Role of the Individual
We wish to learn:
Jump to: [Introduction]
[Are There Positive Signs?] [What
Can I Do?]
should each individual accept within the great challenges of sustainability
What contributions can
individual make within the great challenges of sustainability and equity?
What specific roles
can you envision for yourself, over your lifetime, to help make a more
sustainable and equitable Earth?
something fundamentally wrong in treating the earth as if it was a business
in liquidation" - economist Herman Daly
"a world divided cannot stand; humanity cannot
survive partly rich and mostly poor"
- Egyptian scholar Ismail Serageldin
Today’s topic focuses on the role of the
individual, and what each of us can or should do to make a personal contribution
towards a sustainable planet. This lecture-hour is intended
to stimulate class
discussion. We would like to know what you, educated young adults,
think about your role in addressing issues of Global Change. After
all, you will inherit this Earth and share responsibility for its stewardship.
You are already well along the road to being particularly well educated
on this topic. Please come to class prepared to discuss what you
consider to be the two or three most critical issues for each of us, as
individuals, to consider.
To set the stage, these notes
present some thoughts from one professor who has had an interest in these
issues over his career. Some of these thoughts are optimistic, some
are skeptical. Each of the faculty who participates in the Global
Change Program likely has some differing opinions, and we’re sure you do
as well. We’d like to hear from you.
We can look back over history, or in present time across cultures, and agree
that some practices are deeply wrong, and we are relieved that we as a society
agree these practices are wrong. Slavery and apartheid, for example. What
practices might we accept without question today, which more enlightened
societies 200 years in the future could view as morally repugnant?
Consider the following indicators of global inequality:
- The top 20% of the world’s population consumes 85% of the world’s
- A generation ago, people on the top 20% were 30 times as rich as people in
the bottom 20%. Today they are 70 times as rich.
- Of the 1233 drugs approved in the past decade, only 11 were for treating
tropical diseases, and of these half were intended for livestock, not humans
Consider this quote:
"In the 19th century, some people
looked at the condition of slavery and said it was monstrous and
unconscionable – that it must be abolished. … Today the condition of
hunger in a world of plenty is equally monstrous and unconscionable and must
- Ismail Serageldin, Science Magazine, 5 April 2002 (Vol 296 p 55
"World poverty and hunger – the challenge for science")
What is your reaction? Is each of us complicit? What might you or I do about
Economic development is needed to abolish the
widespread conditions of poverty, and its accompanying human toll of illiteracy,
ill health, and stunted opportunity. Yet if the developing countries attain a
level of affluence equivalent to the USA, we will need four more planets (that’s
probably an approximation) to support them. Enter sustainable development, with
some mix of new efficiencies, changes in attitudes and consumption, and more
equitable distribution of resources to allow a better life for the planet’s
majority of poor, and yet ensure that our children’s children inherit an Earth
that can sustain them. This is a powerful idea, now most commonly called
sustainability, to avoid the unfortunate connotation of growth and instead imply
Here are several statements about sustainability.
Do you prefer one over another? Why?
Three types of equity are often mentioned
in sustainability discussions. Would you give any one of these lower
ranking? Which? Why?
"satisfy human needs and improve the
quality of human life" World Conservation Strategy (IUCN/UNEP/WWF 1980)
"seeks to meet the needs and aspirations
of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future"
Our Common Future (Brundtland Report, World Commission on Environment and
"improving the quality of human life
while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems"
Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Development (IUCN/UNEP/WWF
How do we balance goals of material
advancement and social equity, aimed largely at the vast population of
“have-nots” and “have-less”, with goals aimed at protecting and restoring
the natural world and life diversity? Should we add a fourth category
of equity, as follows?
equity among social and racial groups
within a nation, in access to quality of life and freedom from the adverse
effects of pollution (intra-societal social and environmental justice)
equity among nations, in access to quality
of life and freedom from the adverse effects of pollution (inter-societal
social and environmental justice)
equity across generations, in access
to quality of life and freedom from the adverse effects of pollution (inter-generational
equity across life forms, assuring the
right of life’s diversity to exist, not only for its extrinsic value to
humankind, but for its intrinsic values as well
The people of the United States are
formidable consumers. With 4% of the world’s population...
Isn’t it true that we’d like:
We consume 25% of the world's daily
We produce 25% of the worlds carbon
we consume 40% of the world's gasoline
and more paper, steel, aluminum, energy, water, and meat per capita than
any other society on the planet.
the average American produces twice
as much garbage as the average European.
Recent scientific estimates indicate
that at least four additional planets would be
needed if each of the planet's 6
billion inhabitants consumed at the level of the average U.S. citizen.
Hmmm… might not be so easy after
all. Consider the following three graphs (and activate shields against
Americans to consume less?
Citizens of poor countries to have a
quality of life similar to ours?
