Facing Ourselves: Hard Truths about Sustainability

Students in the environmental group at the college where I teach are leading an initiative to persuade the Board of Trustees to divest the endowment from fossil fuels. In a recent meeting with a couple of the students, I mentioned what I think are the fundamental drivers of our “multiple cascading ecological crises” (Jackson & Jensen, 2022). They asked me to give a short talk to express those ideas at an upcoming teach-in they were organizing about sustainability.

Given the opportunity, I wanted to discuss problems that, while fairly obvious, are too often left out of discussions among liberals because they are hard to hear and hard to solve. They are hard to hear because the problem is with all of us, not just in the evil corporations and Republican voters. They are hard to solve because technological proposals that leave our economic and social systems intact will not succeed. We will need somehow to achieve a drastic alteration to our governmental policies and adjust our social relations accordingly.

That is not a defense of the existing economic or political systems; it is hard to imagine human survival if we do not transcend the obsession with growth in capitalism and create a more democratic society. Those are necessary but not sufficient conditions. From there, we will have to face ourselves.

The following is the text of the talk.

Thank you to Eco Allies for organizing this event, and for continuing to organize on campus.

I am not going to discuss any of the technical aspects of climate change, or other ecological problems we face, such as pollution and resource depletion, and their global effect on societies. Details about these things are familiar to many here and readily available to any who are interested. I would like instead to make some more general comments about some political and social aspects of our situation that we are going to have to face realistically if we are to address this unfolding catastrophe.

The central predicament we find ourselves in was articulated well by George Orwell in an essay about the poet Rudyard Kipling. Orwell was discussing British Imperialism—which Kipling supported. The essay focused specifically on British liberals’ hypocritical opposition to their own Imperialism. He wrote,

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. (Orwell)

Orwell’s point is not that we should abandon internationalist aims, but that we need to recognize where what we are fighting for is inconsistent with how we live. In the context of our present high energy societies, we have to recognize that our habits of consumption are inconsistent with a sustainable future. Any vision of the future that implements green technologies but retains our consumption habits will not be sustainable. A sustainable future will require a large-scale social reconstruction.

It can be instructive to look to the past for wisdom. In the first part of the 19th century, there was an active understanding of how early industrialization, with the rise of the factory system, was changing the culture. Writing in 1924 Norman Ware reviewed the history of labor movements in the 1840s, where people resisted the upheavals in social structures that occurred with new industrial development. However, this resistance dissolved and left a new culture in its place. Ware writes,

By 1850 the bubble had burst… The spiritual energies generated in the [1840s] passed into… the conquest of a continent. Perhaps no single factor did more to disperse the movements of the forties than the discovery of gold in California. It served to set the seal of approval upon the new spirit of acquisitiveness that had previously to contend with a strong conservative temper. The new spirit was not confined to any one class. Had it been solely the vice of the ‘capitalists,’ as much of the propaganda suggests, it could not have conquered as it did. It was in fact the more vital ‘Spirit of the Age.’ (Ware, 1924)

The essence of the “Spirit of the Age” was acquisitiveness, the impulse to acquire wealth. The emergence of this new attitude in mass culture was recognized at the time. In 1846 the labor paper The Voice of Industry quoted a talk by a labor leader,

The workingmen, said he, are apt to look abroad too much, to find fault; but the fault lies nearer home—’tis at our own doors—within ourselves… If fault is to be found, a great share of it belongs to ourselves.

The first lesson taught the boy, on leaving the paternal roof, is to get gain—gain wealth. With his mind imbued with this spirit, he goes into the strife of the world—forgetting all but self in the furthering of this object. He is brought into competition; —by such isolation men’s interests become individual, hence they are arrayed against each other, —strife and discord are the legitimate offsprings of such a state of things. (Voice of Industry, 1826)

This “Spirit of the Age” still dominates our culture as we “struggle to maintain a standard of living” characterized by habitual use of high energy technologies. However, the solution is not to be found solely at the individual level. We are all part of the same overarching social structure that compels us to engage in unsustainable activities. There are some serious proposals to address this. One such policy proposal is called cap-and-adapt (Cox 2020, Edwards & Cox, 2019), where the government imposes a strict cap on the amount of fossil fuels burnt, a cap that is reduced yearly. To address the associated reduction in consumption, the government should ration goods and equitably distribute those rations to the public.

This is clearly not a politically viable proposal given our current society. However, proposals like this may be our only prospect for a livable future. We therefore have our work cut out for us.


Cox, S. (2020). The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can. City Lights Books.

Edwards, L., & Cox, S. (2019, August 28). Cap and Adapt: A Failsafe Approach to the Climate Emergency. Resilience. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-08-28/cap-and-adapt-a-failsafe-approach-to-the-climate-emergency/

Jackson, W., & Jensen, R. (2022). An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity. University of Notre Dame Press.

Orwell, G. Rudyard Kipling. The Orwell Foundation. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/rudyard-kipling/

Voice of Industry, May 29, 1846. https://archive.org/details/VoiceOfIndustry/VoiceOfIndustry-1846-04-03600dpi/page/n1/mode/2up

Ware, N. (1924). The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860: The Reaction of American Industrial Society to the Advance of the Industrial Revolution (No. 37). Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.86724/page/n49/mode/2up

Orrin Shindell is a physics professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. He can be reached at oshindel@trinity.edu.