Rejecting Dystopia: Sustainability in a Changing World

Jeriah Bowser I Ecology & Sustainability I Analysis I July 9th, 2013

Have you noticed something odd about the movies Hollywood has been producing over the past year or so? If you have watched many previews, been exposed to many advertisements, or seen many new movies lately, I wonder if you are noticing the same thing that I am. Dystopian action movies. Dozens of them. As me and my partner were watching "The Hobbit" a few months ago, we sat through the trailers for six dystopian action movies in a row. Six movies being released that were essentially the same story - A small band of survivors dealing with the aftermath of some horrible disaster wrought upon the earth, whether that be through our own self-destruction, zombies, aliens, or robots.

I found this fascinating, as I tend to view media as an excellent assessment tool for our culture's collective consciousness, and this theme was very intense and blatant. What is the meaning of all these depressing apocalyptic movies in which our planet as we know it has been annihilated? Could it be that we somehow know the way we are living is unsustainable? Could it be that we are beginning to understand we are slowly but surely headed for destruction and disaster if we choose to maintain our lifestyles and blindly ignore the warning signs on the way down? Could it be that we are manufacturing our own dystopian future but don't have the courage to face this fact yet?

Yes. It could be.

If this is true and my intuition is correct, then this dystopian trend raises some serious questions in regards to how we are participating in this inevitability and what our responsibility is to the earth, to each other, and to future generations of humanoids.

Let's start with defining "sustainable." I would provide a definition of sustainability as any process or action that can be continuously implemented without negatively affecting or diminishing the resources that allow the process to work.

For example, let's say that I want to set up a lemonade stand in my neighborhood. For excellent lemonade, one needs excellent lemons - so I grow a lemon tree in my backyard. If I choose to take care of the lemon tree and the ecosystem that sustains it, then my lemon tree will continue producing lemons every year. Then it could be said that I am a sustainable lemon grower. If, however, I choose to not take care of my tree and let it become sick or diseased, then my tree will eventually either die or stop producing juicy lemons, and my burgeoning lemonade stand will come to a dismal end. For me to continue being successful as a lemonade producer, I need to closely guard and take care of my assets - my lemons. For us as a human race to continue being successful, we need to closely guard and take care of our assets - our planet Earth.

Generally speaking, Americans are horrible at this. The average American consumes 1,966.3 lbs. of food every year [1] and produces over a ton of solid waste (trash) per year.[2] Compare that to your average resident of West Africa, who consumes just under 400 lbs. of food a year and produces 30 lbs. of trash. As far as the collective impact of our lifestyles, America currently consumes 24% of the world's resources, and yet contains only 5% of the world's population. [3] Something is very wrong with those numbers.

For the purposes of this essay, I have broken the concept of sustainability down into three areas that we all need to understand our involvement and responsibility in, if we are to heed the call of our planet.

Finite Resources

Every time you consume or purchase something- anything- it doesn't matter what, you are taking something from the earth. When you are hungry, you eat - which is taking minerals, water, land usage, solar energy, plants, and probably an animal's life from the earth. When you need to go somewhere, you use your car - which uses gas, which comes from petroleum deposits buried in the ground in limited deposits. When you buy a phone, bookshelf, water-bottle, or pretty much any item, you are taking metals, petroleum-based plastics, and various textile plants from the earth- much of which exist in limited quantities in the ground. Your electronic gadgets and artificial lighting need electricity, which is primarily produced by burning coal, which is also found under the ground in limited deposits. To heat your house or bake your casserole, you need natural gas - which is, you guessed it, buried under the ground in limited deposits.

It's a great system we've worked out - finding weird liquid, gas, and metals in the ground, taking them out of the ground, and making them work for us to make our lives easier. A great system until we run out of them.

Some estimates are that we will run out of oil in about 50 years[4], coal in 150 years [5], and natural gas in 250 years.[6] What then? Although there has been an increased focus on so-called "renewable energy" sources and alternative energies, it is simply not profitable enough for corporations to seriously look into them now, when they are making trillions of dollars on oil, coal, and natural gas. Many alternative energy sources have problems of their own, as hydro-electric dams disrupt fish migratory patterns and destroy eco-systems, wind-farms are inefficient and kill large numbers of birds, and solar panels rely on rare and unsustainable metals. It seems the "perfect" alternative energy source is a long way off, yet this does not absolve us of responsibility to limit our usage of energy while we are working towards better ones.

