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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2001 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking
Sustainability and September 11th

The terrorist attacks have a silver—
or maybe it’s a green—lining.

by senior columnist Carl Frankel

On September 11th, two jumbo jets flew into the World Trade Center, and a third flew into the Pentagon. Then something truly extraordinary happened: global consciousness changed. Our souls were exploded into the air, and they are still drifting down, seeking to discover how best to be present in this strange new world of ours.

After the grieving, our first and greatest challenge has been to deal with dread. The events of September 11th released a toxin far more potent than the anthrax bacterium that’s been much in the news of late. That toxin is dread, and it covered the world in minutes. In addition to killing more than 5,500 people, the terrorists did something perhaps even more evil: they took many millions of imaginations hostage. We hear an airplane now and think of crop dusters spraying germs. We see a truck parked by the roadside and wonder why it’s there. We live—or rather, forget to live—waiting for the next shoe to drop. Anxiety and depression reign.

This dread can be overcome; not easily, but there are ways. And what I have found, once I get beyond the dread, is that September 11th has also supplied us with reasons to be hopeful about the future.

For me, this is good news indeed because for some time now I have been feeling quite gloomy about our prospects. Stacked up behind the terrorist threat is the environmental one. If our ecological circumstances continue on their current trajectories, we are facing, in the not-too-distant future, a series of so-called “ecosystem collapses”—dramatic declines in the capacity of our planet’s natural systems to sustain life. If that happens, it will create instability on a scale that will make the terrorist attacks pale by comparison.

To meet this challenge, we need fundamental change, both internally—in who we are and how we engage the world—and externally—in our public policies and our industrial system. For years, I had little faith that any of this could happen. Now I am more optimistic.

Part of this optimism stems from the instantaneous transformation of global consciousness that I witnessed (or, rather, participated in). For years, New-Age sorts and futurists have been talking about the “global brain” and the potential for a quantum shift in global consciousness. I never took that stuff seriously: it seemed overwrought and improbable. As of September 11th, I stand corrected. There is indeed such a thing as a global brain—a CNN-mediated global brain—and it can be transformed in a heartbeat or a single image.

Peel back the dread, and this is good news. For as long as I can remember, our western industrial culture has been a culture in denial. In September, that changed. Hello, brand-new brain! Suddenly trivial things seemed precisely that: trivial. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Rely instead on a higher authority—it was Boopsie, Doonesbury’s resident airhead, who recently confessed with a sense of wonderment that she didn’t care what Madonna ate for breakfast anymore!

Speaking for myself, since September 11th, I have been engaging in the truly important things in life more deeply and honestly. If I am to believe my friends and the media, this experience is common, indeed close to universal. After years of hiding behind the shows we watch and stuff we buy, we are confronting our own mortality.

I also find myself identifying more closely with the billions of people who live in fear around the world. In the United States, until September 11th most of us felt safe. That’s an anomaly. Three-quarters of the people in the world subsist on under $4 a day. Fifty percent of the global population live in substandard housing and 20 percent lack access to clean water. Conditions like these translate into lives played out in dread. If September 11th ratcheted up our insecurity, it also left us with a choice: we can feel anxious about our plight, or we can say to each other: “Hey, no more security blanket! Welcome to the human race!”

Greater awareness of our own mortality. Heightened compassion for those who are suffering. Painful as these feelings are, they are also hallmarks of spiritual awakening. If September 11th has us living more deeply and compassionately, that suggests we may be emerging from our Big Sleep as a culture.

I am heartened by what is happening socially, as well. After years of alienation, people have finally started talking to each other. Communities have come together in solidarity. We’ve been a culture torn in two since Vietnam. Or were, until September 11th.

Here’s another positive: the nation has shown it can turn on a dime. “We learn geology the day after the earthquake,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, and though that’s unfortunately what has happened here, we’ve sure been learning fast in the days since September 11th.

As part of that learning process, we’ve recognized the merit of making compassion central to our foreign policy. Over the past weeks (and this column is being written in early October), a two-pronged Afghanistan policy has emerged—one part military muscle, one part humanitarian aid. Imperfect though it may be, it’s a whole lot better than what many people were expecting: unrestrained bombing in an orgy of revenge.

Meeting the looming sustainability crisis—and, just as importantly, doing so before, and not after, the “earthquake”—will require new levels of spiritual awareness, solidarity and compassion. Given what’s happened this past month, I’m starting to think we might actually be capable of that.

We will also have to shift our industrial direction on a dime. Suddenly this, too, seems feasible. On September 6th, I attended a presentation by Lester Brown, long-time head of the Worldwatch Institute and currently chairman of the Earth Policy Institute. His speech was predictably depressing. We are spiraling deep into environmental decline, we were told, and the only thing that can save us is a sudden cultural harking to attention. Could this happen? Here, Brown grew more optimistic. It was in fact possible, he said, citing the abrupt turnarounds that came with Pearl Harbor, the cultural shift against smoking and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

“Yeah, right,” I thought cynically. But now, a month later, I’m thinking, “Hey, maybe so! If the United States can dedicate this level of time, attention and resources to combating terrorism, maybe—just maybe—it can do the same for sustainable development!”

It won’t be enough to respond to the “earthquake,” though—we must anticipate it. How can we get policy-makers to do this? By de-radicalizing sustainability, that’s how. And—another way of saying the same thing—by making it central to our national security strategy. Since September 11th, people are obsessed about security. We need to attach sustainable development to that.

It turns out that this isn’t at all a stretch; sustainability and security dovetail perfectly. Consider this: much of our vulnerability comes from our reliance on oil. This is partly because it entangles us in the Middle East, partly because pipelines are easily sabotaged (witness the recent story of the drunk who caused a sizable spill with a single bullet-hole). As for nuclear power, what’s to say other than that to persist in using it under the current circumstances seems patently insane?

Sustainability advocates oppose these forms of energy and call for the use of renewable technologies instead—solar, wind, wave, geothermal, hydrogen and the like. In many cases, these technologies are “distributed,” i.e., based locally rather than centrally and, for that reason alone, are resistant to disruption. In addition, they are not intrinsically dangerous (as nuclear is), and they are in virtually infinite supply and can be accessed locally (unlike oil). No pipeline! Et voilà, there you have it: suddenly renewable energy isn’t radical, it’s sensible!

Since September 11th, sustainability has become centrist for another reason, too. The new geopolitical reality pits extreme fundamentalism on the right against global capitalism on the left. Benjamin Barber wrote about this tellingly in the ‘90s when he addressed the growing conflict between “Jihad’” (extreme fundamentalism) and “McWorld” (which he called “extreme capitalism”).

Defining the ideological continuum in this way places sustainable development smack-dab in the middle. Why? Because the goal of sustainable development is to moderate global capitalism such that the tensions and hostilities it induces are eliminated, while its basic strengths (open society, global citizenship, etc.) are retained. Global capitalism becomes gentler, more compassionate and less “extreme.” To the extent that sustainability erases global capitalism’s shadowy side, it helps “drain the swamp” that breeds terrorism—and that, as President Bush and others have noted, is key to any anti-terrorism strategy.

Horrific as it was, September 11th has changed some things for the better. Improbably, it also forged a pathway for positive change. After the dread, that is our next challenge—to recognize and act on the unlikely opportunity that this nightmare has created.

Carl Frankel is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development. He can reached via e-mail at

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