Recently at a book store I saw a title advancing 1001 ways to improve our world in difficult times. Shortly after, a friend said he’d like to subtitle a book of his something like “One Hundred Inconvenient Truths.” This is, of course, taking off from Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
I responded saying that 100 different scrambled problems and solutions was too random, too lacking in a system or order, wasn’t cognizant of the way ecological systems really work and would perpetuate not doing anything effective while precious time slips away. The number 100 was too big, much less the number 1001, the differences between the “truths,” whatever they might be, muddled by the grab bag quality of mixing oranges and apples – much less throwing in blueberries and watermelons and poisonous and medicinal fruits to boot. People tend to take the easy one and think they were making progress – while postponing the difficult ones as precious time slips away.
But there is one approach that looms far larger than anything else I can think of: getting a sense of proportion and learning to prioritize. If we can do that then we will see there are 5 big inconvenient truths under which all others are subsumed. Understanding this approach we can sort out the real solutions in the confusion we see seething about us now. We can eliminate the paltry and the contradictory steps and get on with doing something relevant and powerful. I’ll propose these as the five big inconvenient truths we have to deal with. They expand beyond ecocity building, but they outline the larger picture and provide the larger context very well I believe.
#1. Inconvenient big truth number one.
Humanity is overpopulated and must reduce its numbers, and do it peacefully since violence replicates and amplifies itself. This is not a racist statement in the slightest as often claimed by people victimized by actual racists making the statement in the past or still making it today. It is instead relevant to the species-ist humans driving other species into extinction by way of taking almost all of the land of the planet for their own utility and pleasure. Species-ism is even larger and ultimately more destructive than racism, as horrible a scourge as racism has proven to be. That we are overpopulated is massively evident in the fact that human beings constitute more than 100 times the biomass of any other species in our general size range to ever inhabit the planet. That’s too big and all of us need to face it. Inconvenient truth #1.
#2. The built infrastructure – my subject of specialization – few want to face this one either. We need to shift from cars, sprawl, paving and cheap energy infrastructure to pedestrian oriented ecocities that fit by design perfectly with renewable energy systems, especially solar, but not biofuels, which compete with food and the last of the forests and grasslands. We need to radically reshape cities for conservation not squandering, regeneration of life not exploiting it to extinction – soils, oceans and all. We need to do “ecocity mapping,” finding the vital centers of the sprawling metropolitan miasma and make neighborhoods into fully alive villages with everything villages should have close at hand for a full life, district centers into real towns in their own right and downtowns into smaller, taller full spectrum cities where people live as well as work. At the same time we need to be removing buildings in low density areas and opening creeks and shorelines and expanding community and commercial food production so that eventually no center of the city small or large is more than a modest walk from beautiful and supportive open space and all centers are linked by foot, bicycle and transit over which very few commuters pass.
#3. We need to eat lower on the food chain. Among the changes that imply enormous savings and amount to re-investing in long-term sustainability, agriculture for meat needs to be recognized as highly inefficient. Costing five to ten times the land and energy of eating vegetable foods directly, a diet high in meat is a big part of the geopolitical and energetics problem on Earth, and a diet very low in meat is a big part of the solution. This isn’t a call for a ban on meats but to face the inconvenient truth that a substantial shift away from meats holds very large benefit for life support and biodiversity on the Earth. Small amounts of meat for ample protein and flavoring in mainly vegetable dishes, common in Chinese cuisine for example, is a very different thing from the giant slabs of meat as stakes and big burgers and other large meat portions.
#4. Need needs to replace greed, as Gandhi said. That means we need to invest in the future health of the world – not just in our wealth as individuals – by way of supporting solutions to the problems identified by the big inconvenient truths. We need a new wave of generosity, especially as expressed in giving back to the Earth. In other words we have to tax ourselves more and the wealthier folks even more yet, and do a much better job of spending the money for the general good. We need to prioritize for the best investments. What’s new these days in this situation is that finally, with the ultimate crisis beginning to enter our lives in ever more disruptive ways, it is soon to become conspicuous that the children of the rich as well as the children of the poor will inherit a poverty stricken, chaotic and violent world if everybody doesn’t contribute substantially to addressing the 5 Inconvenient Truths with real investment and action. Since the wealthy have much more, they need to give more. The fantasy option of holing up in a gated community or super-rich castle retreat with armed guards, with the middle class turning into peasants to harvest our gourmet food and wine, is soon to go out the window if we don’t act more generously now.
#5. Education needs to stop chasing the money for its own sake and promoting growh, growth, growth. It needs to shift away from supporting “whatever’s coming down the road to maximize prosperity” (at the expense of nature’s prosperity) while attempting to make the whole enterprise a little “greener,” for real or for PR reasons. It has to powerfully educate about the four big inconvenient truths, just mentioned. Also, we as individuals need to realize that we self-educate ourselves for nothing in particular if we are staring at television for billions of hours collectively every year or otherwise, literally, distracting ourselves, distracting ourselves from crucial learning and work that needs attention now. Education can help preserve or destroy natural systems and biodiversity depending on what is being learned. Beyond “reading and writing and ’rithmetic,” education is not per se a virtuous pursuit in itself. It depends on what it addresses and what it creates. The old American spiritual acknowledged this problem when it said, “I ain’t gonna study war no more…” The content is all-important. Again, the 100 random things is not a good idea. We need to prioritize and not put the big things on hold.