, reuse, and recycle – Reduce material consumption by extending products’ useful lives. Don’t buy new products unless you absolutely need them; share or repair whenever possible. When it is necessary, purchase only durable and energy-efficient devices. Replace disposable with reusable products. Manufacturers do not pay your energy bills. In fact, to reduce costs and expand their market base, they have every incentive to make their devices less efficient and less durable. Reuse items (for other applications) instead of buying new ones; upgrade to a newer model and give the old one to a needier owner. Recycle only if the options for repair, reuse, and upgrade are no longer available.
Educate yourself – Learn about people and their cultures, travel to foreign countries, and explore the beauty of their land, language, religion, and cultural heritage.

On the Community and National Levels

Promote sustainability – Restore the environment to the condition of equilibrium by planting new trees, cropping native species, protecting wildlife, and enhancing fisheries. Reward efficiency and not waste by cutting subsidies to polluting industries, and giving rebates to manufacturers, builders, and those who save material and energy.
Be proactive – Don’t wait until the environment is so stressed that the damage done has become irreversible; look for signs of stress, and act to resolve the problem in a timely fashion.
Empower individuals – Encourage individuals to practice conservation. For example, city planners can build convenient bike routes and transit authorities can subsidize bikes costs. Companies can institute flex-time, allow employees to work from home, build shower facilities for bikers, and partially subsidize rent for employees who live nearby.
Deploy empowering technologies – These help increase productivity while preserving natural resources. Examples are those that improve irrigation, reduce pest damage, and encourage soil conservation and enrichment. They also accelerate research and development of renewable energy sources.
Revamp manufacturing practices – This can minimize energy and material use during the entire life of the product. Design for durability, reusability, recyclability, and for manufacturing practices that promote energy efficiency and allow for easy repair, dismantling, reuse of scrap materials, and disposal of wastes.
Eliminate subsidies – Subsidies to industries that promote inefficient and unproductive use of materials and energy and agricultural companies that produce products that degrade soil fertility, pollute the environment, or waste a large amount of water should be eliminated. Internalize the externalities so that the price of a product reflects the full cost including health costs and costs of cleaning the environment. The only exception is to subsidize those industries and products that are beneficial to society, but need help to overcome initial market barriers.
Reform tax laws – Reduce or eliminate income tax and substitute it with environmental and carbon auctions and carbon taxes. Carbon taxes are levied against individuals and corporations in proportion to the amount of petroleum they consume. In carbon auction, companies bid for the right to pollute. This makes sense because labor earns income from productive work, whereas polluting corporations and energy inefficient industries profit by being wasteful and non-sustainable. Industries should be taxed on the amount of raw material and energy they use and the toxic pollutants they release into the atmosphere in order to cover health costs, environmental cleanup, and restoration of the environment to pre-release conditions. Higher taxes will increase cost to polluting companies and result in a loss in sales. This forces companies to make their products safer, more efficient, and produce less waste (a). Proceeds should be reinvested towards projects that promote sustainability – for example, use the carbon auction and carbon tax to build hydrogen infrastructure. The proceeds from pollution tax can be redirected as subsidies to clean and make industries efficient, or used to spur research and development in resource productivity. Income from parking rentals and toll roads can be used to pay for efficient public transportation, and savings from dematerialization can foster more efficient manufacturing. The interest on car loans can be increased while decreasing mortgage interests for community housing. Those with too many children can be penalized; the proceeds can help improve education, provide better health care, and to build playgrounds for children.
Participate in local and national politics – Support politicians who advocate and promote realistic sustainable environmental policies and short–term goals that are consistent with long-term objectives. Doing so also reduces political tension and instability in the world, which is often caused over control of foreign natural resources.
Educate – Teach the public environmental and energy literacy, the need for proactive practices and social activism. Universities should integrate energy and environmental courses in the liberal arts and engineering disciplines. This book is aimed as a small step toward this direction.

On the Global and International Levels

Support democratic governments – When these governments work to reduce poverty, support human rights, provide education, protect the environment, and promote sustainable economic development, they should be given support.
Empower the grass root activists and microenterprises – Give loans and technical assistance to millions of tiny family-owned businesses or microenterprises with only a few employees. These small businesses are more flexible, lack the bureaucracy, have strong ties to their local community, can bring social benefits at only a fraction of the cost, and help more effectively protect their immediate environment and thus global ecology.
Oppose war and military intervention - Securing the flow of oil and other natural resources by force is neither the answer to our short-term energy needs, nor is it in our long-term interest. Military interventions will undoubtedly antagonize people, encourage extremism, foment terrorism, and cause political instability that eventually reverberates throughout the world and daunt us in our home.
Support the elimination of economic inequality – Forgive debts to poorer nations, transfer sustainable technologies to developing nations, and support globalization efforts, but only as much as it reduces the gap between industrial and poor nations, helps maintain peace, and encourages disarmament. Help to eliminate poverty by providing free education, jobs, and basic health care.


(1) Hawkens, Paul, Lovins, A, and Lovins, L. H., Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Rocky Mountain Institute, 1999.

(2) Swamy, M, and Kumara, R., “Does Non--Inclusion of Intangible Asset Values Lead to Distortion of Financial Statements and Mislead Judicious Financial Decision Making?,” Journal Of Financial Management & Analysis Vol 17, Iss 1, Jan-Jun 2004.

(3) The CIA Fact Book, (

(4) Toossi Reza, "Energy and the Environment:Sources, technologies, and impacts", Verve Publishers, 2005

Additional Comments

(a) This point has been refuted by some economists who argue that for a purely efficient market, a shift from income tax to pollution tax will have a net negative impact on the economy .Others argue that the conclusions are made based on false assumptions and that the net effect is indeed positive. [See for example, Economics and the Environment, 3rd Ed. by E. S. Goodstein, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, pp. 170-173.]

Further Reading

Hawkens, P., Lovins, A, and Lovins, L. H., Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Rocky Mountain Institute, 1999.

Meadows, D., Randers, J., and Meadows, D., Limit to Growth: 30-year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.

Diamond, J., Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Group, USA, 2004.

Journal of Political Ecology: Case Studies in History and Society, JPE is produced at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, the University of Arizona Library, Tucson, Arizona. The journal covers research articles into the linkages between political economy and human environmental impact.

World Watch Magazine (

External Links

World Bank (

United Nations Environment Program (

Rocky Mountain Institute (

Greenpeace (

Green Seal (

Nature Conservancy (

The Sierra Club (

Friends of the Earth (

Women’s Environment and Development Organization (

World Wide Fund (