Sustainability, Racism and America's Capacity to Change

Like many Americans, I was deeply moved by President Obama's very personal reflections on Trayvon Martin and race in America. America remains a nation comprised of many nations, and the dream of an American community that is not a melting pot, but what New York Mayor David Dinkins once called a "gorgeous mosaic," remains somehow beyond our grasp. Identities and communities are organic entities that live and evolve, something we have seen throughout this country's history. President Obama reminded us that even tragedies can lead to reflection and change.

Today's American community is very different from the one I knew growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s and 1960s. It remains racist, sexist and homophobic -- but there is far less prejudice today than when I was a kid. The ethos of individualism that I grew up with remains, but so too does the desire to be part of a community -- of something larger than a single individual or single family. It is that hunger for community that leads us to learn and understand about the experiences and needs of people who are different than we are. We reach out, empathize and try to understand the world as perceived by our neighbors. That was the force motivating the President's remarks last week.

This attempt at understanding, and the capacity to change and grow in response to learning about others is in many respects at the center of the American experience. This openness has always coexisted with the rigid xenophobic and reactionary forces that try to define America according to a mythical past.

But America can't help but continue its dynamic process of change as its community continues to evolve and redefine itself. T.V. families, a kind of mirror on our national self-image, have evolved from Ozzie and Harriet to the Cosby's to today's Modern Family. Most young Americans expect and embrace diversity casually, something that my generation needed to learn through sometimes painful or at least embarrassing experiences. President Obama's remarks were an effort to build understanding of the impact of different experiences, and they came out of his desire to build an American community that is based on the common elements of our national culture. He expects, indeed, all of us expect, that our definition of community will continue to evolve and change.

This effort of redefining community, led me to start thinking about an issue I have been assessing in my own field of study: sustainability management. Specifically, I have been focused on the definition of material consumption and how that will change over time. The president's remarks reminded me of the danger of living too much in the present and expecting that the world of tomorrow will look like the world of today. When I think about sustainability, I think about a world economy capable of meeting the material, intellectual, social and spiritual needs of a planet of 10 billion people -- without destroying the planet's ecosystems. Most environmentalists believe that continued economic growth is not a feasible goal. They think we must reduce consumption and reduce population. I do not think that reduced consumption is a feasible goal. Reducing economic consumption would be politically destabilizing and given the technology of destruction, quite dangerous. Instead, we need to learn how to manage a high throughput economy, where the nature of material consumption will change, but the amount of economic consumption will grow.

I don't pretend to understand what that future will look like, but my guess is that more of our economic consumption will be in the form of entertainment, information, social interaction, and physical self-improvement. We need to recognize the degree to which we have already replaced material consumption with consumption that requires less raw materials. We know that the production of material goods is already more and more automated and that this trend will continue. Employment in the brain-based economy will tend to focus on software rather than hardware. It is within that transformation that I believe sustainability will become feasible.

When I teach this point in my sustainability management class, I often talk about how patterns of consumption evolve -- even when the outcome of our consumption remains constant. I tell a story contrasting packing the car for my drive to college in Indiana back in 1970 to packing the car that drove my older daughter to school in Massachusetts five years ago. In 1970, my car was filled with vinyl records, books and a component stereo. In the 21st century, my daughter's included an iPod and a laptop. My trunk had more physical material in it, but hers had more music and information -- same end, different means.

To some degree, economic growth is based on what people spend their time doing and how they do it. New Yorkers live in smaller spaces than many Americans, but spend more time in public spaces. That means we do not need to heat, light or air-condition a 3,000 square foot house. We also do not need to maintain a ¼ acre of lawn. But we still spend lots of money and do lots of things. We contribute to economic growth, but our patterns of consumption are different than people living in the suburbs. These types of distinct patterns of behavior will evolve in response to the need for a more sustainable form of economic consumption.

Ozzie and Harriet lived one way, modern families live another way and future families will utilize a different style of material consumption. I think the constant force of diversity and change we see in our communities, as communicated by President Obama, is also seen in the way we consume material goods. The last several centuries has been characterized by rapid growth in technology, standard of living and human population. America is a place where all of these forces of change have converged. It has placed people of many different cultures and traditions together, often with wonderful and exciting results, but also with tragedies like the death of Trayvon Martin.

From these tragedies and from the many smaller mistakes and miscues we make each day, we try to draw meaning and make our society and Union "more perfect". That too was the aim of the President in the White House's James Brady Briefing Room the other day. After sharing his important personal reflections, the President then said:

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?

Obama's remark should be seen for what it is, classic American progressive pragmatism: How do we learn from bad things in order to do good things? And then, he concluded with what I would also call classic American optimism, when he remarked:

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they're better than we are -- they're better than we were -- on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country.

The potential for human progress, for social learning and technological development should not be underestimated. Crisis, tragedy and human misery will never end; but as a species we seem to show the capacity to grow and learn. President Obama believes that to be true and I agree with him.