Root Paradigms of the Unsustainable

The climate crisis, with its threat of natural disaster, new disease, and extreme wealth disparity, has posed the potential for a new age of human habitation, marked by the end of civilizational development and the beginning of constant and ubiquitous unsettlement; some have referred to it as an “urmadic age” that is at once partially urban and partially nomadic.

Among its challenges include energy, urbanization, housing, transportation, poverty and waste, all of which industrialization has served to enhance through resource use and increasing urbanization. 30% of the global population already lives in conditions like this, and some suggest that the only solution will be reducing the world’s population to a number sustainable by the planetary carrying capacity. A million years’ worth of buried carbon
is added to the atmosphere annually, and one-third of planetary resources have been consumed in the past forty years; it is estimated that we have peaked our global supply of oil, and climate vulnerability is occurring in conjunction with resource depletion. There now remains more than a 50% chance of a 5-degree temperature rise in the long term — a difference equivalent to today versus the Ice Age.

In light of this, still to be determined is how we will transition to new conditions: will we enter it through war and struggle, refusing to let go of the life we once knew? Our only other option is to transition smoothly, with preconception and thought as to new ways of being. Our ability to do this depends on the extent to we can recognize what led us astray, and redefine those perspectives so that we can approach our global crises with more appropriately. As long as we are locked into an infrastructure of fossil fuels, social inertia becomes either our tool or obstacle in creating momentum for changing the habits, languages, and customs of old and new paradigms.

The contemporary era is defined by the omnipresent availability of goods and information supplied by globalization. Manufacturing methods center aroundspecialization, efficiency, and constant turnover; costs of waste and carbon emissions have been externalized. What this has done for our mindset is reduced the individual value of any single unit. When take-out is endlessly available, meals and cooking become unnecessary; when information is at our infinite dis- posal, we stream without regard.

Desire drives the current economic system, encouraged by planned obsolescence — “aesthetic expiration dates” — which drives cyclical consumption and mechanisms of want. In first-world economies, consumption defines economic well- being, and has driven design to be a narrow profession of novelty, both stylistically and functionally.

A dependency on infinite growth, thought to be the key to financial stability, creates this drive towards accumulation and externalization, as effects of waste, pollution, and labor rights are disregarded in order to enhance profit margins. If we were to monetize the worth of this damage, ecological destruction in 2009 was worth $4 trillion dollars by large corporations. Each corporation sees itself as independent of the others, focused on finding prosperity through its own competitive edge within the market, at the expense of the environment and others. Our expectations of products continue to decline, their reduced quality countered by declarations of “consumer sovereignty,” or our newfound freedom to choose and replace products to our content. In our endorsement as consumers of weak and superficial products, we continue to allow the economy to be based on waste and competition with dangerous implications for the near-future; that is, until we accept sustainability efforts as pathways for individual moderation coupled with greater systemic change. Even legislation stands to create little benefit, as it ensures compliance rather than changes in our paradigm.

In recognizing that behavioral transformation will not evolve out of slight innovations or minor problem-solving, we take the first step towards real sustainability — a transcendence of scientific rationalization, utilitarianism, reason, and unreflective instrumentalism — in the strife to avoid our self-created and self-imposed disaster.