Use of the Earth’s resources to be sustainable?
|Figure 1. A hypothetical
relationship between affluence (horizontal axis) and either resource consumption
or pollution production. Rich nations and rich individuals consumer
more and pollute more. This seems to correspond with the view that
we in the USA are responsible for much of the earth’s ills, as a consequence
of our consumerism.
|Figure 2. The same
graph, with some hypothetical “data”.
Can differences in individual behavior
radically alter the position of points on this graph?
Consider the following thoughts:
Roughly half of all vehicles sold in
the USA are SUV’s or light trucks, which produce more CO2 and pollutants
per mile than alternative vehicles. How many individual consumers will
buy little hybrid (gas-electric) vehicles?
There are two questions here:
do individuals have the will to change? And how big a difference
results from the changes that we can make as individuals?
How much of a difference does an individual’s
lifestyle make? Consider a vegetarian college student, whose four-year
college education costs in excess of $50,000 (double if out-of-state).
Those dollars provide heating and lighting for buildings, pay salaries
of professors (who consume like anyone else), and required someone to work
at some job to earn the money. How many families of four in Viet
Nam could live for four years on that amount?
|Figure 3. A re-assessment
of Figure 1. Perhaps, if we can re-define quality of life, so that
it is not so synonymous with affluence, and “bend” that curve downwards,
we can arrive at a better place.
Are there Positive Signs?
Absolutely. The upcoming lecture on the role
of technology will showcase the enormous potential for the application
of knowledge to show us how to be more efficient, consume less, and pollute
less, while enjoying improvements in the human condition. In a previous
lecture on water, we saw that with each decade between 1950 and 2000,
water consumption for the year 2000 declined. Why? Because
industry and agriculture became more efficient, because it saved them money.
Agricultural productivity per unit land area has increased steadily, and
hopefully will continue to do so. The present administration does
not appear to be particularly sensitive to climate change and other environmental
issues, but industry is, and the people are. Major industries,
including manufacturers of automobiles and air conditioners, are beginning
to prepare for a future in which they expect consumers to demand, directly
or via government regulations, manufactured goods that are more friendly
to the Earth. These trends will accelerate – they must.
Click here for a table of
What can I do?
Can individuals make a difference? Absolutely. Each of us can modify our
personal consumption, advocate for global sustainability and equity, contribute
time and money, and more. But in this professor's view, some problems call for
different kinds of individual actions - those that we make through the political
process, and those that we make through professional careers. Consider how
through individual action we might achieve the following:
Such problems require scientific knowledge,
technical expertise, and the collective actions of nations. They require the collective activities of individuals
over lifetimes. We also need educated professionals, political leaders,
activists and specialists. And without an educated and engaged populace – each
one an individual – such difficult problems cannot be solved, because they
won't have the will of the public behind them. In
fact, there may be nothing we cannot solve through knowledge and commitment.
The challenges of global environmental change can and should mobilize a
generation – yours – to chart the path towards better sustainability and
Negotiate a global treaty to slow the
rise of atmospheric CO2
Limit the destruction of the rain forests
Enhance food and water security of African
Halt the spread of AIDS
Being an educated consumer is an important
part of individual action. When you see products and services advertised as
"green," "organic," and "eco-friendly," you should
know what their benefits and costs really are, and find out for yourself if you
should support them. One place to look for this information is the "Consumers
Union guide to environmental labels."
Finally, there are many good reasons
to take individual responsibility. Here are some – please add to
By taking individual responsibility,
one “walks the talk”, setting a positive example and bringing legitimacy
to the call for change on the part of others.
By taking individual responsibility,
one enhances one’s own commitment, and prepares oneself to take that commitment
to another level.
By taking individual responsibility,
one makes a real contribution, which, collectively, can make a difference
that a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world,
indeed, it is the only thing that ever has"
Changing the way we collectively view the world surely won’t be easy. It is
common to look at negative trends, project them into the future, and sound the
alarm that everything is just getting worse and worse. But isn’t that an
awfully simplistic line of reasoning, just extending the present into the
future? Forecasting what the world will be like 50 years from now is fun, but
Consider: the following events have happened in your lifetime, and
were either unimaginable at the time you were born, or perhaps imaginable only
in the vaguest way:
- the end of the Soviet Union
- the origin of the internet
- desktop computers came into wide use
- AIDS emerged as a serious disease
- smoking ceased to be fashionable
Can we help to shape that unforeseeable future? Simply by asking tough
questions (Why does it have to be this way?), and visioning what might be,
perhaps we are engaged in the process of developing an alternative logic for the
way the world should be. Messy, perhaps, and highly random. Possibly we are
doing just that, right now.
Now it is your turn: what
do you see as the role of the individual, and how will you prepare yourself
for a life in which you make a positive contribution to the issues of Global
All materials © 2001 by the University of Michigan.