|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 thats 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 its there. We liveor rather, forget to livewaiting
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
collapsesdramatic declines in the capacity of our planets
natural systems to sustain life. If that happens, it will create
instability on a scale that will make the terrorist attacks pale
To meet this challenge, we need fundamental change, both internallyin
who we are and how we engage the worldand externallyin
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 braina CNN-mediated global brainand
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, dont take
my word for it. Rely instead on a higher authorityit was Boopsie,
Doonesburys resident airhead, who recently confessed with
a sense of wonderment that she didnt 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
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. Thats 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. Weve been a
culture torn in two since Vietnam. Or were, until September 11th.
Heres 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 thats unfortunately
what has happened here, weve sure been learning fast in the
days since September 11th.
As part of that learning process, weve 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 emergedone part military muscle, one
part humanitarian aid. Imperfect though it may be, its a whole
lot better than what many people were expecting: unrestrained bombing
in an orgy of revenge.
Meeting the looming sustainability crisisand, just as importantly,
doing so before, and not after, the earthquakewill
require new levels of spiritual awareness, solidarity and compassion.
Given whats happened this past month, Im 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,
Im thinking, Hey, maybe so! If the United States can
dedicate this level of time, attention and resources to combating
terrorism, maybejust maybeit can do the same for sustainable
It wont be enough to respond to the earthquake,
thoughwe must anticipate it. How can we get policy-makers
to do this? By de-radicalizing sustainability, thats how.
Andanother way of saying the same thingby 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 isnt 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, whats 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 insteadsolar, 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 isnt radical, its 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 capitalisms
shadowy side, it helps drain the swamp that breeds terrorismand
that, as President Bush and others have noted, is key to any anti-terrorism
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 challengeto 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 email@example.com.