How Much Is Enough to Create Your Fair Share of a Sustainable World? (And Some Tools to Reach Sufficiency)

[In the following article, written many years ago, I continually use the word ‘peace.’  That word was actually used in the article’s title instead of “sustainable world.” Now I hesitate to use the word ‘peace’ because of all its connotations. A better description of what I am aiming at is in the Ai Sakai concept in the “superheroes” section of this website.]

Here’s an attempt to define precisely what one’s fair share of activity is. This attempt should be of interest to anyone interested in justice, as well as anyone interested in their personal survival, or the survival of others.

Using a systems approach and trying to think methodically, I discovered that true fairness goes beyond a conventional understanding of fairness. Please note that the following is meant to give you a sense of the target, the goal to aspire to, what it takes to create one-seven-billionth of peace. It only hints at the methods, tools, and skills; it doesn’t speak to what’s needed in the heart to achieve the goal.  

A Definition of Peace

1)  First, define all the systems you depend on for life. My list includes the environment, the economy, the political system, the community, one’s body, psyche, personal and nonpersonal relationships (interactions with strangers and group relationships. Note that if even one of these systems collapses or is severely out of balance, one’s life is threatened or one is severely distressed.


Defining Your Share of Peace: Theoretical Considerations

2)  Once the overall requirements are known, define your responsibility. For any of the global systems, e.g., the economy, you’re responsible for one-seven-billionth of the dynamics, especially your personal interactions with the system. For your personal systems, you’re responsible for all of the system—all of your health, all of your psyche and you have a large portion of the responsibility for your personal and nonpersonal relationships.


3a) Next, define all the inputs necessary to maintain the integrity of the system, defining your share. For most systems, if all put in as much as they take out, the system will remain stable and functional. Note how this idea of putting in at least as much as you take is closely related to fairness and the Golden Rule. Also note that it goes beyond conventional fairness (to others) to include putting back as much as you take from the environment, the economy, your body, etc.

3b) All organizations must put back at least as much as they take, too. If you’re a voting member of an organization, or have authority, you have a responsibility to see that the organization puts back at least as much as it takes.

3c)  Putting in exactly as much as you take assumes that the system starts in or near balance. If not, then extra must be put into the system to help it return to balance.

3d)  This also assumes a stable population. If consumption is balanced with production (renewal of resources), then there’s stability, unless the population increases. So living a peaceful lifestyle means on the average having two children reach child-rearing age.

3e)  Second-order changes. In some cases the system is running inefficiently, like a poorly-tuned engine that wastes energy. In this case, changes need to be made in the structure of the system to make it more efficient. In the above example, tuning the engine would improve the efficiency.

3f)  Nature of systems. Some of the above life-support systems are material and obey the physical laws of the universe. These include the environment, the economy, the body and biochemical influences on the psyche. Putting back as much as you take can be defined and measured.

Other life-support systems are information-oriented. Peace in the political system, the psyche, and personal relationships has a lot to do with the control and flow of information. The notion of putting back as much as you take doesn’t give sufficient guidance in these systems. In these cases, the equilibrium state has to be mutually defined, or else mutually discovered, through an incremental process. For instance, in a personal relationship, if you want more openness in the relationship, then dare to live the final state of affairs by being more open, more vulnerable, yourself. Then you invite the other person to follow suit. By increments, the relationship becomes more open. An example of the opposite dynamic is an escalation of hostility, or an arms race. Here again, gradually dropping one’s guard and inviting the other to follow suit is the way to equilibrium. In general, information-oriented systems obey some “laws” of systems; but they also follow rules, which must be learned or negotiated.

3g) Interaction effects/ Value conflicts/ The “Tragedy of the Commons.”  A world at peace is not just the sum of seven billion individual shares of peace, plus many millions of organizational or group shares. One needs to account for the interaction effects of these shares. If to preserve the environment, for example, a significant fraction of people conserve gasoline, then the demand will drop. If the demand drops, then the price will normally drop; and those who aren’t conserving will be thus encouraged to buy more. Another interaction effect is the category of conflicts of value. The spotted owl-vs.- lumber jobs conflict is a good example. One group of people pursuing environmental peace acts to conserve forests. Another group pursuing personal economic security (related to personal peace) resists conservation. The two sides can be deadlocked.

