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August 13, 1996

A New Language for Sustainable Development

[Editor's note: The following essay is a continuation of Dr. Peter Warshall's presentation at the recent Harbinger symposium on sustainable development. Dr. Warshall is a biologist, linguist and anthropologist, and his visit to Mobile was made possible with grants from the Alabama Humaninities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Mobile Bay Chapter of Sierra Club.]

It used to be that you could act locally and think globally, but now you have to do it all: act and think locally and act and think globally. And there are two different langauges going on. For those who are concerned with the health of the planet, you see words like "Whole Earth," "biosphere," "planetary," and "Gaian." The latter referring to the Gaian Hypothesis which says essentially that anything done ecologically in any locality will affect the whole planet. On the other hand, the business community is still using words like "transnational," "global," "worldwide," "multinational." I try to get the two groups to use each other words because they essentially mean similar things but have different implications. The business community has a real hard time with the term "Gaian." The languages are not yet together and one of the reasons the strife going on between the two communities is so rancorous at times is because we haven't been willing to share our languages. One is looking at the ecology and the other is looking at the economics.

Let's look at the word, economics. While we had oekos-logos for ecology, economics means oekos-nomos. Oekos means the same, you are both in the same households, and there is no externality to these households. And nomos is the same word you find in nomads and probably came from Greek or Pre-Greek Summerian nomads. That's because they had to assign a portion of their herd to a particular pastures, dividing them up according to the conditions of different pastures. Also, dividing up the herd made it easier to count livestock while on the move, and made it easier to determine the causes of livestock depletion. Thus the original sense of economics has to do with portions: portions of goods, portions of services -- the goods being the livestock and the services being those of the herder. And also, this original sense of economics has to do with accounting in the household.

The major idea of sustainability is that you want to endure in time, and endure in time means to think about your children and future generations. The hero of this long-term thinking is a man named Amory Lovins, who started a place called Rocky Mountain Institute. But even before him, though, was Benjamin Franklin, who said "waste not, want not," which summarizes this part of my talk.

The rules of the new economics, the new household management, come down to this: (1) That we work for longevity of products, which means we have to get rid of planned obsolescences and poor quality of products; (2) That we have to dematerialize our products, which means using less materials and energy in manufacturing the product -- the car industry is a good example of dematerialization. The Mercedes Benz Company is now doing a whole new product using what is called design for disassembly and reassembly. That is, they're working to invent a car where you can take out all the parts, and as new inventions for your car occur, for example a new engine, you can modularly put them back together so you might own only one car body for your whole life. This is possibly one of the ways we will dematerialize future economics. (3) That we decouple growth, our sense of personal development or community development from mass and energy. Growth has always been coupled with our need for more energy and more mass. Decoupling doesn't mean we are poorer people; decoupling can lead us to a new sense of what growth and personal development is all about.

A fourth rule is the maximum use of recycled materials; we can really see this in the wood industry. It used to be all the wood waste was just burned, now they turn it into plywood or they cover steel studs with wood materials to make them look like wood studs.

One of the areas that the business community has something to say to the environmentalists is that businesses hate the moral overtones associated with words like pollutant and contaminant. Dow Chemical doesn't want to be told that it is polluting. In their efforts to avoid moral overtones, these companies devise a kind of good business-speak; they use words like "residual" or "non- product output." Of course words of this sort make everybody suspicious. But the nice thing about these words is that they can make us think about how we can turn the "non-product output" into a product, or make the "residual" into something that is not a residual.

The bottom-line is that businesses are going to have to take responsibility for their products from cradle to cradle, and there is no grave. Everything gets recycled. At each step of its production cycle, a corporation that takes responsibility from cradle to cradle in its uses of mass and energy is really the new economics.

We have been talking about production and consumption values, but certain values are just beyond economics and ecology. They have to do with the human value systems. So my final comments have to do with a series of words that try to get a better handle on these things that are neither ecological nor economic. They have to do with the emergence of a "green religion," or the "greening" of religion. And I must add that it is already happening. The evengelists now have a whole new group that says people should save endangered species. There are Jewish groups all over the country that are now re-reading their scriptures to look for a Judeo-Christian basis for ecological thoughts.

One of the new phrases used to indicate value beyond economics and ecology is the phrase "non-consumptive use value." This has to do with people going out to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary on Dauphin Island to view the birds in their habitat. How do you evalaute that in economic terms. Increasingly Americans have become involved in non-consumptive use. A new kind of pilgrimage has evolved. Almost every family wants to go to certain places: the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite. It's a secular pilgrimage; there is no religious organization connected with it, though it may be a kind of "nature religion." There is really no way to put a value on this kind of activity.

