A Question of Direction
Goals are the seeds from which the future grows.

Hold for a few minutes in your imagination the thought that people of similar beliefs form a collective presence. Imagine that the sum of all the concern, thought and inspiration responding to the limits of our planet and the challenges of community well-being constitute a new Time Spirit. This inspiration of our times is gradually ascending in the conventional wisdom while the earlier inspiration, focused on expanding material wealth, loses its relevance. The new Time Spirit grows in strength and capability with each person who grasps the problems at hand or pictures any aspect of their solution.


The "Question of Direction" strategy aims to advance this evolution by focusing attention directly on the choice that exists between the two perspectives - material expansion or sustainability. Which of these goals is the most appropriate at this time?

When we hear questions, it is human nature to think about answers. To grasp a choice, one must know what the options are. If we can put the "Question of Direction" on the public agenda, every thinking person will consider the options. When the choice is recognized, most people will see the need for establishing a sustainable balance between people and the Earth. With each additional person who recognizes the choice, and pictures himself or herself on the side of sustainability, the conventional wisdom shifts to speak more clearly for change.

The alarm has long been sounding and the gathering evidence has already inspired legions of individuals and organizations to join the call. Most people know we need to do something. But we have yet to grasp that there are enough of us to shift the perceived legitimacy. Through our circles of families and friends, our organizations, clubs and religious communities, we have the means to put the Question of Direction in front of practically everyone. If we can communicate the meaning of the basic choice, a democratic opportunity would emerge that could establish a huge mandate for basing policy and action on the goal of sustainability. Democracy has evolved to make this choice.

Why then do so many of us feel that we cannot redirect the inertia that drives our world to grow until we drop?

In part it is because, with broadcasting and mass distribution publication, the views of a few are amplified, enabling them to influence the conventional wisdom far in excess of their proportion in the population. Living in a world saturated by media images that subtly (and not so subtly) support the present order, makes it very easy to imagine that the need to redirect toward sustainability is a minority view. For this reason, it is critically important to raise the alternative option directly with others. First hand evidence that others recognize the new goal is necessary to break free from the illusion that perpetual material expansion continues to be seen by many as a valid goal. When that illusion evaporates, we will see the goal of sustainability become the popular legitimacy.

Concentrating our Power
If we don't change direction, we'll end up where we're going.

Knowing what we are trying to accomplish makes a big difference when it comes to making decisions. A clear answer to the Question of Direction would affect decisions made about where tax money is raised, how that money is used, what is done with public lands and even the nature of the monetary system. All this on top of giving the population a green light for basing its own decisions on the new goal.

To establish the new goal, there are advantages to condensing the emerging world-view down to a word or a phrase. Because this book has been about the two perspectives, I can present the Question of Direction as the choice between "growth" and "sustainability." Both words refer to entire world-views. As words, standing alone, however, both can be spun into meaninglessness. While the words themselves are used in many ways, the Question of Direction is not about the words. It is about the world-views that the words can represent. That said, one cannot describe a whole world-view while asking a question about it. In order to question the underlying goal of society, we have first to clearly identify the vision and establish labels with which we can easily refer to it. Establishing such a frame of reference will require a lot of communication.

While the mainstream media will occasionally produce stories that advance understanding of citizens' issues, they are unlikely to help question the underlying goal of society. Reaching the population through citizens' networks will take more imagination than passing $10 million to an advertising firm and telling them to sell the issue; it will take personal involvement. Fortunately, personal contact and information flowing through peer groups enjoys far greater credibility than any other means of communications. The Seventh Generation Initiative exists to collect and pass along suggestions and materials for raising the Question of Direction through personal contacts and citizens' networks. Together we can press the question forward for public reckoning.

Enormous progress has been made in understanding the issues affecting long-term well-being. People, organizations and networks abound who, together, can explain the full spectrum of social and environmental problems and how we might solve them. If we can concentrate this wisdom into a sound bite, we can offer it as a clear and appealing choice.

By linking the word, "sustainability," or the phrase, "long-term well-being," to the outline inside the front cover of this book, we can anchor the word or phrase for our purpose. Recall that this outline emerged from a study of the inspirations and concerns of citizens. The outline provides criteria by which the world-view can be clearly identified, and by which plans and actions can be assessed for compatibility with the goal.

Where the reference is distributed, we can ask: "Is this where we want to head as a society?" While "this" doesn't mean anything by itself, with the reference in hand, that one small word can bring to mind the entire world-view. We can then ask the Question of Direction in a sound bite. Where circumstances make it impractical to relate the outline above and ask a question about it, providing the reference in advance is a necessary step.

