The most important concept to emerge in the 20th century was the recognition that sustainability is threatened. A sustainable society is one that functions and lives in such harmony with earth systems that future generations will be able to function with equal or greater ease and the quality of life will in no way be diminished.
Evidence of threats to sustainability is found in: global energy use; global climate change; availability of sufficient safe water; degradation of soil on agricultural lands; food production for a global population of 9,000 million by 2050; accelerated extinction rates and loss of biodiversity; human under- and over-nourishment; and the spread of diseases.
Ignorance borne of alienation from nature deprives us of sensitivity to the threats human activities cause. Alienation may be traced to the agricultural revolution, but has become widespread and even inescapable for many with massive control of energy and the industrial revolution, dependence on machines, and urbanization. With the control of enough energy to dominate nature and the achievement of a high, but transient, level of wealth, a world view extolling growth—led by the highly industrialized nations, but now being emulated in the developing countries—has committed the world to an unsustainable path.
Because of this, world societies must work to find practical “sustainability” world views to help guide our future choices. Wise choices will depend upon good scientific understanding and must be based upon a deep respect for the non-human world and a concern for the future. The environmental meaning of different world views, whether founded in the world religions or in nonreligious philosophy, share a common concern to promote an equitable, harmonious, and sustainable relationship between humanity and nature. The similarities in pragmatic meaning in relation to nature of, e.g., Christian stewardship and Deep Ecology, illustrate this.
Our attention must not be directed towards alternative symbolic or linguistic vocabularies, but toward the practical environmental commitments that different world views entail. Our problems have global reach and many of them are urgent, but they are not intrinsically unsolvable. We must seek ways to find and use common ground in the search for sustainability. We must work together, but remember that each of us contributes to the final outcome.
Volume 129, 2020
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