Another term coming into use is "option value." Option value is the value that certain resources such as plants and exotic creatures may have for human uses that we don't yet know about. At the time of its discovery, for example, no one knew the value of cyclosporin, but once it came into use, its value went up astronomically. Another example is the Madagascar Perwinkle, an exotic flower that cures leukemia in children. An important issue that arises has to do with the value we assign to the intellectual property of native people. In the case of the Perwinkle, what do huge corporate drug companies owe to the people and the shaman who told ethnobiologists that the Perwinkle is a very good remedy for blood diseases? When it first came into use as a cure for leukemia, the Madagascarians were able to make money raising and selling the plants, but that ended when the drug companies decided to raise their own in hothouses. But not all the drug companies are doing this. Merck and Company has entered into a contract with the native people in Costa Rica so they will get a certain percentage of the profits.

So you can never tell what might have "option values," and so from this standpoint maintaining bio-diversity on the planet is essential.

One stage further than option value is what I would call "existence value." Simply put, it has to do with reverence for things that are rare and/or beautiful. In some areas of Alabama, the Red Cockaded Woodpecker would perhaps be a good example of a creature with "existence value." Has anyone ever placed an economic value on the Red Cockaded Woodpecker? If it has a value, it has a value because it exists, and because people want it to exist. Like the Brown Pelican that was almost wiped out by DDT, the Brown Pelican exists because people made efforts to save it. Existance value is becoming very important. Among the American people, there is a real strong sense that certain things should exist for what they are.

Existence value, though, is real difficult because there is no way of objectively judging which places have existence value and which don't, especially when different groups have different needs and different agendas. The Apaches in Arizona lost a battle against the University of Arizona over the top of Mount Graham. The Apaches wanted to preserve it as it is because it is one of their sacred places, but the University wanted to build four telescopes there. The University argued there was nothing on the top of the mountain, no temples or whatever, to indicate it is a holy place, and so they won the battle. This is a real battleground and it has to do with the way we understand ourselves. Native Americans understand themselves in relation to the broad network of nature whereas we identify narrowly with perhaps a specific piece of property or a specific system of belief. The conversion point comes when the language we adopt allows us to respect the network of living creatures of which we are a part.

The lovely part of existence value is that it leads to project that are a lot of fun. My favorite right now is the L.A. Art Project. It's a forty-year project to restore the L.A. River. If you have ever seen the L.A. River, you know it is a cement ditch with a trickle of water in it. It's often used in the movies for chase scenes. What's especially interesting about this project is that it is too bizarre to call it an environmental project, so it is called an art project with a 40-year period allotted to its completion. People are starting to think 40 years in advance. If you are able to think long-term, you can actually enjoy existence value.

In conclusion, the market economy is only going to really work for a fraction of humankind and it only works in small parts of the planet, and in order for "sustainable development" or "restorative development" to work, we are going to have to incorporate impoverished people and those who speak in non-human tongues into this new language, whatever that language is to be.

We should be very aware that when the market collapses, as it has many times in Africa, very fragile democratic institutions also bite the dust. We have all tried to deny this direct connection between governments, institutions, economies, and ecologies. The U.S. government has poured millions of dollars into the reforestation of the Sahara region of Africa, and I was asked to survey that country to find out how reforestation might be done effectively. Starting with the premise that governments, religions, and economies are interconnected, I realized that many of the people in this region of Africa are Moslems and their great dream is to go to Mecca, so I said to the U.S. government, "Give every family houshold a hundred trees, tell them that in 20 years if any of those trees are still alive, you will send the head of the household to Mecca, which only costs $250 and probably Saudi Arabia would pay for it anyway to encourage the practice of the Moslem religion." And I said there would no way those trees would die; everybody will take care of those trees until some head of the household goes to Mecca. Of course, the U.S. State Department said we can't get involved in that because it's combining religion and ecology, and we have to keep them separate; we don't get involved in religion here. So probably the cheapest reforestation proposal disappeared overnight. But actually it would have worked because it was consonant with all their basic values. I tell this story because it is an example of the new kind of view of how we have to stop subdividing our lives into little pieces.

The last phrase I will give before ending is "intergenerational equity." Intergenerational equity means how do we provide for fair and just and impartial qualities in decision-making that have to do with tomorrow's children, understanding that our children will be living in the same house -- the planet - - as we have lived in? I find this phrase, intergenerational equaity, as the most nurturing of the new language because it weaves together global economy, materials, energy, information about the biosphere with compassion for the young, and without intergenerational compassion, I see no way for our thinking and our lanauge to take us in the direction we need to go.

-- August 13, 1996


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