Sustainable Energy for All

In January, the United Nations declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. The action calls on governments and the private sector to expand energy access, improve efficiency, and increase the use of renewables the world over. One person out of five—1.4 billion people—lack access to modern electricity, and twice that number still rely on wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste for cooking and heating. “Sustainable energy for all is within our reach,” announced UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. “It is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity, and preserving the environment.”

The concept of energy “for all” builds on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, eight ambitious aims that connect poverty eradication with environmental sustainability. In industrialized nations, we tend to think of sustainable energy as a choice, for example, between a hybrid or combustion engine in our cars. In undeveloped regions, however, sustainable energy means the difference between life and death.

In 2008, for a book on design as activism, I outlined five principles for a more inclusive concept of sustainability that embraces the entire global community. In light of the UN’s new initiative, these seem worth revisiting.

Five Principles Toward a Humane Environment

1. People come first
The problem of the planet is first and foremost a human problem. To reverse the devastation of nature, reverse the devastation of culture. We can better the environment by bettering ourselves. The UN has set poverty eradication and universal health as the world community’s first priorities. Every industry has a responsibility and an opportunity to promote this goal.

2. Now comes before later
Definitions of sustainability focus on the future—the “seventh generation” rule. While we cannot squander our resources today and leave little for tomorrow, we also should not forget our responsibility to the generations currently occupying the earth. If the living do not survive, their heirs will never exist. The present cannot be sacrificed for the future.

3. More for more
Prosperity must be measured with all of humanity together. No one is completely settled if anyone is truly suffering. As Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Or in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Though we are many bodies, we are but one soul.”

4. The triple bottom line is bottom up
Social justice may be defined as first helping those most in need. Social, economic, and ecological value must be built from the ground up, beginning with the most disadvantaged among us. “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor,” said John F. Kennedy, “it cannot save the few who are rich.”

5. Nature knows no borders
In the age of global warming, national boundaries have little bearing on the most pressing problems. Natural and human communities transcend politics. American environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote, “All ethics…rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” We share one world.

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