Noam Chomsky describes the problems that distributing the reference overcomes. "Concision" is the word he uses to explain how the media can avoid new ideas without appearing exclusive. Chomsky is most widely known, not so much for his expertise in linguistics and how language is used, but for his outspoken views about peace, justice and the environment. (He's for them.) In the 1992 National Film Board's production, Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky describes concision as a format in which he can be invited to present his ideas on talk shows without the sponsors having to worry that he might convert people to his way of thinking. Typically, a guest is given three or four minutes to comment on some matter of public interest. As long as what a person has to say supports the perspective that the media has been broadcasting, three or four minutes is enough time to add a detail or two. However, if what one has to say contradicts the established view, the time limit makes sure that one cannot provide enough background information to back up an alternate perspective. Without the relevant background, divergent views look foolish, or don't make sense to an audience steeped in the perspective of the status quo. So too, the Question of Direction makes little sense without an explanation of the alternative goal - sustainability. With the reference for sustainability in the hands of an audience, however, the Question of Direction can be asked concisely.

We will have to be creative to move the Question of Direction forward. The potential of the approach is in its ability to maneuver around concision when the sustainability reference has been distributed. Delivering the sustainability reference to the public, in advance, is a means to the end of reviewing the underlying goal of society and choosing the new direction.
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, movement, 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.

The opportunity has presented itself at a number of gatherings to distribute business size cards bearing the above outline of sustainability on one side. The other side, as shown below, can advance the issue in different ways. One such gathering was a government sponsored event with the word "sustainability" in the conference name.


There were close to 400 people present. At an early plenary, I stood up and mentioned that the word sustainability was being used frequently and questioned whether the meaning outlined on the cards was the same meaning understood by the organizers or, if their understanding differed, in what way was it different? A copy of the card (shown below) with the reference facing up was present at every place at each table in the auditorium. While my question was evaded by those in control, I'm sure that most of the 400 people present were considering their own position and listening for answers that were conspicuous by their absence. Well over half the cards left the room with participants. I collected the rest for future use.

The Fine Line Between the Goals

An understanding of where conventional practices become unsustainable is necessary so that we avoid having our efforts buried under the illusion that the present order can continue through non-material growth.


In the Question of Direction, "growth" refers to material expansion, that is, increasing the throughput of material and/or energy flowing through the economy. This differs from increasing the amount of service derived from a consistent, or reduced, amount of materials and energy. In some cases, non-material activity can make the GDP "grow." Educational activities can generate revenue without requiring much material throughput. Cultural events, music, sports, theatre and the like can make a lot of money without increasing material consumption. Patent drug sales and other enterprises that are able to charge substantial prices, thanks to intellectual property rights, can also add to the GDP with minimal resource consumption. Why then, can we not maintain the economic growth system by concentrating on non-material commerce?

While there is a huge amount of value that people can get from non-material activities, such activities do not lend themselves well to making the huge volumes of money needed by an advanced growth-based system. It is hard to charge for "things" that have no material form. In addition, because little or no material is required, such "things" can be reproduced often with little or no expense - a recipe for abundance, low price or even free exchange. While such abundance is good for people and for sustainability, low prices don't help much with economic expansion, and free exchange is the content of nightmares for those dedicated to GDP growth.

There has been some progress over the years in that the amount of value derived from a given volume of materials and energy has increased. Such developments are generally in the right direction and ought to be applauded and encouraged. Unfortunately, the movement toward more wealth generation from reduced material consumption peaked following the oil crisis in the early 1970s and has diminished since then. While the trend looked promising, it only slowed the rate at which material throughput increased. There is little reason to believe that such increased efficiency could bring material expansion to a halt while perpetuating economic expansion. In the meantime, the argument is effectively used to deflect scrutiny away from the growth ideology and the need for a new goal. Wishful thinking and applied denial are necessary to imagine an economy growing for seven generations without increasing material consumption and waste.

When the smokescreen of growth without material expansion is presented, the fine line of validity can be identified by asking about planned obsolescence. For much of the last century, to meet the expectations of expanding production, many producers have depended on designing products to be thrown away and on promoting the accompanying values that enable people to feel okay about such waste. Disposable products are produced because durable goods would stifle growth. From the sustainability perspective planning obsolescence is a dangerously wasteful practice that has to be phased out to secure the future.

Whenever someone argues that we can have perpetual economic expansion and sustainability, point to planned obsolescence and ask them where they stand. To make the world work over the long-term, we not only have to stop planning waste, we have to find appropriate ways to serve the needs that are presently met by such waste. While every person needs the ingredients for healthy life, and opportunities to contribute to mutual provision, making garbage in exchange for a wage is not appropriate. A sustainable civilization shares the goal of maximizing resource efficiency, but is fundamentally different when it comes to designing for and promoting durability.

