Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cultural Solutions for Sustainable Living

by Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H.

When we view our consumerism as an addiction, rather than a harmless excess, we start a challenging process, but one that empowers us to accept responsibility for our behavior. Following this different path, we can regain some control over our future.

Addicts try to pass off their behavior as private, personal conduct that they can’t help and that is, frankly, none of anyone else’s business. They reject the notion that it is a problem at all. However, none of the mind-numbing denial and excuses of the addict are important until they “hit bottom” and are somehow willing to accept responsibility for their behavior. At that point, they need community support and encouragement. We may see consumerism as “just” a side-effect of prosperity, freedom, democracy and capitalism, but addressing consumerism as the addiction it is offers the solution that technology can never provide.

In our growing awareness of global climate change, terrorism and other ecological and geopolitical crises, we are confronted with the fact that our consumerist culture is not changing rapidly enough to avert major disasters in the next few decades. We know that it is necessary to adapt to our changing circumstances or face unimaginable consequences for our future generations. But, even more importantly, our excesses are making us miserable rather than happy. We see the enormous growth of Business and Government and wonder where our country is headed. Can we change our culture without waiting for edicts from an authoritarian government responding to a horrendous crisis? Are the vested interests who are actively sabotaging our future on this planet ever going to loosen their grip and join those who recognize the imperative of personal responsibility?

Over the past decade, we have heard an abundance of technological solutions to global climate change, few of which will actually make a real dent in our carbon footprint or other measures of ecological sustainability. The truth is that we can not consume our way out of the mess we are in. Science will help, but the technology we require first is social and cultural technology to address our compulsive acquisitiveness and addiction to "stuff." To the less developed world, Americans are, through our corporations, stealing vast amounts of this planet and converting these natural resources into stuff we don't need. One of the best descriptions of this process is presented in Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff." at

So, we've become compulsive consumers and exploiters - not what we'd ever set out to become. Corporate interests, supported by government, are reaping huge rewards, enough to blind them to the harm they are doing, and enough to influence our lawmakers not to kill the goose that lays their golden eggs. But someone's got to act like an adult here. Liberal and conservative, believer and atheist, rich and poor, young and old, we all have a stake in the future of the human race and planet earth.

There is a social/cultural technology that has worked remarkably well with addictions, creating cultural support for facing up to alcoholism and many other forms of addictive behavior. This began as the 12-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it has been used successfully throughout the world for decades and is recognized, even in our scientific and medical communities, as a vital part of addiction treatment and recovery.

So, here we are, a nation of addicts. We may continue to beg, borrow and steal in our quest for new products and processes to allow us to keep our addictions, but for the sake of future generations, we can not let this charade continue. It is natural for addicts to behave this way, but we can no longer accept this behavior as appropriate. We have an off-the-shelf cultural technology to offer, with only minor adaptations. Here it is:

12 Steps To Creating a Sustainable Culture

1. Admit that we are powerless over consumerism and that our lives and culture have become unsustainable.

2. Accept that our awareness of, and dedication to, the long-term common good of the human race and our planet can leave us happier, healthier and protective of our future generations.

3. Make the decision to restrict our unthinking, guilt-inducing self-indulgences for the long-term benefit of life on this planet.

4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, our behavior and our priorities.

5. Admit to ourselves and others the exact nature of our destructive self-indulgences and meaningless consumption.

6. Realizing that we are neither perfect nor perfectible beings, seek social and cultural support structures to remind us, and encourage us, on the steps necessary for human sustainability.

7. Humbly ask our community and world to understand our shortcomings and offer forgiveness and understanding for our past wrongs.

8. Make a list of those we have harmed and be willing to make amends to them.

9. Make direct amends to people we have harmed, except to the extent that could injure them or others.

10. Continue to take moral inventory and promptly admit whenever we are wrong.

11. Seek, through quiet reflection and meditation, to improve our conscious contact with the natural world in which we live and to enjoy the gifts of this world in sustainable moderation.

12. Having had a moral and intellectual awakening as a result of these steps, we will try to spread this awareness to others and to practice reasoned, non-ideological sustainability in all of our affairs.

So, there it is. Are you ready to commit to a process of recovering from the bizarre consumerism that has infected our culture? If so, please start talking with your friends, colleagues and neighbors. Talk to your religious congregation, your humanist group, your civic organizations, ethnic and neighborhood groups. Talk to your local voluntary simplicity and conscious living groups. See if other people are interested in taking real, immediate steps to reversing our patterns of excessive consumption, waste, pollution and indirect exploitation of other peoples around the world.