Metals and precious metals are also finite, and subject to the same unrelenting laws of finite-ness. It is very hard to estimate how just how much of these materials we have left, but as we use more and more of them, we are reduced to using more destructive means and methods to retrieve them - deep sea mining disrupts fisheries and marine ecosystems, mountain-top strip mining leaches radioactive and toxic chemicals into groundwater and kills entire ecosystems, and more recently, companies have begun mining the polar ice caps for their resources.[7]

Water may seem like an odd contribution to this conversation because, as everyone knows, 70% of our planet is covered in water and there seems to be plenty of it. Why then do people talk about "conserving water" and "an impending water crisis"? Yes, water is plentiful on our planet, but potable (safe for human consumption) water is not plentiful, nor is water abundant in many areas of the planet where lots of people live. It may surprise you to know that almost all of the water that currently supplies America's "breadbasket" of the Midwest comes not from rain or rivers but from huge underground tables of water known collectively as the "Ogllala Aquifer." And when it's gone… it's gone.[8] Similar water aquifers exist on nearly every continent around the world, and several are either completely depleted or rapidly on their way. [9] It may also surprise you to know the harsh desert terrain that currently dominates the landscape between Southwest Colorado and the Gulf of Mexico once harbored a tropical paradise that followed the Colorado River on its journey south. John Powell's captivating description of his exploration of the river in 1869 describes lush forest canopies obliterating the sun and the cries of jaguars and tropical birds of paradise echoing off the dense vegetation. Today, the scene is a barren wasteland, with the once mighty river now miserably trickling out into the desert, coming to an abrupt end some 50 miles from the sea where it once freely flowed into. What changed between then and now? [10] Progress. Progress in the form of cities, dams, irrigation, man-made reservoirs and lakes, and little regard for the seemingly endless supply of the magical elixir of life known as water. Indeed, water is much more precious and finite than we may ever realize, and future generations just might have to realize it for us.

And then there are the potentially renewable resources of wood and plant-based textiles (bamboo, hemp, cotton, etc). I say "potentially renewable" because, although there does exist sustainable methods of growing these resources, they are rarely used. It is much easier/cheaper to chop down a standing forest than to plant a new one; and it is much easier/cheaper to use plastic and petroleum-based textiles than to produce plant-based textiles.

Consuming and contributing to the use of finite goods is such an integral part of our culture, it is virtually inescapable. No-one is innocent. I know of only one person in my entire life who is truly living "off of the land," and he is a lonely desert-wanderer who roams the badlands of the Southwest with only his burro for companionship and his plant friends for food and medicine. Not exactly the lifestyle many of us are willing or capable of leading.

However, it is also not something entirely abstract and out of our grasp. I believe there is a very loud and consistent message that is being broadcasted to the populace in regards to the environment, and it goes something like, " There is nothing you need to worry about, there is nothing you can do to affect any real change on the environment. Let the professionals handle it; we will enact our legislature and fund scientific studies and will let you know if there's anything you need to do. For now, just keep buying stuff . " This is a very harmful and destructive idea, and completely not true. For all their money, power, and intimidation, corporations are completely dependent on the consumer to sustain them. If everyone stopped buying gas tomorrow, there would simply be no more oil spills, no more vehicle carbon emissions, and no more corporate-sponsored wars. It would simply cease to exist. Of course, that will probably not happen, but I believe it is important to realize that it is fundamentally just that simple. Stop or slow the purchasing and using of products that are finite, and then we won't run out of them.

For the average consumer, this looks like choosing higher gas mileage vehicles or vehicles that use an alternative energy source such as bio-diesel or WVO (waste vegetable oil), carpooling or using public transportation whenever possible, riding your bike or walking wherever you can, researching alternative heating and cooking methods such as wood-burning fireplaces and ovens, being mindful about how much electricity you use around the house or generating your own through home solar panels, rigging a grey-water system in your home and reducing your water consumption as much as possible [11], replacing your water-thirsty lawn with a xeri-scaped yard that requires little to no water, avoiding products that have a planned obsolescence and purchasing those that that can be repaired, recycling and reusing products whenever possible, and intentionally buying goods that were sourced and manufactured close to your community, thereby lessening the amount of fuel spent on transporting your products around the world.

