Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



INSIGHT: Sustainability -- The Great Divide

Do we nationalize and centralize sustainable policies or do we individualize and decentralize them?

By Richard Carson
September 15, 2009

The word sustainability gets mentioned a lot these days in the popular press, in academia, and in government. We are told that humanity is faced with the threat of dwindling energy resources, the collapse of our economic institutions, and increased global climate change. So it is no wonder that the concept of sustainability resonates with us. We would all love to live in a world with a sustainable economy, energy resources, and climate.


The real question, if you accept this premise, is how do we achieve this new sustainable world? I think that there are two very different paths to being sustainable. The dichotomy is that of socialist versus survivalist sustainability. In other words, do we nationalize and centralize sustainable policies or do we individualize and decentralize them? Do we regulate societal norms or do we incentivize them? These are mutually exclusive in the sense that the public policy approach is very different for each.


I came to think about this because I have lived long enough to see both. I even set out to research the concept as part of my doctorate degree.


Off the Grid


So do we need more hardy individualism? More and more people are pursuing a lifestyle that is “off the grid.” If you can grow (or hunt) your own food, generate your own power, drill for your own water, use a septic system instead of public sewer, and can even get Internet and telephone via satellite, then you can live independent of the institutions, regulations, and the systems of society. You can use barter instead of money by growing cash crops like corn, zucchini, or marijuana.


America has gone down this road a few times before.

·       In the 1800s, thousands of Americans called pioneers ventured west to a land where they had to survive or die. They went to find land, gold, or religious freedom.

·       In the 1900s, we first had people building concrete bunkers to survive the first-strike Russian nuclear attack, and then we had the back-to-earthers who joined hippie communes (after reading the book Ecotopia) because of over population and the fact there would be no oil. Of course I would never assert is was really about drugs and sex.

·       And who can forget the Y2K scare. It spurred the survivalist/religious end-of-days movement.


The current crop of off-the-grid individualists worry that the Obama government will take away their guns and canning jars before the “rapture” begins and all good Christians go to heaven. Keep in mind that the end-of-days paranoia is not just an American delusion. Doomsday is a keystone of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Even the Mayans put it on their calendar and gave it the date of December 21, 2012.


On the Grid


So do we need more corporate socialism? Of course there are a lot of people who don’t want to be a survivalist living off the grid. They like being part of society and take comfort in having a societal safety net. What they want is more regulation. They want greater fuel efficiency; they want less waste and more recycling, more corporate foods, more economic sanctions on greedy capitalists, and guaranteed retirement and health care. That’s the ticket!


Note that I have not characterized this conundrum as a capitalist versus communist doctrine. That canard is useful for the talking heads of the Republican and Democratic parties, but is basically meaningless. Society has evolved into a new world order of corporate socialism. Keep in mind that the entire global warming movement did not start in America. You need to understand that former Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore did not invent the concept after he invented the Internet. It started in the United Nations as a result of the World Commission on Environment and Development publishing the Bruntland Report, Our Common Future, in 1987.


The global economy is managed by The World Bank and World Trade Organization. Energy is a global commodity sold to the highest consuming bidder (i.e., United States, China, India). In recent years we have done more to promote corporate welfare than the welfare of the individual. Who has benefited most from the George W. Bush and Barak Obama presidencies? Not you and I. It was financiers on Wall Street, as well as the union members and executives in the automobile industry. Now that is real modern sustainability for you. Our own government will sustain and secure the financial future for the very folks who screwed it up!




Of course some people will say we can do both. Why can’t we all just sustainably get along? The answer is that you can’t live in a society that is both survivalist and socialist. Well, you can for a bit. A least until the revolution begins.



Richard Carson is an urban planner, writer, and speaker who lives in rural Washington state. A collection of his essays can be found at


Also by this author:


INSIGHT: Bowling Alone in Urbanistaville 
Is living in suburbia the social antidote?

(click on pictures to enlarge)

University of Manitoba