Introducing Question of Direction:

The Challenge and the Goal

is to adapt to the fundamental change that has taken place in the relationship between people and the Earth.

The underlying assumption — that well-being is the product of material expansion — is no longer viable.

The Goal

is long-term well-being.

That is, to find ways to live that will provide secure and satisfying lives today and for generations to come.

How to achieve this is a

Question of Direction

The Challenge

A fundamental change has taken place in the relationship between people and the Earth. This change requires an equally fundamental change in the way that we govern ourselves.

Just one lifetime ago, basic food, clothes and shelter made up the bulk of our needs. Today, individually and collectively, we consume vast quantities of metals, chemicals, pesticides, fertilizer and, to make it all possible, a lot of energy. Our mushrooming consumption stretches the Earth's ability to absorb our waste.

This immense expansion of demands has brought about the fundamental change. This change means that the underlying assumption, that well-being is the product of material expansion, can no longer be valid. Perpetually expanding production and consumption cannot serve our children's children. Indeed, such expansion, along with the military adventures necessary to keep it supplied, are the greatest dangers that we face.

The fundamental change is well illustrated by the east coast fishery. Since people began to fish, we could always catch more fish by applying more effort, more boats and more nets to the task. This is no longer true. Fish catch is no longer limited by how much we invest, it is limited by the number of fish in the sea. Once so abundant that they could be caught with buckets, the east coast Cod is now an endangered species. This is a wake up call which we ignore at our peril. Similar limits are looming with forests, fresh water, soil fertility and energy.

This change is crucial. Adopting policies and activities which respect the change are as critical to our long term well-being as the air we breathe. It requires that we develop ways for everyone to participate in gainful activity without resorting to wasteful, exploitative practices.

The world view of growth everlasting was born in the childhood of human experience. Our demands were tiny, compared to the Earth's abundance. The view that we have an infinite world in which to grow has nurtured humanity through its childhood and well into adolescence.

We need to recognize that we are now a physically mature species and that we must govern ourselves with respect for the limits of our planet. This does not mean that our opportunities are finite, however. Preventative health care and education, for example, are not limited. They expand almost entirely by sharing information, without drawing heavily on the material world. With good health and knowledge, people can lead secure, fulfilling lives with a minimum of disruption to planetary life.

To choose sustainability is to choose the cyclic management of natural resources, the reduction of waste, economics that include everyone and a determined transition toward renewable energy. It is also a vote for the celebration of life and the unlimited opportunities which understanding, appreciation, communication, creativity, sport and mutual care offer.

Whether we choose to pursue perpetual growth or seek long term solutions is a Question of Direction.

The Goal


(Long-Term Well-Being)

Well-being can be sustained when activities:

#1 Use materials in continuous cycles.
#2 Use continuously reliable sources of energy.
#3 Come mainly from the qualities of being human
(i.e. creativity, communication, coordination, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development.)

Long-term well-being is diminished when activities:

#4 Require continual inputs of non-renewable resources.
#5 Use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.
#6 Cause cumulative degradation of the environment.
#7 Require resources in quantities that undermine other people's well-being.
#8 Lead to the extinction of other life forms.

We have to clarify the design criteria if we hope to focus on resolving the crisis.

  • Do these points seem accurate ?
  • Is anything missing ?
  • Can a sustainable society exist within other boundaries ?

Affecting all these topics are the encompassing issues of

Participation in decision making
Peace versus Militarism
Health Care

Brief explanations of all these points follow.

Sustainable Activities

1) Use materials in continuous cycles.

Pictures from space show our blue and green planet as a small sphere orbiting with its moon in a vast emptiness. A closer look reveals that the layer of materials actually of use to living things is only a very thin film over the planet's surface.

Within this limited stock of materials, any substances needed regularly must over time, be used again and again. The cycles which bring the needed materials back for reuse must either occur naturally, like the cycles of water and carbon, or they must be maintained through mindful recycling programs.

2) Use continuously reliable sources of energy.

We are consuming supplies of coal and oil at a far greater rate than they are created. The dangers of releasing all the carbon in these resources aside, their massive use cannot be our custom if civilization is to be a permanent presence on Earth. The same is true of nuclear energy. The enormous cost and danger could perhaps be overcome, but the raw fuel is, in the end, also limited in supply.

This leaves heat from the Earth's core, tides, the sun (nuclear fusion at a safe distance) and the wind and water which the sun sets in motion. These power sources are abundant, and can be harnessed practically anywhere. With the exception of the problems associated with large dams, these renewable sources of energy have little or no negative environmental impacts.

3) Come mainly from the qualities of being human.

Once we have secured the food and shelter necessary for healthy life, worlds of opportunity open up for personal growth and satisfaction. The three "L's:" Learning, Love and Laughter, as well as art, music, dance, sport, communication, service, and appreciation of the universe within and around our selves, can all make life worthwhile. They can provide pleasure, purpose and meaning to our lives without harming the Earth.

Non-Sustainable Activities

4) Require continual inputs of non-renewable resources.

Non-renewable resources are resources available only in limited quantity. Metals, coal and oil are notable examples. They can be very useful, even essential, for building a sustainable society, but if our way of life always requires that more and more of these materials be extracted, we will eventually run out. Dependency on more at that point would be disastrous.

5) Use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.

Renewable resources are resources which grow and increase through natural processes. Some examples are forests, fish stocks, ground water and soil fertility. As long as the rate at which they are used is not greater than the rate at which they grow or accumulate, the situation can remain viable. When the rate of use exceeds the rate of renewal, the stock will become depleted and problems will follow.

