The following is a presentation given at Corning Community College for their 2012 Earth Day event.
In order to address environmental problems, and the human impact on the environment, structural sustainability is a far better method than green consumerism. Sustainability, and the living of a sustainable life, is a necessity in order to insure that the carrying capacity of the environment is not exceeded. The various ways to be sustainable can either be through green consumerism or a more structural type of sustainability that involves collective action. The first step to understand the benefits of structural sustainability is to distinguish it from the more popular practice of green consumerism. Green consumerism is the individual consumption of products, usually technology, that may allow one to be environmentally responsible. However, as an individual buying a product, this is inherently isolated from a larger sustainable project. Consumers have the illusion that they are doing something for the environment, but in reality their act of consumption prevents them from addressing the larger picture or doing anything on a large scale. Therefore, green consumerism supports green washing, corporations giving the appearance of being supportive of the environment when in fact they are practicing business as usual. For corporations, green washing is nothing but public relations, and consumers believe this image by buying products in the hope of protecting the environment. But the internal actions and drive for growth of a corporation will always limit and be a perpetual obstacle to real sustainability. Authentic sustainability will never be allowed through the green consumerism of the image put forth by green washing because it will always go beyond the goal of profit. At most, green consumerism addresses the symptoms rather than the cause of environmental damage, leaving the cause untouched. Buying hybrid cars or energy efficient lightbulbs will not protect ecosystems that human societies rely on, especially not in the long-term. Overall, the negative aspects of green consumerism is made worse by the fact that since it is through individual consumption, green consumerism is not even able to be practiced by most people due to economic conditions. If someone where able to afford buying the latest sustainable technology, they alone could be self-sufficient and truly sustainable, but their neighbors who earn less would never even have that capacity which further isolates the actions of the individual that can engage in green consumerism. Green consumerism implies the inequality of access to the proper tools of sustainability because of income. Green consumerism is thus a dead end in the realm of sustainability and a hobby that only the rich can afford.
In comparison, structural sustainability relies on a process that is far more comprehensive than green consumerism. Structural sustainability requires collective action in that entire communities must work together to practice various methods that will truly protect ecosystems of which they are a part. The methods involved go beyond the consumption of commodities and concentrate on the organization of human action in a larger social context, understanding that it is on this social scale that actions can be most effective. Structural sustainability involves the interaction and collaboration of a community and its commons or shared resources. This means that the resources in question are used on a community basis, and the tools for sustainability are community owned to insure that there is a stability and balance. The stability and balance works both ways, where a preservation of a commons makes sure that the community is preserved and vice versa. Therefore, structural sustainability addresses the cause of the ecological problem through social reorganization due to how social structures affect the environment directly. Green consumerism ignores this factor through an emphasis on commodities as a panacea. In order for structural sustainability to view the long-term situation, and be able to work toward a solution with real results, then there must be an equality of access of the tools needed through community ownership, which is part of the social reorganization that is required. Structural sustainability introduces cooperation, decentralization, and community ownership to the approach. These characteristics are in synch with the 10 Key Values of the Green Party which include such things as decentralization of power, community economics, and grassroots democracy alongside the more obvious values of environmental responsibility and future focus. All of these values interact with each other to offer a basis for new policy in the combined fields of politics, culture, and economics. Structural sustainability is a direct manifestation of these values in offering a collective, long-term, and big picture method where all participants are equal.
The discussion of structural sustainability requires an elaboration of the relationship between form and content. One will see the distinction of form and content when one examines structural sustainability and green consumerism itself. Green consumerism is purely content, dealing only with specific tools or actions. In this case, the content is more of an economic positive than an ecological positive. This means that if a hybrid car or an energy efficient lightbulb were to be truly scrutinized, it would be discovered that they have immediate economic benefits. These things save people money much more than dealing with the larger environmental problem. This does not mean that these objects are inherently evil, but rather that there must be honesty as to why they are purchased and used. Structural sustainability deals primarily with form and how various actions are organized or coordinated. How an energy efficient product is organized in a social context means that the form can guarantee an ecological positive. The ability to address an environmental problem and be truly sustainable is made possible through an accumulation of multiple actions and tools and connecting them together. The benefit is more than the sum of its parts and is a far better solution to large scale problems. The form of structural sustainability insures that the isolation and limitations that occur in green consumerism is superseded.