On a deeper, more interpersonal level, we can start recognizing and honoring the gifts that the earth gives us freely, imbuing a feeling of respect and interconnectedness for the great giver. Try saying a simple prayer or statement of gratitude every time you purchase or acquire a product, transitioning from an attitude of entitlement to one of gratitude and respect. Whenever appropriate or possible, initiate discussions with family and friends about their relationship with the earth and what they are giving back. Creating dialogue and intentional conversations about this topic may be one of the most revolutionary and healing things you can ever do for our planet.

Climate Change

Whether you choose to call it global warming, climate change, or just a temporary rise in the earth's temperature while we figure some stuff out, it is undeniable that we are definitely doing something to our biosphere. Excepting a few politicians who claim this is all simply a hoax to scare the populace into submission (and whose campaigns are largely funded by the main contributors to this phenomenon) [12] [13], the general consensus is that we are slowly but surely building a "blanket" of carbon dioxide and air pollution around our earth, thereby trapping the sun's rays in our atmosphere and raising the overall temperature of our atmosphere.[14] This is happening very slowly, yet the consequences could be astronomical. Hypothetically, the warmer the planet gets, the more the ice-caps melt, the higher the oceans rise, the more water shortages there will be, the more coastal flooding there will be, the more species will die out due to inability to adapt, and the smaller our ecosystem becomes- ultimately ending in a reverse ice-age that will not be hospitable to homo-sapiens. It is projected that in as little as 200 years, most of our earth will become inhabitable and hostile to human life.[15]

There are ways to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) and pollutants from the atmosphere (removing the "blanket"), mainly through plant respiration, ocean surface absorption, and plankton photosynthesis. Only very recently has the equilibrium between the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere and the amount taken out by plants and the ocean been thrown out of alignment, with increasing levels of CO2 output (human impact) and decreasing levels of CO2 absorption (largely due to the incredible amount of deforestation taking place worldwide.)

How are we contributing to this and how can we stop it? Essentially, any time you burn a fossil fuel or release an air pollutant, you are adding CO2 to the "blanket." Obviously this cannot be completely eliminated overnight, but there are many small things that we can do to mitigate the damage. Being conservative with the energy you use and being conscious of the products that you buy are the main ways that most people can make a difference - purchasing locally sourced and crafted goods will drastically reduce your impact.

Find creative solutions to everyday problems - build greenhouses out of plastic bottles, carpool or ride bicycles whenever possible, make recycling fun by creating games and incentives for kids and adults, always look for repurposed lumber and building materials before buying new materials, go "guerilla gardening"[16], and try to repair as many products as you can around your house as opposed to disposing and buying new products.

Educate yourself- research what is happening and form your own opinions on what is going on and what you need to do about it. Ultimately, you will probably not experience the effects of climate change in your lifetime, but your children and your children's children will. What type of world do you want them to live in? Are they worth a little research, a few intentionally purchased products, or a couple extra minutes spent on repairing or repurposing something?


As I've mentioned in previous articles, food is a big deal - not only for our own health and well-being, but for the health of the entire planet. There are an incredible number of ways that the way we eat affects the world and the overall picture of sustainability, and I highly encourage you to do further research into this topic. For the purposes of this essay, I will attempt to illustrate a few ways that we can be intentional about and make an impact on the world with our diet choices.

If you are a meat eater, then there are a couple things you need to know about your dietary impact on the world and what you can do about it. Agricultural usage for the purpose of meat consumption contributes up to 14% of the total CO2 emissions worldwide and takes a heavy toll on the earth in regards to water, land-use, soil-depletion, plant-usage, and waste production.[17] There are many ways that you can minimize your contribution to this, and some you might even enjoy! Try purchasing locally-raised meat, grass-fed beef, and organically raised meat whenever possible, as doing so reduces the amount of oil used on transporting your meat, minimizes the amount of GMO crops grown to feed the animals, and eliminates the production of harmful chemicals used in treating and medicating the animals. Chicken and wild game are by far the most "environmentally friendly" meats, as they contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions, waste production, and water aquifer depletion. Consider going "Meatless Mondays"- eating a vegetarian diet for just one day a week. You will probably be pleasantly surprised at how good you feel and how much you actually enjoy some vegetarian food choices.

