In Small Is Beautiful, a book that came out a year later, the economist E.F. Schumacher similarly reasoned that the prevailing economic model, which treats natural resources as disposable items, is insupportable as a long-term strategy. Accordingly, the technology we employ should be smaller, gentler and more appropriate to the task at hand—“technology with a human face,” as he put it.
Although both books were influential in their time, they are largely forgotten today—dismissed by many as relics of a previous era, far removed from the realities of the present. Yet the issues discussed in those books are more pressing than ever, with the world’s population now exceeding seven billion, which is nearly twice the number of people living in 1972.
As global environmental problems have attracted more attention, the notion of “sustainability” has come into wider use. Although the definition remains somewhat vague, sustainability has been described as an approach to development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In June of 2012, about 50,000 people, including more than 100 heads of state, convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to attend a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, hoping to find ways of protecting our planet for generations to come. By the meeting’s end, the world leaders had pledged to set global sustainable development goals, but the specifics of those plans still need to be spelled out by future working groups on numerous environmental fronts.
For an issue like global warming, we already know— to a large degree—what ought to be done. The next step is to muster the requisite political will, come up with inexpensive solutions and determine how to establish accountability.
Achieving a truly sustainable society will take more than just bringing greenhouse gas emissions under control. In the long run, we’ll need to be mindful of population growth rates, while minimizing resource consumption and waste generation through comprehensive recycling programs that go far beyond what is available today. We may also have to shift toward a different economic model in which prosperity is not dependent on continual growth. In making such a radical transition, we might seek guidance from those two neglected works from the early '70s.