Advantages of Asking the Question of Direction

While the Question of Direction ultimately aims to redefine the goal of society, there are numerous benefits that make asking it an end in itself. By empowering the word "sustainability" with our hopes and dreams for the future, we can forge a useful tool, a wedge, which, through that single word, can introduce a new world-view dislodging outdated beliefs. That single word has entered a public dialogue; the reference clarifies its meaning. The reference to sustainability unfolds into a broad spectrum of concerns. Each area of interest has a constituency of citizens' organizations that can offer details for understanding and solving the problems on which they concentrate.

One might look at the multitude of volunteers and non-profit workers as a "government in waiting" - a shadow cabinet. Governments divide the work that has to be done into departments. The existing citizens' networks of concern might be viewed as the departments of natural resources, waste management, renewable energy and energy conservation, agriculture, development, health, justice and self-actualization.

"Constituent Issues," provides an index pointing to many of the concerns we are looking to address by choosing sustainability over perpetual economic expansion. By linking each topic to the people and organizations that are working in that area, we could create a directory to the various "departments" that are prepared to lead us out of the present crisis.

Finding Our Way With a Map of Words

Words provide a map. Having clearly defined terms or phrases by which to refer to the elements of a big-picture vision, any words such as sustainability make it much easier to communicate the option.

The first European explorations of the Americas provide an analogy. The explorers knew nothing about the continents. An expedition could spend an entire season exploring the coast. If, late in the season, they discovered a large river pouring into the ocean, they could take a reading on the stars, record where the mouth of the river was and name it for the records. The next year they could return directly to that place and spend the entire season exploring the river. With points along the river similarly located and named, any navigator with the charts could set out and travel directly to a chosen place.

So it is with words. When objects, phenomena and ideas are identified, we mark them with words. When someone else wants to learn about the same things, he or she starts by learning the words that identify the subject matter and go on from there.

"Sustainability" is one of these words. It's definition marks the territory, so that anyone who learns the term can recognize the basic considerations. Having the territory symbolized by a single word makes it easier to draw attention to related matters.

In Bakavi; Change the World I Want to Stay On (1977), I tried to introduce a word from a relatively unknown language to represent the goal defined by the eight-point outline. The traditional story, from which the word "Bakavi" was taken, resonated nicely with our challenges, but we found persistent resistance to, and suspicion about, the unfamiliar term. "Sustainability" and the term, "long-term well-being" are at least from the present language. When accompanied by the outline, it is sufficiently clear for asking the Question of Direction. What sounds we use to represent the vision do not matter. As long as people come to know what the vision is, we can ask together, "Is this what we want to accomplish?"

One of the defining qualities of humans is our ability to create symbols that enable us to refer to things we've come to recognize. Propaganda masters have done an amazing job of discrediting words and phrases that represent views contrary to those of their employers. Nevertheless, I can't imagine them being able to subvert our symbol-making ability enough to eliminate the vision of a sustainable world, no matter what it is ultimately called.

Frame of Reference

I first grasped what a frame of reference was at a roller derby in 1968. I had never heard of the sport until someone handed me a ticket one day, as I walked down Bloor St. in Toronto. I had some time, so I went into Varsity Stadium, sat down and watched. As I watched, I was mystified. Two teams roller-skated around a heavily banked track as fast as they could. Every now and then they would all stop skating and a score was recorded. I couldn't figure out how the points were being made. During intermission I asked a cameraman what was happening. He explained the rules of the game. When the action started again, the formation made sense; I could identify the strategies, see when a point was coming and for whom it would be recorded. The rules of the game provided a frame of reference with which to assess what I was seeing.

Today's social and environmental circumstances are a good deal more complex than a roller derby, but the basic patterns are not beyond the comprehension of people with moderate interest. The eight point outline of sustainability provides a frame of reference. For most people today, the issues of our times provide, at least, moderate interest. The same process of recognition is dramatically illustrated with the following pictures. Take a good look. What do you see?

These pictures have been rendered by eliminating detail from specific drawings until they are no longer easily recognized by most people. Can you make out what either of these are? When you think you know what the original pictures were, or when you give up, follow the link and compare the new images with the first images. Once you have seen the originals it is easy to make out the less detailed renderings. The second set of pictures provide a frame of reference with which to assess what you are looking at.

I am grateful to Rupert Sheldrake for permission to use his illustrations. The experiments he conducted with these pictures point to hopeful signs about how collective understanding evolves.