Genetically-Modified foods (GMO's) are a growing concern in America, with the notorious "Monsanto Protection Act" signed into law by Barack Obama in March earlier this year.[18] Aside from the potential health risks and consequences of eating genetically modified food, there is a huge environmental cost as well. GMO crops are designed to be completely plowed under and re-planted every year, which causes severe soil erosion and mineral depletion. The rise of the GMO mono-crop has proved disastrous to food production worldwide, as hundreds of strains and varieties of plants are being reduced to merely a handful of varieties that have survived the hybridization plague. [19] This makes crops significantly more susceptible to pests and diseases, as well as reducing the overall quality and flavor of food. Small-scale, organic, and sustainable farms are barely able to compete with the corporate lords of the GMO industry, and so unsustainable practices have become standard in the American food industry. Cross-hybridization of GMO crops with "normal" crops has become such an issue that over 40 countries around the world have banned the import and sale of GMO crops.[20] Unfortunately, as most of the corporations behind these inventions are firmly planted in our native soil, we have instituted no such safety measures of our own.

Ultimately, the biggest impact you can have on GMO's is self-education. Many food activists, myself included, have begun to increasingly emphasize the importance of education and public awareness on this extremely important issue. In the US, GMO foods are not regulated or labeled, and it is up to the consumer to do their own research on which of their favorite foods was created in a laboratory. Consider joining events like the annual "March against Monsanto," which aims to educate and unify individuals who are concerned with their food supply and want their children's food future to be in good hands.

The third major way that food impacts the environment is something that I have already mentioned - local vs. foreign foods. It is indeed a marvel of modern technology, globalization, and coordination that we can enjoy a dinner that was grown on dozens of farms across the globe. Most of our fruits come from California, Florida, or Central America. Your rice was probably grown in Southeast Asia, your beans in South America, your coffee in Africa, your tea in India, and your sugar in South or Central America.[21] Pretty incredible. The downside of all this food globalization is the transportation costs that everything incurs. Although that bunch of bananas only costs you $2.00, it costs the earth quite a lot more in the oil it took to ship it from Ecuador. This is probably the single biggest way that most people contribute to an unsustainable planet, and also the single biggest way that you can learn to live in harmony with the earth and maximize your influence on a better tomorrow.

Purchasing local foods whenever possible is a great way to start your journey towards food sustainability. This looks like shopping at farmers markets, joining a CSA or food co-op[22], growing and hunting your own food, raising your own chickens for eggs and meat, purchasing a milk-share with a local dairy farm[23], or helping out at a local community garden. Learning to eat seasonally is another incredibly fun and powerful way to live with the earth, instead of against it. [24] Even a small step taken towards food sustainability will create a ripple effect that will influence the world in more ways than you may ever know.

Collective, Creative Solutions

In researching for and writing this article, I came across and read many articles of similar content and merit, all essentially advocating for the same basic solutions - buy "green" products, use less energy, and eat organic, local food. That's fantastic advice for those who are in a socio-economic position to be able to implement those changes. But what about the working man who is barely making enough money to afford the lowest cost food he can find to feed his family with? What about the poor inner-city kids who have no exposure to environmental ethics and who can't tell the difference between a tomato and a radish? What about the single moms on food stamps who are simply trying to survive and save a little for their kids' college? I find no helpful or practical solutions for them, and that deeply saddens and disturbs me. Being environmentally conscious seems to be an ideology of privilege, and the rest of us are just supposed to live off of the scraps of capitalism and recycle a few soda cans.

If we seriously care about our future and the future of our planet, we need to find creative solutions to involve and include everyone in our struggle for sustainability. As members of the dominant culture, we need to recognize the privilege that we hold and intentionally leverage that for the collective struggle. We need to try to create opportunities for less-privileged individuals to experience and engage in sustainable practices. Holding on to any sense of superiority due to our purchasing or lifestyle choices is completely absurd and detrimental to the common good.

As socio-economic or racial minorities, we need to recognize that there are small things that we can do to work towards a better earth, and to focus on those things. We need to organize and find like-minded family members and friends and collectively work towards creative solutions for our problems. We need to reject the stereotypes and systems of oppression and apathy that are expected of us and fight for the bigger picture, because the earth belongs to all of us.

As members of humanity, we need to think very seriously whether we care about what kind of world we are leaving to our children, and then intentionally act on whatever conclusion we come to. We are entering a critical time in our Earth's story, and we are all participants in it, whether we like it or not. Every dollar that you spend, every meal you eat, every voice you listen to is creating a certain world. I only hope that I have inspired you to dream of a better one, and given you the courage to create it.