Building a Sustainable Future

Edward Terry
Published in
4 min readOct 12, 2008


It’s not about Polar Bears

There is an interesting video over at Vimeo by Leo Murray in the UK that talks about environmental tipping points and the fact that we COULD be headed for a much hotter world and widespread civil war as people fight for habitable land, water and other scarce resources.

The video is excellent at explaining what is happening in the environment and should be watched to gain an understanding of where we are today and how we got here. It’s one of those “must-see” webumentaries. However, while it sets the scene the big question — how do we build a sustainable future — is left for the rest of us to design.

Environmental Tipping Points: Wake up, freak out, then get a grip (Video 11:35)

However, as an article at WorldChanging (It’s Not about Polar Bears Anymore) points out that Leo’s solution to the problem — ie consume less — is a non-solution; too vague. For example, how do we consume less? Aren’t we then still consuming the same things that are causing the problem — e.g. fossil fuels — albeit less of them? And how do you incentivise people who are [culturally] driven to do the opposite?

WorldChanging goes on to say:

What we need is to completely reconstruct our civilization. For starters, we need better cities, smart grids, innovative architecture and wilderness preservation. We hope that one end result will be a society in which we consume less not because we all make the altruistic decision to abstain, but because we actually need fewer resources to support prosperous and attractive lifestyles.

Now that we’ve gotten good at explaining the problems, we need to become better at developing and clearly defining a path for real solutions.

I agree that the solution put forward is ethical to adopt and we should “do what we can”, but we need bigger and more appropriate solutions as WorldChanging suggests.

The interesting thing is that, compared to 30 years ago on a per capita basis and adjusted for inflation, we are consuming less (in the US at least). Less money is being spent on consumer goods overall (see video The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class 57:37). More money is being spent on larger purchases — e.g. houses and healthcare — but not the consumer items.

However, because there are simply a lot more people who are consuming now, there is more consumption overall (see related blog post “ The problem is of course the Humans “).

Furthermore there are a number of assumptions made in the Leo’s video that bear further scrutiny.

One key point is the fact that we do not know if we have reached or passed the tipping point in one or any of the ecosystems that have been mentioned. However, I do remember seeing a report back in 1986 (if memory serves correctly) by the World Health Organisation that said the Earth had already exceeded its sustainable biomass. My understanding of this is that we already passed the critical tipping point over 20 years ago, which means we are already rolling down the hill to the very hot future that Leo talks about.

We need to adjust — and not just design and build a sustainable future, but also design and implement crisis management scenarios and systems to cope with the worst-case scenario. One way the latter is being addressed is as a community-based project leveraging the power of social media to enable people world-wide to suggest solutions, possibilities, share ideas and think ourselves out of the problem instead of simply relying on central government and/or industry think-tanks. i.e. we can use everybody’s minds and not just a select few. The project home page is here: Superstruct Game. The videos are pretty scary scenarios talking about quarantine, hunger, power struggle, exile and the downfall of the Internet — some mentioned as possibilities in Leo’s video incidentally — but they serve a purpose as a catalyst to action. This is a bleak future, and a future which we may already be rolling towards, past the point of no return.

I hope not, but my instinct (sadly) tells me otherwise. And scientific evidence suggests it may well be true — evidence which Leo has used to build the case in his video. For example, see this link from The Independent: An epidemic of extinctions: Decimation of life on earth — Nature, Environment

Originally published at on October 12, 2008.



Edward Terry

Coach & Business Consultant. Writer. @EdwardTerry.