Form is the determination of content, and will affect how that content is implemented. There are three examples where this relationship of form and content can be illustrated in terms of energy production. The process of hydrofracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, is a case of a negative form and a negative content. The content is the act of injecting water mixed with many toxic chemicals underground in order to fracture shale deposits and release natural gas. All aspects of this procedure poses a threat to the environment, especially the water supplies of communities. But the form of hydrofracking is also negative. The corporate organization of this procedure extracts this natural gas and transports it away from the communities in question, which requires increased truck movement and new road development to support the trucks. The infrastructure needed for this hydrofracking process also has a detrimental impact while at the same time the potential energy source is not even owned by the community. The construction and operation of large wind turbines is a case of a negative form and a positive content. The positive content is obviously the renewable and nonpolluting energy source of converting wind into electricity. However, for large wind turbines, the form is as negative as the form of hydrofracking. Once again, the construction of infrastructure to support the building and maintenance of these large turbines and the fact that the energy produced is extracted from the community means that there is still a negative impact despite the fact that the particular conversion of wind to electricity is ecologically sound. The negative form therefore prevents the positive content from being utilized and overall the environment is harmed. The creation of a net-metering system is a case of a positive form and a positive content. Net-metering is a program that would allow homeowners and other buildings in a community to install solar panels and small wind turbines while still being connected to the city grid. Besides benefiting from a renewable energy source as individual people, any surplus energy from individual locations would go back into the grid and be shared by all residents. The positive content is the use and reliance on a renewable energy source, but the positive form is the community ownership and decentralized structure of how that nonpolluting energy is produced. In turn, everyone will see a gradual decrease in energy bills due to the sharing of the generated surplus. This adds to the synergy of a positive form and a positive content. What specifically distinguishes net-metering from hydrofracking and large wind turbines is that the organization of the energy production exists outside of the corporate structure. The community controls how the energy is produced and how it is distributed, for the sake of the community and not for the sake of profit. This community basis insures that the overall process is an authentic sustainable practice.
Net-metering as a method for structural sustainability is not a utopian or impossible task. For a city, all that is needed is the set up of a program that assists residents in installing the equipment. The energy efficiency of solar panels and small wind turbines has been improving exponentially over the past ten years, and the major hindrance for such a net-metering system is the initial installation costs. NYSERDA already has a program for installation costs, where cash incentives are provided for the installation of new grid-connected solar electric or photovoltaic systems that are 7kW or less for residential, 25kW or less for not-for-profit, and 50 kW or less for commercial sites. The goal of the program is to install 82 MW or 93,806 MWhs of solar electric power systems in New York state. In general, incentives for a typical residential or commercial system cover approximately 25% to 35% of the installed cost of a system but not more than 40%, after all tax credits are applied. NYSERDA also provides cash incentives for the installation of new grid-connected wind energy systems for residential, commercial, institutional, or government use of up to $400,000 per site/customer. The maximum equipment size shall be 2 MW per site/customer. The incentive shall not exceed 50% of the total installed cost of the system. On the local level, a revolving loan program can be established to help homeowners with the initial installation costs that can supplement the statewide incentive program. The result would be that homeowners who generate an energy surplus will receive a retail credit that can be used to pay off existing energy bills, installation costs, or be used to buy local goods and services. Many city codes already have provisions dealing with the installation of solar panels and small wind turbines on homes so there is no need to create new complex regulations.
The example of net-metering demonstrates that sustainability is most effective at the local level. The local is where communities physically exist, and where the basic unit of a society operates. Sustainability in this sense is the reciprocity of the social sphere and the environment and how they interact with each other. They interact because the society is internal to the environment. In fact, no society can exist outside of an environment and its various ecosystems. But it must be noted that a society and the environment interact with each other in different ways. The environment can exist independently of the social sphere, but the social sphere is always dependent on the environment. Nature does not need humans, but humans need nature. The local is the meeting point of a society and the environment in which it is embedded. The local level is where there is an integration of a community and the environment. Members of the community affect ecosystems and vice versa in the most direct way. Any environmental damage begins at the local level before it could disseminate globally, and will return to negatively impact the community immediately. Inversely, the local level is where there can be the organization of a successful sustainability through democracy. Democracy becomes the best way to organize this local sustainability because of the fact that at this level there is the emergence of both social relationships and ecosystem relationships. For that is what a society and the environment have in common, they are both a collection of relationships. Democracy is primary to bringing these relationships together in order to prevent conflict, whether it is ecological damage or society in turn harmed by that damage.