Each group will work in its own directions. There is no one "right way" to do this. Create your own list of steps towards sustainable living. Don't wait for big business or government to do this for you. As we gain experience, our wisdom and insight will lead us to increase our effectiveness. Our creativity will allow us to unleash the love of life and humanity that has been so badly battered and put to shame thoughout these times of unadulterated greed and selfishness.

This is it,
America! We have a chance to take our destiny, our future, back into our hands. We have the chance for conservatives and libertarians and liberals and progressives to make our culture and government more effective and efficient. We have the chance to work together on a cause of the highest moral nature and value - the survival of our country, our species and our planet.

This can happen, but it must begin in humility and service, rather than hype and profiteering. Leave your marketing materials and revolutionary "green products" at home. Leave your ideologies, politics and religious beliefs at home. This is not about selling anything. It is about acknowledging our excesses and following a proven process of self-examination and recovery. It is about reclaiming our souls, reconnecting as Americans, and saving our country.


Earon Davis is a sustainability advocate with degrees in sociology, law and public health. He teaches college level health sciences and practices in an integrative medicine program in the Chicago area.

Creative Commons License
Cultural Technology for Sustainable Living by Earon S. Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at


Laura Allen said...

Having a black belt in Al-Anon myself, I appreciate this adaptation of the 12 steps. It is all about accepting responsibility! And everyone should. People sometimes get complacent and get the idea that one person's efforts don't make a difference, but they do.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Laura. I've come to see the power of culture, how it can get out of whack, and how it can help bring us back in balance. The idea of a business or leader being too big or important to fail - regardless of their actually having completely failed - undermines our entire value system.

Like you said, it's time to accept responsibility.

Have a wonderful 2010! said...

Just posted on the MAHB Blog.....

Stewart Brand reports,

"We are as gods and have to get good at it."

I hope Stewart will forgive me for saying that he has elucidated at least one of the problems humanity faces now. It appears the formidable global challenges that loom before the human community in our time are likely the result of distinctly human activities borne of extreme foolishness, pathological arrogance, unbridled greed and malignant narcissism. To be a species with such remarkable self-consciousness, intelligence and other splendid gifts and to do no better than we are doing now is a source of deep sadness and occasional outbreaks of passionate intensity (likely signifying nothing).

The first fifty years of my life were lived as if in a dream world in which humans believe and act like gods, a profane world devised by the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe among us. I had no awareness a single generation would elect sponsors of powerful, greed-mongering economic powerbrokers who would formulate policies and implement business plans that irreversibly degrade Earth's environs, recklessly dissipate its limited resources, relentlessly diminish its biodiversity, destabilize its climate and threaten the very future of children everywhere. My failures include not realizing that my selfish generation were hyperconsuming and excessively hoarding resources, ravaging the Earth, and effectively behaving in a way that could soon lead to the destruction of our planetary home as a fit place for habitation by the children. Even though it is discomforting and difficult to responsibly perform our duties to science and humanity, at least we can speak out loudly, clearly and often about these unfortunate circumstances and in the process educate one another as best we can. Like you, I do not have answers to forbidding questions related to the patently unsustainable 'trajectory' of human civilization in its present, colossally expansive form that has been organized by and for the benefit of the Masters of the Universe. Much more problematic, however, is the ruinous determination of many too many experts who have colluded with the Masters of the Universe to obstruct open discussion of the best available scientific evidence of "what could somehow be real". If what could be real about the human condition and the Earth we inhabit is not confronted with intellectual honesty and moral courage, how is it possible for the family of humanity to adapt to the practical requirements of "reality" in reasonable, sensible, sustainable and timely ways?

An ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort is likely to be the end result of experts choosing to embrace false common knowledge and to remain willfully blind, hysterically deaf and electively mute rather than skillfully examining and objectively reporting on extant science of human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of our evidently finite and noticeably frangible planetary home. This refusal to respond ably by acknowledging evidence and accepting responsibility for the human-driven global challenges that have emerged robustly and converged rapidly just now could be one of the greatest mistakes in human history. After all, what mistake in history could be greater than the ones made in our time by those self-indulgent Masters of the Universe and their many minions who are knowingly leading humanity down a primorse path, perhaps to precipitate the inadvertent demise of life as we know it and to put at risk a good enough future for the children?

We have entered not only a new year but a new decade as well. Hopefully the deafening silence, disinformation, dishonesty, denial and ideological idiocy that marked the last decade have ended.