Sheldrake's team had been studying DNA molecules trying to find how they might carry enough information to guide all the complex steps of growth that an organism goes through from the first fertilized cell to maturity. They could not find enough opportunities for storing information amongst the atoms in the DNA, so they began testing for a field of information, which resonates with the growing organism. They called it a "morphogenetic field" or "morphic field." The morphic field of mice would be different than that of oak trees or humans. Through their respective fields, mice, oak trees or people would have a subtle connection to the earlier experiences of their kind.

After Sheldrake and his team produced these pictures, they showed one from the first set to several million viewers over the British Broadcasting System and then showed them the reference picture so the viewers would recognize the pattern. Then they took the pictures to mainland Europe and showed both sets. What they found was that more people recognized the picture that had been revealed in Britain than the one that had gone unseen. While not conclusive, these results add support to the notion that as more people come to recognize a pattern, it becomes easier, consciously and unconsciously, for others to recognize it. In The Presence of the Past, Sheldrake describes other experiments that have produced similar results. If the theory is correct, human beings have a morphic field, which, as more and more people have similar thoughts or experiences, becomes increasingly charged in a way that makes it more likely that others will think and experience things that way.

Delivering the sustainability frame of reference to people is a side effect of the Question of Direction program. Such delivery gives rise to effects that are promising in themselves. They:

1) Nurture Understanding
With a frame of reference for considering news items, personal experience and concerns, people can more easily see the pattern of human ecology. As the pattern becomes more familiar it is easier to recognize and appreciate which choices contribute to sustainability and which create problems. The concern people experience when they hear of problems often fades soon after recieving the news. If they grasp the pattern into which the issue fits, they are more likely to see the evidence for themselves and not forget. They may even begin recognizing problems without being prompted.

2) Stimulate Vision
It is much more productive to work toward something positive than to expend effort resisting negative things. As pattern recognition develops around this composite issue, so does the ability to project the pattern into plans for action. Each person who starts projecting sustainability into his or her future plans, inclines the whole of society a little more in that direction.

3) Outline Areas for Debate and Investigation
The sustainability outline is subject to scrutiny. People are encouraged to look at it critically and to call attention to errors or omissions. The eight points provide a framework for locating the fine lines between activities that increase problems and those that help solve them. When activities are found to be part of the problem, the same criteria can be used to look for safer ways to accomplish similar ends.

4) Clarify Values
As more and more people and organizations acknowledge the need, sustainability will be increasingly recognized as a value to be encouraged. Similarly, non-sustainable activities will be recognized as detrimental and will be discouraged.

5) Build the Political Will to Tackle the Crisis
There is enormous strength in our institutions. As more and more people recognize the goal of sustainability, the more practical it will appear to support the goal politically. When the critical mass is reached, society will become committed to reaching for that goal. The crisis at hand is enormous. To address it with anything less than full social commitment is a gamble with the lives of all of our children.

6) Manifest Courage
When people observe world events in the context of sustainability the vision will look all the more promising. Through the frame of reference, people concerned about the different areas will come to recognize more clearly that they share a common goal. Morale will improve as we recognize how widely our concerns are shared. Knowing we are not alone can make the difference between frustration and action. Mutual support generates strength. People are willing to take greater risks when they know that others are supporting them, and that their efforts will not be in vain.

Constituent Issues: The Work of Society's Natural Immune System

The collective understanding of those who care about people, communities and ecosystems constitutes a single vision. By reiterating the outline of sustainability as an index with sub-indexes linking to the websites of the multitudes of people, groups and institutions presently working on better ways to live, that vision could be revealed in all its detail. Such an index could start with:

1) Cyclic Material Use
Natural cycles such as those that are harnessed through organic agriculture and cycles that are maintained through active recycling programs;
2) Safe Reliable Energy
Renewable energy, conservation, substitution, interim measures;
3) Life-Based Activities
Community, health, democratic decision making, creativity, communication, coordination (sport, dance, etc.) appreciation, learning, spiritual development, voluntary simplicity.

4) Depletion of Finite Resources
Fuels, minerals, species, cultures;
5) Overuse of Renewable Resources
Forests, fish, soil fertility, public money;
6) Pollution
Atmosphere, water, soils, nuclear power, propaganda;
7) Inequity
Domination and exploitation of the poor, women, aboriginal people, other groups, degradation through desperation, lack or failure of democracy, failure to consider future generations;
8) Species Loss
Endangered species, endangered spaces (habitat).

In addition to issues that link directly to the eight specific areas of the sustainability reference, there are other concerns that overlap various aspects of the reference to the extent that they are best accessed in their own fields. These include:

Encompassing Issues
Peace, militarism, work, economics, health, population.

