Sustainable Prosperity

05/02/2012 03:26 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2012

Worldwatch Institute (WWI), the renowned Washington-based environmental think tank, is at odds with the Republican Party. In its annual State of the World report, WWI makes a documented case that we are on an unsustainable path, with an estimated one and a half earths needed to support humanity's current use of dwindling natural resources.

Most Republican politicians dismiss such a grim prognosis as poppycock. They view the world's resources as bountiful for the foreseeable future and begging to be exploited.

Undeterred, the WWI warns that unless mankind gains control over its excesses and contracts the global economy by one-third, a severe crisis will probably end up forcing a jumpstart towards sustainability, and the process won't be pretty.

To facilitate an orderly transition, WWI proposes that all people's basic needs should and can be met without depriving future generations of the same benefits. In the think tank's view, this is a crucial step towards achieving the goals of "sustainable prosperity" and enduring ecological health. The redistribution of wealth (a toxic phrase to the GOP) would be essential, with a guaranteed universal living wage being a key strategy in attaining sustainability. Otherwise, the downtrodden could ultimately strip the environment bare out of sheer desperation.

In the WWI's master plan, social relationships and intellectual accomplishment would replace conspicuous material consumption as the driving force in our daily lives. The economy and human population would ideally stabilize at environmentally sustainable levels rather than be engines of unrelenting expansion, and government would award subsidies for public infrastructure and the spread of "green energy" as an alternative to "dirty" fossil fuels. Environmental governance would supersede corporate governance instead of the other way around, primarily through stricter regulation of industrial polluters, greater reliance on land use planning, and increased global cooperation in tackling climate change and other trans-boundary environmental problems.

These are policies that today's modern Republican Party has denounced in near apocalyptic terms, warning of the loss of individual freedom, abdication of capitalism to socialism or worse, the ceding of national sovereignty to a world government, and foolishly trying to substitute unproven renewable energy for more reliable fossil fuels.

How will WWI respond to any Republican criticisms? Even Democrats sympathetic to WWI's long term perspective would dare not directly champion reduced consumption. Our present shopping patterns are too deeply ingrained in current culture to be purged overnight and any attempt to do so would be political suicide.

WWI recognizes that in the face of widespread initial intransigence, the transition it is promoting will have to occur incrementally and through indirect means. The acquisitive instinct is too much a part of human nature to ever be completely extinguished, but it can be steered in a sustainable direction. WWI researchers are confident that any fears that reduced consumption will lead to material deprivation can be readily overcome as the concept "less is more" gains traction in society.

WWI believes tax reform which encourages environmentally friendly alternatives such as recycling and reuse and penalizes wasteful practices and overexploitation of raw materials would be an important move towards sustainable prosperity. So would revision of our educational system to inculcate the gratification derived from shifting from a consumer-based to a value-based society. WWI notes that this transition will need political leadership at the top, an element that has so far been missing on a global scale.

Bottom line: whether you accept the environmental think tank's future vision, there is no denying the inexorable law of supply and demand's effect on the earth's remaining natural resources.