6) Cause cumulative degradation of the environment.

Certain amounts of pollution are cleansed by natural processes. When we create waste which nature cannot handle, or which cannot be absorbed as fast as we create it, pollution builds up, causing problems which become more and more serious as the activity continues. Some pollutants can create serious hazards even when thoroughly diluted. Small amounts of toxic materials, after being absorbed by tiny organisms, can accumulate in the flesh of the creatures that eat them. If these creatures are then food for larger ones, the accumulated toxins are concentrated even further. Through this biological accumulation, some poisons, although thinly dispersed, can be found in dangerous concentrations -- for example, in the fish people eat from polluted water.

7) Require resources in quantities that undermine other people's well-being.

The cooperation needed to build a sustainable world order will not come about as long as some groups of people take unfair advantage of others. Inequity often leads to social strife and armed conflict. Furthermore, the people at the bottom of the pyramid of exploitation are often forced by desperation to degrade the environment around them for day to day survival. The degradation of their territories not only makes life worse for them, it undermines the global systems which provide for those at the top of the pyramid as well as for those below.

8) Lead to the extinction of other life forms.

The web of life is intricate and mutually supporting. However, it is weakened with each life form lost. If we maintain patterns of development which regularly destroy or significantly diminish the presence of other forms of life, we progressively undermine our own existence as a part of the global ecosystem. With the loss of species we also lose genetic possibilities for fighting disease, in people and in food crops, as well as potential new sources of food. In addition to the dangers and loss to people, one can also argue that other living things have their own right to exist.

Encompassing Issues

Affecting all these topics are the encompassing issues of

Participation in decision making

One of the key determinants of health is the amount of control individuals feel they have over the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy, when effectively practiced, gives people the opportunity to have their concerns addressed. There is much work to be done before that ideal is realized:
- Money, alone, must be prevented from determining who gets elected and who gets heard.
- Legislative bodies need to represent people's views proportionately to the numbers of people holding those views. Such proportional representation leads to balanced debate and decisions that more closely represent the will of the electorate.
- The principle of subsidiarity has to be respected. That is, decisions should be taken at the level where their effects are felt and no higher. For example, the planetary atmosphere needs to be dealt with at the global level, while the raising of young children is a family matter, unless misguided actions lead to neighbourhood concerns. Other issues are best dealt with by nations, regions or communities. When a decision is taken at a level higher than the issue warrants, there is a risk of alienating those directly affected by that decision. From another angle, the people effected are the ones who will have the most detailed information about what is at stake, and hence are best qualified to make effective, responsible decisions.

As decision making becomes a cooperative art, the potential emerges for participants to manifest a sensitivity and intelligence superior to the sum of all those involved. Co-intelligence, as it has come to be known, may be the leap in ability that we need to meet the sustainability challenge.

Peace versus Militarism

The prospects for achieving sustainability are diminished when differences are settled by warfare. War is destructive and reduces our creative potential with each trauma, injury and death. It wastes material resources, damages ecosystems and drives huge conscious and unconscious wedges between peoples, often accelerating viscous circles of revenge and destruction. All of these results inhibit our opportunities for working cooperatively with what remains of natural resources to secure a sustainability future.


Every problem arising in the relationship between people and the Earth is made worse by expanding population. The effects of population must be looked at in the context of the amount of resources that each individual consumes. Those who consume only the amount required for good health, cause far less damage than do those who buy into the "standard of living" notion and consume as much as they can. However, even the simple production of food, for each additional person, requires that some portion of land be removed from what is available to other living things. Humans already consume 40% of everything that is produced by life on land, and a great deal of the ocean's productivity as well. While more people can be supported if we each consume less, there is no point in finding out how big our population can become before the systems we rely on collapse under increasing demand. There are reasons to believe that 6 billion humans will be very hard to support when petroleum is gone. On the other hand, the Earth could support hundreds of billions of people, if we live our lives, two or three billion at a time over the millennia to come.

By acknowledging that the Earth is full, stabilizing population will gain legitimacy and would influence decisions about having children. More effective yet, would be the assurance of social support in old age. Without the need for many children to provide such support, population would decline toward sustainable levels through natural attrition. Information available about population.


Everyone needs to be able to do something that they can trade for what they need. A society is failing if it cannot involve everyone who needs to participate. People without income have either to grow their food on marginal land, resort to theft, or starve. There are three approaches to insufficient work. One is to stimulate demand, so that more people have jobs making more stuff. Another is to divide up the work so that everyone can be involved, and the third is to pay people to remain idle. Each of these has its consequences in terms of resource consumption, pollution, leisure time, self-esteem and motivation.

Health Care

One's health is the single, most significant factor contributing to individual well-being. There are two sides to the health issue. On one side is the money-intensive care of people who have developed health problems, on the other side, the life-based choices that can prevent illness. There is a great deal of money to be made from treating people who have become sick. The advantages to society arising from a healthy population are also great, but less tangible: individuals feel better, have a better outlook on life and are more productive. If individual health is the purpose of the resources invested in health care, taking care of the factors which determine health becomes the priority, rather than doctors, equipment and drugs. The determinants of health include: food quality, community stability, the way in which income is distributed, education, self-esteem, pollution levels, exercise, stress, participation in decision making and the like. The Question of Direction is clearly represented in these two approaches. While there will always be a place for doctors and medicine, much less money would have to be spent on them if we concentrated on prevention.