As with the clear windshield on the proverbial bus of well-being measurement, such a setup for viewing visions and concerns should always have space to accept new issues that might arise.

Details about all of these issues and sub-issues are already available on the Internet. Assembling an index tying them together would demonstrate that, rather than being a multitude of special interests, there is a coherent, encompassing vision available for recreating civilization.

The Task at Hand
A vision without a task is but a dream.
A task without a vision is drudgery.
A vision with a task is the hope of the world.

Carved in the wall of an 18th century church in England

As pointed out in Chapter 1, there is only one power available to citizens that does not require violence or great wealth. It is the power of collective persuasion. Each of us can contribute subtly to advancing the new goal through our thoughts and prayers. We can advance it substantially by reaching out in conversation and writing, and further, by sending the ideas out through our various networks of family, friends and associates. When the issue has come to be recognized in our communities, we can multiply our efforts and give legitimacy to the goal through the democratic process.

To effectively ask the Question of Direction we have to demonstrate to ourselves and to others that, collectively, our many approaches to improving well-being provide a coherent vision about which we can ask: "Is this how we want to recreate the world?"
It remains important for each community to continue refining the understanding of its particular issue area, and how best to deal with it. The overall goal is advanced with each development in each sector as we continue with our research, education and organizational efforts. If, in the process of our work, we can point out that our particular insights and solutions are part of the new legitimacy offered through the Question of Direction, our collective persuasive impact will multiply.

The work already underway to create a better world is, by simple addition, impressive. Furthermore, citizens' concerns enjoy far more credibility in the eyes of the public than the concerns of either governments or businesses. Each community of interest in the spectrum has its own reasons for bringing the overall issue forward. The Question of Direction can be asked from each perspective. By pointing out how individual issues fit within the big picture vision of long-term well-being, we can cultivate recognition of that common cause and offer it as a distinct choice. As a movement of movements we can project the question into the public forum where making a choice will be in order.

A Handy Communications Aid

For years I have been printing cards with the sustainability reference on the back and distributing them wherever opportunities arise. They have proved very effective for introducing the issue. Some versions, such as the two shown previously, introduce the topic of sustainability and the Question of Direction. Others have served as business cards for individuals, small businesses, organizations and networks willing to present the sustainability reference along with their particular interests. The front of the cards can say anything; they can provide contact information, serve as membership cards, invitations, tickets or as handouts. The eight-point frame of reference and URL, http://www.SustainWellBeing.net, on the backs follow, wherever the cards go, as food for thought.

The card format is simple, familiar and inexpensive. Many individuals have a shoe box or a drawer where they keep cards, in case they want to make contact with a plumber, retailer, organization, or the possibility for a sustainable future. Provided at a meeting, a whole room full of people can receive the reference. Nothing need be said that might distract from the primary purpose of a meeting or of handing out one's business card. On the other hand, if an exchange seems appropriate, the card can be presented, reference side up with an invitation to discussion. Every person and group has channels of communication: chance encounters, canvassing, newsletters, meetings, websites, etc. If we choose to raise the question of what we want to accomplish as a society, we have the means to do so.

Once the cards are read, individuals receiving them know what we are talking about when we ask, "Should we pursue the goal of sustainability?" I've come across the cards on refrigerator doors and bathroom mirrors, and have heard dozens of accounts of people pulling them out of a purse or wallet, sometimes dog-eared and worn, to provide an explanation of sustainability during a conversation. They are often distributed at meetings where sustainability is on the agenda - or where it should be on the agenda.

* * * * *

Given the state of the world today, the choice described in this book is a critical topic for public discussion. Nevertheless, the question has yet to come up as a clear public issue, and we can count on the currently powerful going to considerable lengths to avoid having it do so. It is much easier to control the public agenda than to control the outcome of a public reckoning, if it were to occur. If we are successful at getting the question in front of the population for a decision, the minority, presently winning the Global Monopoly Game, would likely make a huge investment to discredit the initiative. We could expect stories about the disasters that would arise from such a popular decision to be spun from every possible angle and likely, as has been done before, reinforced by a constriction of the money supply so that the warnings could be matched by measurable deterioration.

Life, money and illusion - all three would be present, perching the human project at the edge of fate. We would want to be clear about what is inevitable and what is within human control. If a substantial portion of people understand the options, opportunities and consequences of the choice, we could stare down the desperate attempts of the passing Time Spirit and launch a new era of cultural evolution. In this new era, people would value the opportunities for a long-term human presence on the Earth and would enthusiastically accept the responsibilities. This would include a recognition of the responsibility to respect the needs of each other, other living things and the next seven generations.

Then, we will indeed have matured as a civilization.