Democracy is the best way to practice sustainability due to the fact that democracy is the best way to organize collective action at the local level. There is a misconception that sustainability requires centralized government action that imposes regulations on local communities, thereby supporting the myth that environmentalism is about the loss of personal freedom and self-determination. This reveals the fact that centralized control has many inefficiencies and is too detached from the direct and local experience of ecosystems. However, the most effective sustainable practices can be executed through a direct democratic process. Not only is sustainability democratic but democracy itself is sustainable. Sustainability is democratic to the same degree that a representative form of government tends to support a growth mentality. As growth causes a hierarchy that will control the generated surplus, political representation creates hierarchy that has the power to make public decisions. A political or economic hierarchy will maintain a pursuit of growth that will in turn be controlled by this hierarchy and distributed in an unequal manner. The relationship of hierarchy and growth will perpetuate itself, with the result that most people will be alienated from the surplus that is developed from growth as well as be alienated from the decision making process. In comparison, sustainability implies an equality of access to any surplus. Any surplus that is generated in this context is naturally limited by the carrying capacity of the environment, but on a human scale can still be adequate to the basic physical needs of people. This sustainable attitude toward a redefined surplus is not determined by the drive for growth for its own sake, but rather shaped by a direct democratic process. This direct democracy is the equality of the power to make decisions among all members of the community. Therefore, democracy emulates sustainability through an equality of access to and an equality of control over resources. The best example of sustainability being democratic is through the phenomenon of Democracy Schools sponsored by the Program On Corporations, Law, And Democracy. These Democracy Schools are training sessions and workshops for local residents to learn how to use the democratic process to protect local resources from the damage that can occur through the growth agenda of outside corporations. Communities then use this knowledge in order to become more sustainable and oppose the idea of growth at all costs.
Democracy itself is sustainable due to its structure supporting the empowerment of as many people as possible. Direct democracy is the participation in decisions equally, and involves the three principles of autogestion, horizontalism, and subsidiarity. Autogestion is self-management, usually worker self-management in an economic context, that purposely avoids any type of hierarchy where one individual or group has control over another individual or group. Rules are created by all participants and power is shared among them, including the power to shape how the surrounding environment is managed. Horizontalism is the idea that those who are affected by actions or policies have the right to decide on them. This supports the approach that direct democracy allows members of a community to shape the rules of sustainable practice, since how that environment is treated will affect the community directly. Subsidiarity is the belief that decisions must be made at the most local level of an organization, whether it is a business or a society. Subsidiarity upholds the fact that those at the local level are fully integrated with their environment and so it would make the most sense that they should decide how to preserve it. It is literally their backyard. When democracy is applied in the case of ecological protection, one will find that democracy acts as the proper organization of the commons. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom has shown that contrary to the belief in the tragedy of the commons, where individuals will tend to overuse a commons out of fear that others will also overuse and that it is natural for a commons to be split up into private property in order to be better managed, the reality is that various commons survive and function when the participants use a democratic process to set up rules for use that all can abide by. For a community, democracy treats the environment as a commons and organizes it accordingly so that there is both preservation and equality of access. As part of this protective process, democracy is the internalization of external costs as well. When the corporate form is implemented to extract resources, or in its day-to-day practice of keeping production costs low for the sake of a good profit yield, many costs are externalized to the surrounding community and the largest external cost is that of pollution and environmental damage. The operation and success of the corporation is followed by damage that must be fixed by the affected community. Democratic management rather than corporate management allows the members of the community to avoid these external costs through the specific form that the sustainable practice will take. Profit is never a motive in this case, so that there is no extreme drive to reduce production costs with its implicit externalization of costs and proverbial passing of the buck to a community. Democracy is sustainable, or allows real sustainability to occur, because of the emphasis on local action, community ownership, and the natural limit of growth.
In conclusion, structural sustainability is a far more effective and concise way to protect ecological integrity than the isolated and limited method of green consumerism. Structural sustainability recognizes that the organization of a society affects the environment, in such a way that political and economic hierarchy propels growth beyond the carrying capacity of that environment. There is thus a need to decentralize practices so that there is a community-based and local set of actions that prevents the development of hierarchy and a destructive growth agenda. A community is the local manifestation of a society, and is the point at which a society is in a symbiotic relationship with its environment. Therefore, democracy becomes the best way to organize not only the community but the commons of the environment, insuring equality of access as well as a stewardship that preserves the interlocking ecosystems that are vital to the life support system that humans rely upon. The emphasis on decentralization, community ownership, and direct democratic control applies to energy production through net-metering, but it can also be used in food production, transportation, infrastructure, and in some cases manufacturing. Structural sustainability as an alternative offers a strong and vibrant critique of green consumerism as well as the corporate model that promotes it. It reveals the fact that growth will always reach its limits, and that a change in social organization is possible in order for everyone to access their environmental background in a stable and supportive manner.