The Core Challenge Of Our Times

This article provides a starting point for understanding the issues addressed on this website. If you are new to sustainability concerns, it will give you a big-picture overview about what these concerns are. If you have been around sustainability issues for a while, it will orient you to the approach we at Context Institute take. (The classic yet still relevant 1990 article, Sustainability: The State Of The Movement, provides a complementary starting point and is recommended for those who are new to the movement, new to Context Institute or would just like a big-picture reminder.)

(This article also follows Robert Gilman’s biography in the FS Main Thread.)

The big picture

What do you think of when you hear the word “sustainability”? Do you think about activities like recycling or technologies like solar cells? Do you think about activism devoted to saving the rainforest or reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Do you think about things like local food production and green building?

All of these are connected to the idea of sustainability and play important roles, but none of them are fundamental. With each of these we need to ask: Why is this important? What is the underlying problem it addresses? Is it more important now than in the past? If it is important now, are we, as a society, doing as much of it as we need to?

Diving into these questions asks us to look at the big picture of what is actually happening in our world today and to see today in the larger frame of history. When we do this, we find:

  • The last hundred years or so have brought unprecedented changes in population, technology, the economy and the environment.
  • These changes present us with unprecedented dangers, including that humanity already exceeds the long-term biocapacity of the Earth to sustain us in our current way of life.
  • These changes also open up unprecedented opportunities, including the prospect of real peace on Earth.
  • Our response to both the dangers and the opportunities is being hobbled because we are trying to address them through institutions and concepts developed in and for a very different time in history. The gap between the needs of our times and our ability to address those needs grows greater with each passing year.

In other words, our cultures (around the world) are increasingly out of sync with the on-the-ground reality created by the driving forces of population, technology and the economy, and their impact on the environment. A major consequence and indicator of being out of sync is that we are failing to adequately address the dangers or seize the opportunities, and so we drift toward disaster.

The core challenge of our times is thus to bring our cultures, including our institutions (like government, the economy, etc.), into sync with the on-the-ground reality of today and tomorrow.

This is a very human challenge, and as we delve into it, we will find that it require us to change our relationship with nature, with each other and with our inner life.

It is this challenge that motivates the Foundation Stones project and that motivated In Context. It is why Context Institute has always focused on sustainable culture and why I like to say:

There are no environmental problems …
only environmental symptoms of human problems.

The rest of this article provides more depth about this challenge.


To begin to get a better perspective on “our times,” on where we are in the flow of history, I’d like to start with the following graph, which is based on scholarly estimates gathered by the US Census. (The graph is zoomable. Click and drag to zoom in, double-click to zoom out. If you don’t see the graph, try reloading the page.)


While there are some interesting wiggles along the way, the big story here is the huge population growth in the last few hundred years. This growth has a number of important characteristics:

  • It is the consequence of better knowledge (e.g., keep sewage separate from drinking water) and understandable human desires (e.g., keep your children from dying). In that sense, it represents a great human triumph.
  • It happened much faster than previous population growth. The growth rate (percentage yearly change) around 1900 was about 40 times (!) the average rate between 1 AD and 1500.
  • Our human population is now “big” not only relative to any previous time in history, it is also “big” relative to the natural systems of the planet. The label on the graph that says “Ecological Footprint = 1 Earth” shows the point at which humanity exceeded the long-term capacity of the Earth to sustain us. (I’ll have more on this below.)

This graph may make it look like population is the problem, but it is actually the combination of population, the amount of material consumption per person and the environmental effect of the technologies used to enable that material consumption that determines the overall impact on the environment. Please see No Simple Answers for more detail.

