12/31/2012 03:23 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

A New Year's Challenge

New Year's Day is a time for fond reminiscence of things past and hopeful anticipation of things to come, but the bracing optimism that greeted the new millennium just 13 years ago has given way to a brooding pessimism, and the hopes that soared four years ago when Barack Obama was preparing to take office have coming crashing back to earth.

As new crises arise and old challenges refuse to budge, our problems appear less and less tractable, our responses less and less adequate to the tasks before us. Unable to overcome our political divisions, we are paralyzed by fear, suspicion, and resentment. Whatever the challenge, be it climate change or a fiscal cliff, our best hope -- and it's a fragile one -- is that we can somehow muddle through. Whatever the problem, we kick the proverbial can down the road. Plan A, it seems, always gives way to Plan B, which yields in turn to Plan C, and so on.

Malaise and paralysis, of course, are not new. They are as old as civilization itself. There are times when public pessimism is well-placed and times when it is misplaced. There are times when "the gathering storm" dissipates, and times when it crashes down upon us with unrelenting fury.

If you are looking for reasons why the human enterprise will not succeed, you do not have to look far. With world population nearing 7.1 billion and headed, by some estimates, to 10 billion or higher by the end of the century, it's getting harder and harder to envision a happy outcome.

By a variety of measures, both obvious and not so obvious, we are rapidly depleting our natural resources and overwhelming the bio-systems that sustain life on this planet. Water levels in many parts of the world are steadily dropping; lakes shrink, and rivers no longer run to the seas. Topsoil is being eroded at a dangerous pace and deserts are expanding. The demand for arable land is growing, while the supply is diminishing; corporations and food importing countries are buying up what remains at a dizzying pace. Our limited inheritance of minerals and fossil fuels is slowly dwindling, and we are in a desperate race to exhaust what is left, as oil and mineral exploration pick up in the warming Arctic Ocean and in the depths of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The growing competition for scarce resources will heighten international tensions and increase the risk of conflict in the world. The challenge of feeding the world's hungry is formidable and growing. The UN estimates that world food production will have to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to keep up with population growth and changing diets, but in meeting that goal farmers will have to overcome water scarcity, loss of arable land to biofuels and urbanization, the intensified drought and flooding attributable to climate change, and the rising costs of fuel and fertilizers.

As resource scarcity increases commodity prices for metals, minerals, fuels, and food will rise, perhaps dramatically so, making it far more difficult to sustain economic growth and find jobs for the workers of tomorrow. A growing number of reputable economists and financial experts are warning that economic growth, as we have known it, is not sustainable. Some say the end of growth is in sight.

But pessimism, however justified, is not a prescription for what ails us. Defeatism will not lead us out of our current difficulties. What is needed, and desperately so, is a vision of what the world can yet become. Such a vision, however, cannot be predicated on the idea that "more" is the answer, whether it's more people, more consumption, or more exploitation of scarce resources.

Our reckless and relentless pursuit of more is no longer sustainable, and all the technological breakthroughs and visionary thinking in the world will not make it so. If we are to survive and prosper, we must derive "more" from consuming less. Many, if not most of us, living in the developed world have long since passed the point where more income and more wealth produce greater happiness. To the contrary, many of us have become slaves to our endless quest for more. In our pursuit of the good life, we rack up unsustainable debts and put impossible demands upon ourselves and the environment.

What we need in 2013, and beyond, is a new vision, a new way of reordering our priorities and managing our stewardship of the Earth. No one should underestimate the perils and difficulties ahead, but neither should we discount the rewards that may come from bringing our collective demands into better balance with what nature and our labors can realistically provide.