10/13/2014 08:23 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Sustainable Consumption and the World of Endless Images, Voices, and Ideas

The world we are creating with global communications and global economic production is fast becoming a true global society. Nevertheless, place -- or home -- continues to have meaning as both communities and nations become even more treasured in a world of mass-produced impressions and fear of homogenization. Today, young people are building a shared understanding of how the world works through social and other web-based media. The balance of local and global must still be determined. There is little point arguing about the desirability of this new world. It is happening and I see no prospect of it stopping.

The trajectory of the new global society and the impact of these media and the new ones that will follow are difficult to predict. Those of us raised in the pre-internet era see the world and process information in a different way than people born since 1990. Many of us worry about the addiction to the information streaming out of smart phones as people walk the street, oblivious to vehicular and even pedestrian traffic. But just as I roamed through library stacks to get a sense of an academic field or set of ideas, so too do our children roam through the infinite information of the world wide web. Google's capacities seem far more comprehensive than the Dewey Decimal System. PDFs e-mailed around the world may well have more power than the mimeographed handbills we handed out at subway stops.

There are, of course, worse things than a generation addicted to information, images, tunes, and ideas. One could be addicted to conspicuous consumption or mind-altering drugs. Despite setbacks, I sense progress. We are all more sensitive to human impact on the environment than we were a generation or two ago. And many people are more aware of the impact of the environment on their own health and well-being than they once were. People pay more attention to food, exercise, and health care. Parents extend their deep concern about their own exposure to toxics to an even more profound concern about the impact of environmental degradation on their children's health and future.

While issues like climate change and biodiversity may be difficult for some folks to understand, toxic waste, water pollution, and especially air pollution can assault your senses and are really easy to understand. Young people have been seeing, smelling, and even touching these environmental insults all of their lives. Even if the environment in the U.S. is in many ways cleaner than it was in 1970, the country is more crowded, consumes more, wastes more, and is more aware of the connection of pollution to health.

Increased awareness is fueled by dramatic reductions in the cost of information and communication. We are literally drowning in information. Still, the great difficulty with the empirical base of the information age is that much of the data we rely on to understand the world we live in is unverified. Lots of the information presented as "fact" has never been checked for accuracy. Opinions are presented as fact. Videos are edited to mislead. Photos are doctored. People are quoted out of context and sometimes the quotes are simply made up and fictitious. Moreover, images and impressions spread so quickly we refer to them as "viral".

I hope that as this new world of information and images evolves, some sources will be seen as more trustworthy than others. (Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite?) Some communications will be discarded. The competition for attention is nothing new, and while the speed and intensity of messages may be unprecedented, I suspect that as the novelty wears off, people will learn how to adjust and filter the mass of inputs.

What is most interesting to me as I view all of this from the sustainability perspective is that the consumption of information and ideas has little negative impact on the environment. If we spend more of our time engaged in education, culture and entertainment, presumably we spend less time consuming, and possibly destroying, nature. While there is some danger that the joy of engaging in the natural world might be forgotten, I am too much of an optimist to believe that will happen. As more of us live in cities, our exposure to wilderness, and even nature, will continue to decline, but perhaps our appreciation for nature need not suffer.

We are already more removed from the natural world than America was in 1900 when 40 percent of us worked in agriculture. But we continue to add acreage to our parks, and here in New York City, PlaNYC 2030, our sustainability plan, sets a goal that all New Yorkers live within a ten minute walk of a park. Real estate values reflect the economic value of trees, water and sunlight. And of course, we still require the food, water and material comforts the planet provides. We do not need to live in nature to know that we depend on it.

And while an increasing percentage of our population is living in cities, that does not mean that the countryside is being abandoned. There appear to be plenty of people to populate both rural and urban areas. The fight over fracking in the northeast is largely a battle over rural development and conservation. The intensity of that conflict can also be seen as an indicator of the continued value placed on nature. It is also one element of the battle between forces of local identity and forces of the global economy and society.

The shape of the global economy, media, and world-wide society now being born is difficult to predict. On the one hand, the logic of economic growth can lead to the pursuit of short-term economic gain to the exclusion of other values. On the other hand, a sustainable growth strategy could help ensure that the pursuit of economic growth factors in long-term considerations such as environmental impacts and human wellbeing.

Many of the more extreme political movements in the world today claim that they are a response to the power and force of the modern global economy and its accompanying set of values. They try, but in my view, fail, to justify terror with this argument. Evil people lusting for power often search for a rationale for their behavior. Terror tactics and mindless ideology does not protect, but corrupts, traditional values.

But there is no denying that the forces of modernity are powerful. The technologies of information, stimulation, and comfort are seductive and addictive. But so too is the pull of place, family, friendship, loyalty and love. In the end, humans are social and emotional creatures and we crave company and interaction. More than consumption patterns shape our values; people are not simply "consumers". These other values are the basis for a sustainable society supporting a renewable economy.

At the heart of the struggle for sustainability is a human society that is creative, ingenious, often courageous, and always deeply flawed. Straight-line projections of food supplies and demand, energy supply and demand, and even global warming create warnings that we should always heed, but never despair over. If the past fifty years has taught us anything, it is that one should never project the next fifty years. People and their needs remain constant. Little else seems to be very stable. I guess that's what makes the world interesting, and why we are all so drawn to human expression as conveyed by the globally-communicated world of endless images, voices, and ideas.