The number of us on the planet is only one 0f many areas that have seen dramatic change in the past hundred years or so. For example, as a species:

  • We have profoundly increased our ability to travel and to communicate at a distance with each other.
  • We have manufactured large quantities of new toxic chemicals and dispersed them into the environment and into our bodies.
  • We have brought literacy and education to a much larger percentage of the world population.
  • We are changing the climate through our greenhouse gas emissions.
  • We have greatly increased average life expectancy, which has not only driven population growth but also significantly changed the ratio of elders to youth.
  • We have shifted a large percentage of the population away from a direct relationship with renewable resources for sustenance and livelihood (e.g., farming) and into a dependence on a market economy, which is in turn crucially dependent on finite, non-renewable resources like oil and other fossil fuels.
  • We have developed nuclear weapons capable of destroying essentially all life on the surface of the Earth.
  • We have raised the world average per person economic output by a factor of 10 since 1870, as illustrated in the following graph (based on the work of Angus Maddison, with more recent data from the World Bank and CIA World Factbook).


Please note that this is per person! Again, we see the same kind of unprecedented rapid rise in the past few hundred years as we did with population, but now it is a multiplier on top of that population growth. It is a remarkable achievement that represents substantial improvement in the material well-being of billions of people (even though, as an average rather than a median, it gives disproportionate weight to the wealthiest parts of the world and of society). Yet we have done so by going beyond the long-term capacity of the Earth to sustain us.

All of these changes add up to a world that is profoundly different from the world of even 50 years ago, much less a few hundred years. It is a world with many more people, much more impact on the environment and all of the “small-world” effects that come from instant electronic communications. These changes, and others like them, present us with both unprecedented dangers and unprecedented opportunities.


As an example of the dangers, let’s look more closely at what is behind the “Ecological Footprint = 1 Earth” line on the graph above. The ecological footprint “measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resource it consumes and to absorb its carbon dioxide emissions, using prevailing technology.” It is one of the best tools developed so far for assessing the overall human impact on the natural world.

Humanity’s worldwide ecological footprint over the last few decades looks like this:

(The data for this chart goes up to 2008 and is from the Global Footprint Network’s 2011 Data Tables. The chart is divided into the six components that make up the total footprint.)

This chart and the analysis behind it have a lot to tell us:

  • Most importantly, humanity exceeded (overshot) the Earth’s biocapacity in about 1970 and our excessive demand on the Earth keeps growing. How is it possible to be using more than one Earth? See the next point.
  • The majority of humanity’s ecological footprint is currently due to carbon emissions (mostly burning fossil fuels). In 2008, the carbon footprint was 55% of the total footprint. Running out of biocapacity to absorb carbon doesn’t have the immediate impact on us that running out of cropland would. The atmosphere can absorb, and is absorbing, our excess emissions but with the substantial long-term consequence of climate change.
  • This analysis is, reasonably enough, based on current technology and people’s actual behavior. Yet humanity’s global footprint could be very different if either technology or behavior were to change. For example: If renewable energy (solar, wind, tidal, etc.) were to replace fossil fuels, we could substantially reduce our carbon footprint. If products (including buildings) were designed for longer lifetimes and easy recyclability, we could reduce our cropland, forest and carbon footprints. If less of the crops from croplands went to feed livestock, we could reduce our cropland footprint. These are all important possibilities; nevertheless, what you see in this chart reflects what humanity has actually done and continues to do.

There are many other indications, from the shrinking of the arctic ice cap to the accelerated extinction of species, that agree with the basic result from the global footprint analysis, namely that sometime in the past few decades, humanity overshot the Earth’s long-term capacity to sustain us.

Living beyond the Earth’s capacity (i.e., overshoot) is like living beyond your economic means. You can do it for a while but it often doesn’t end well. We have lots of evidence from other species, from earlier civilizations and from computer modeling of current global society that overshooting your carrying capacity can easily lead to a population collapse well below the initial carrying capacity — if any survive at all.

It is all too easy to construct realistic scenarios in which our current overshoot leads to a collapse in the human population somewhere in this century that is catastrophic for natural systems, for society and for billions of people — including whatever children and/or grandchildren you may have.

Yet our current overshoot doesn’t have to have this outcome. The global problems that have brought us into overshoot all have technically feasible solutions. For example, Lester Brown, the founder of Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute, has been evolving his global plan for sustainability for decades (see Plan B 4.0 and World on the Edge) and finds that a meaningful plan to move the world toward a sustainable future could be funded with an annual budget equal to only 12% of the world’s current annual military budget.

