Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar (Instructor: Peter A. Bowler)
University of California, Irvine, March 1998 


By Johnny Djordjevic

Max Weber believed in the power of an idea. This political theorist discussed how Calvinism was one idea that perpetuated the rise of capitalism. Few people ever examine the power of an idea, but if one examines and contemplates this theory, a realization comes across: that ideas drive society. The key premise is that some values of our society must be altered in order to avert catastrophic consequences. The way of life in developed countries is "the origin of many of our most serious problems"(Trainer, 1985). Because developed countries have high material living standards and consume massive quantities of all resources, "hundreds of millions of people in desperate need must go without the materials and energy that could improve their conditions while these resources flow into developed countries, often to produce frivolous luxuries"(Trainer, 1985).

People's way of life seems to be a glaring example of values leading to high rates of personal consumption of resources and the waste of these same materials. In addition to overconsumption, the services used to supply our society with goods, (examples of these goods would be food, water, energy, and sewage services.) tends to be wasteful and expensive. Production is organized in such a way, (usually highly centralized) that travel becomes an enormous burden. Another consideration is that our population is expected to increase to rise to eleven billion within the next half century. Considering the mineral and energy resources needed in the future, these estimates must also include the consumption of a population almost doubled from its current status and these same figures must include an expected increase in the affluence of developed countries. "If we are willing to endorse an already affluent society in which there is continued growth on this scale,(american resource use increasing 2% each year), then we are assuming that after 2050 something like 40 times as many resources can be provided each year as were provided in the 1970's, and that it is in order for people in a few rich countries to live in this superaffluent way while the other 9.5 billion in the world do not"(Trainer, 1985).

The environment is in danger from our pursuit of affluence. Serious worries come from predictions about the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels will raise temperatures and result in climatic effects. Rising temperatures could have horrific effects. First of all, food production could seriously be imperiled even by increases of only one degree celcius. If the temperature should increase by five degrees scientists predict the coastal island nations would be submerged and possibly trigger the next ice age. Another environmental concern deals with the soil. Our agricultural practices disregard the value of recycling food waste. Also, the use of pesticides and chemicals in agriculture lead to the poisoning of the soil and topsoil loss through erosion. Yields per acre for grain are falling and "we do not produce food in ways that can be continued for centuries"(Trainer, 1985). Even more disturbing is the deforestation of rainforests. This results in the extinction of many species, concentration of carbon dioxide, the loss of many potential medical breakthroughs, and possibly the disruption of rainfall. Opponents of the deforestation fail to realize that our expensive way of life and greedy economic system are the driving forces. "Nothing can be achieved by fighting to save this forest or that species if in the long term we do not change the economic system which demands ever-increasing production and consumption of non-necessities"(Trainer, 1985).

There also lies a problem in the Third World. Developed countries high living standards and quest for an ever-increasing quality of life lead to Third World poverty and the deprivation of the Third World's access to its own resources. As Third World countries get deprived of materials, the developed world consumes and imports over half of their resources. A few developed countries seem to be consuming the globe's resources and this consumption rate is always increasing. "The rich must live more simply that the poor may simply live"(Trainer, 1985). The Third World is exploited in many ways. One way is that the best land in a developing country is used for crops exported to developed countries, while citizens of the Third World starve and suffer. Another way is the poor working conditions of the Third World. A third exploitation can be overlooked but no less disgusting; "The world's greatest health problem could be simply by providing water for the perhaps 2.000 million people who now have to drink form rivers and wells contained by human and animal wastes. Technically it is a simple matter to set up plants for producing iron and plastic pipes. But most of the world's iron and plastic goes into the production of luxurious cars, soft-drink containers, office blocks and similar things in rich countries"(Trainer, 1985).

The threat of nuclear war and international conflict rises with countries of all kinds entranced with the logic and idea of materialism. Perhaps the most dangerous and likely chances for a nuclear conflict arise from the competition for dwindling resources by developed countries. Similar events can be seen all across the globe. Major superpowers get themselves involved in domestic matters not concerning them, providing arms and advice to try and obtain the inside track on possible resources. International tension will rise in the competition for resources and so will the "ever-increasing probability of nuclear war"(Trainer, 1985).

As developed countries pursue affluence they fail to see the inherent contradiction in this idea; as growth is the quest, the quality of life will decrease. For a healthy community, there exists a list of non-material conditions which must be present, "a sense of purpose, fulfilling work and leisure, supportive social relations, peace of mind, security from theft and violence, and caring and co-operative neighborhoods"(Trainer, 1985). And as developed countries think their citizens are the happiest in the world, "In most affluent societies rates of divorce, drug-taking, crime, mental breakdown, child abuse, alcoholism, vandalism, suicide, stress, depression, and anxiety are increasing"(Trainer, 1985).

Despite all the gloomy facts and sad stories, there is a solution, to create a sustainable society. Rather than being greedy and only thinking about the self, each individual must realize the impacts of his/her selfish tendencies, and disregard their former view of the world. One must come into harmony with what is really needed to survive, and drawn a strict distinction between what is necessity and what is luxury. Not every family needs three cars, or five meals a day or four telephones and two refrigerators.Countries do not need to strive for increasing growth, less materials could be imported/exported and international tension could be greatly reduced. The major problems seem not to step from the determination of what a sustainable society is, but on how to get people to change their values. This task is not an easy one. People must be forced to realize the harmful and catastrophic consequences lie in their meaningless wants and greed. The problem of cognitive dissonance is hard to overcome, but it is not impossible. The solution to this dilemma lies in castastrophe. The only event that changes people's minds is social trauma or harm. The analogy is that a person who refuses to wear a seat belt and one day gets thrown through his/her windshield will remember to wear the seat belt after the accident. The logic behind this argument is both simple and feasible. So the question of dissonance is answered in part, but to change a whole society obviously takes a bigger and more traumatic event to occur. An economic collapse or ice age would trigger a new consciousness leading to a sustainable society.

The power of an idea should never be underestimated. Hitler's idea of the Aryan race lead to the Holocaust, Marx's idea of socialism lead to Stalin's reign and the deaths of over 50 million people. But ideas change be changed, disregarded and adopted. As developed countries find themselves engaging in a greedy philosophy, once that realization is made, the first step to a better society is taken. Our current path will lead to massive suffering all across the world, with extinction a distinct possibility. Global sustainability must be adopted by every person on the planet, (starting in the developed world), otherwise the world will cease to support life.



  1. Holdgate, Martin. From Care to Action. 1996. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London.
  2. Trainer, F.E. Abandon Affluence. 1985. Zed Books Ltd, London.
  3. Von Tunzelmann, G. N. Technology and industrial progress : the foundations of economic growth. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt., 1995.
  4. Adams, W. M. Green development : environment and sustainability in the Third World , W.M. Adams. London ; New York : Routledge, 1990.
5. Anderson, Anthony, B. Alternatives to deforestation : steps toward sustainable use of the Amazon rain forest , editor. New York : Columbia University Press, 1990.

6. Auty, Richard, M. Approaches to sustainable development , edited by Katrina Brown. London ; New York : Pinter, 1997.


Back to Senior Seminar