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Roadmap to an Alternative Future

Sustainable Planet Offers Twenty-first Century Solutions

In a year in which "sustainable" is the buzzword for everything from coffee plantations to democracy (you may even have been tricked into believing that SUV stands for sustainable use vehicle), Sustainable Planet offers grassroots examples from individuals and enterprises who seek a deeper, more radical definition of what it means to promote social justice, environmental protection and responsible development in an era of crisis.

Sustainable Planet's editors, Juliet Schor and Betsy Taylor, ask, "What solutions will result in a better world at the end of this century?" In response, they offer, "a road map to an alternative way of living and being that is both sustainable and ultimately deeply satisfying." The road map they offer, though, is somewhat like MapQuest -- zooming in too broadly, or on not quite on what you really wanted to find, and then giving inefficient directions -- it is still a handy tool for those not familiar with the area at hand.

Sustainable development can be defined in a most general sense as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Sustainable Planet contains strong, grounded essays that offer specific examples of how companies and individuals are changing their practices to become more responsible for the well-being of employees and the environment.

The first essay, by William McDonough and Michael Braumgart, is an exciting taste of their book, Cradle to Cradle, which posits a revolution in industrial design and the technology to make it happen.

New York Rep. Nydia Velasquez offers a tidily written argument for why environmental justice is an urban concern, and Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender offers practical yet visionary advice gleaned from his work as a pioneer in marketing eco-friendly products.

The book promised "solutions" though, and in the rest of the essays offered there are as many solutions for the mind and heart as for practical businessperson or activist. This raises the crucial question of whether sustainability is a matter of changing individuals' inner compasses or the technology they use.

Hollender strikes a balanced tone in his essay but Taylor, after talking about how to build power in order to move new technologies, policies and model programs forward, concludes, "our work is really about giving love back to the world."

I am all about love (Valentines date anyone?) but given the dire conditions each author cites about widening gaps of rich and poor, loss of habitat, dirty air, etc., I was hoping for more emphasis on the "how-to," practical side of solutions. Loving the air we breathe isn't going to stop our asthma or enforce the Clean Air Act.

The book's companion website, better addresses this issue, providing a handy way to see how many gallons of gas is saved by taking mass transit, or how much sea life is saved by "shifting from shrimp." This may be particularly helpful for the presumed audience of the book and website -- someone who is a bit concerned, but doesn't really know too much, and needs to be persuaded or inspired that change is indeed possible.

However, that same audience may be turned off, as I was, by repetitive rhetoric and the holier-than-thou simplify-your-life-now sentimentality, which I skimmed over in search of particularly justified points and specific examples. Happily, there are many to find if you need to use them in a paper or to impress that babe who would rather bike thru the rain than use gas.

The book could have been better focused in its organization and choice of topics. The writers and/or subjects seem to have been chosen based on whom the editors knew, or who was involved with the sponsoring organization, The Center for a New American Dream, rather than expertise on issues related to sustainable development.

Notably missing from the Ameri-centric book are essays on alternative energy sources, green building technology, mass transportation, co-op housing, water shortages and loss of bio-diversity and habitat. Instead, there is a patchwork of subjects which seem to lack focus and give the perception of New-Age schmush even when almost each essay, read individually, contains valuable statistics, precise prose and nuanced insights.

So browse the three best essays, buy that fair-trade coffee on the way to the BART and think "Aah caffeine, I am sustainable for another day." Maybe your body will listen, but so may the market forces.

Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century
Edited by Juliet B. Schor and Betsy Taylor, Center for a New American Dream
Beacon Press; ISBN: 0807004553
Paperback: 304 pages (January 2003)

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