A peaceful Earth

A major example of the opportunities of our times is that we may well be within a generation or two of ending warfare as an institution.

Our increased international connectedness through communications and commerce and the long-term damage that modern weapons can create are making more and more of the world off-limits to warfare and reducing its scale even where it does occur — all at the same time that instant communications magnifies its presence in our consciousness. These trends led us to focus the Winter 1989 issue of In Context on the question “Is militarism fading?” and they have fortunately continued.

The impact of such a change would be enormous. Think of all of the human energy and other resources that could be freed up if they weren’t going into military spending. Think of the human suffering that could be reduced. Think of the implications for the quality of life all over the planet if we ended state-sponsored violence.

A generation or two may seem like a long time, but when I think of all of the hundreds of millions of people over thousands of years who have longed for a world at peace, it seems close and well worth the effort to get there.

What stands in the way?

As I have pondered this over the years, I’ve come to a multi-layered answer — a bit like peeling an onion.

Before getting into that onion, however, I’d like to acknowledge that millions of people have been doing something about these issues, much more so than is apparent in the major media. Nevertheless, the leadership provided by our major institutions on these issues has been disappointing at best, despite the fact that there has been mainstream acknowledgement of the need for some form of sustainable development at least since the US Global 2000 Report to the President in 1980 and the UN Brundtland Commission Report in 1987. It often seems like we are on a bus headed toward a cliff while the bus driver is more interested in calming the passengers, or simply getting them to shut up, than in finding a meaningful new direction.

So what’s the reason for this failure? Here’s my onion of response:

The first layer says: the reason is that powerful special interests are successfully opposing the necessary changes. For example, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want any constraints or competition that would diminish its ability to get maximum value out of its assets. But this begs the question “Why are these special interests able to be so successful in their opposition?”

The second layer says: the reason is that particular institutions (e.g., governments and corporations) are structured in such a way that they allow, indeed often encourage, special interest short-sightedness to dominate over the long-term common good. But why does the public allow this to happen?

The third layer says: the reason is that a majority of the public give priority to their own immediate personal benefit over the long-term common good, so they create and support institutions that are aligned with these values.

At this point it is tempting to say that this behavior is just human nature, the way it has always been and so, end of story. However, that’s not how it has always been. Most hunting and gathering cultures did take the long-term view, like the Iroquois, who required that each decision be evaluated by asking “What impact will this have on the seventh generation from today?” One of the great gifts of anthropology has been to show how diverse human societies can be.

So my fourth layer says: the reasons our society deals so poorly with the issues we are facing today are a matter of changeable culture more than fixed human nature. The key to understanding the core challenge of our times is to realize that we have inherited most of our institutions, values and concepts from a very different time in history. However well they worked when they were created, they no longer fit the population/technology/economic/environmental context of today. They aren’t working to solve today’s problems because they weren’t developed in or for today’s context.

We are in a new world

The core challenge of our times grows out of this fact: In the last few decades, we crossed a profound boundary and we are now in a new world, a new context, in which the strategies for how to succeed in life are very different, often diametrically opposed, to the strategies whose very success has brought us to this place. It is no wonder that many people feel confused and upset.

Nevertheless, if we are to at least avoid catastrophe and at best learn to truly thrive, we need to deal with the reality of our world as it is today and as it is becoming, not as it has been. That begins by acknowledging that we are indeed in a new territory and then transforming our cultures, in ways that are appropriate to each place and society, to fit this new territory.

Transforming our cultures to fit our new reality is the core challenge of our times.

I see no technical obstacles to creating thriving sustainable planetary cultures in the coming decades, with a broadly-shared quality of life that will make today’s times seem like a dark age. The momentum of history is pointing in that direction, but whether we will get there, how long it will take and how graceful the transition will be is up to all of us.

Robert Gilman, June 3, 2012

Do you see ways this article could be improved? If you do, please let me know.

(The next piece in the FS Main Thread is The Foundation Stones Project.)