A systems approach that asks a person to be involved in more than one system at a time can address interaction effects. While conserving gas, for instance, one writes letters to advocate some gas tax or educational effort to prevent or reduce its waste by others. Also, the owls-vs.-jobs conflict is buffered when support systems for the lumberjacks are bolstered so they can maintain their economic security. Examples: Some systems peacemakers would volunteer as job counselors; others would give support to those in their families whose jobs were in transition; others would lobby the government for additional funds for job-training.

The tragedy of the commons can be summed up to say that what’s in the individual’s best interest isn’t in the common interest. The name originates with a commons where farmers could bring their livestock to graze. It is in the interest of each farmer to add livestock, but at some point the common’s ability to support livestock is exceeded and the commons becomes barren. As companies and nations we are in the same situation globally speaking. A systems approach where individuals consider their impact on the whole system is one way to regulate usage. Law is another.

3h) Theoretical limits in knowing how much is enough. Sometimes we’re not aware of some of the effects of our actions. The destruction of the ozone layer by CFCs is a case where we were unaware of the way we were taking from the systems. In the same way there’s no guarantee that we know all of our impact on others in interpersonal interactions. To some extent this can be rectified by asking others for feedback in a way that promotes openness. There’s also a lot that we don’t know about ourselves. If we don’t know all of what we are, how can we know how much is enough?  

3i) Not only does one-seven-billionth of peace require the maintenance of some healthy inputs, it also requires the prevention of unhealthy inputs or “poisons.”  There are many such inputs that can harm material systems like one’s body or the environment, or that can harm information-oriented systems like one’s psyche or the political systems. Creating one-seven-billionth of peace includes exerting some effort to neutralize these poisons or their effects in proportion to their existence in the systems.

3j) Points of no return/  Entropy. Systems often have points of no return, system failure or breakup. They also have points beyond which the return to equilibrium would be excruciatingly costly. Economically there are depressions, politically there are wars or political overthrows. Relationships can break up. Our bodies die.

3k) A drop in a bucket. Creating one-seven-billionth of peace is only enough if others create their one-seven-billionth of peace. Part of creating one’s portion, therefore, must include some share in passing this on to others.


Practical considerations about how much is enough

4a) A person begins by practically assesses one’s present level of putting in and taking out of each of the critical systems. If you’re taking more than you’re putting back, then you’d somehow make lifestyle changes that would represent a reasonable stretch toward a balanced, world-sustaining lifestyle. Following is one list of some of the major adaptive lifestyle changes you could begin making:

Regular aerobic exercise; very low/no meat diet; education in problem-solving, goal-attainment, want-management and learning-to-learn skills; almost total recycling including composting; switching to renewable energy sources; socially responsible buying; socially responsible investment and charity donating; volunteer time an average of five hours a week to ‘necessary’ causes; self-tax on goods from developing nations to be returned to charities promoting socially responsible development there; self-tax on goods that harm the environment to be returned to causes repairing it; political advocacy,  including some focus on the political process itself; increasing quality time for personal relationships and small group support; responsible limiting of offspring; and advocacy in the organizations you belong to for them to put back as much as they take.

4b)  The goal isn’t just to reach a point where what you put back balances what you take on a daily basis; the goal is to reach this balance over your entire life. Since normally a person takes much more than he or she can put back as a child, and also frequently in old age, then in the middle years—with enough energy and understanding—one might expect to put back roughly twice as much as one was taking to compensate for the times when they didn’t or couldn’t.

For practicality’s sake, I’d estimate that these lifestyle changes would need to take place in a reasonably short time—not over twenty years, that is, but over three to five years for a single adult, or four to ten for someone raising children or having other major responsibilities.

4c)  An adjustment needs to be made for people who can’t or simply won’t put back what they take. This includes those with physical or mental disabilities, or those whose ethics, awareness, or other beliefs or practices prevent them from returning as much as they take.

4d)  Practical limits to knowing how much is enough: information cost, availability and accuracy.

 ·       Cost. In some cases precise measurement is impractical due to the cost of getting an accurate measurement. You  don’t need to measure exactly how much damage you’re causing  to the atmosphere, for example, by burning fossil fuels. It would be more practical to get a ballpark idea, then add an extra 10% to cover the margin of error. (One engineering standard is to add 25% extra.)

 ·       Availability. Sometimes information isn’t available about the effects of options in enough time to do anything about them.

 ·       Accuracy and completeness. Sometimes information is inaccurate or deliberately deceptive. On a structural level it’s generally known that economists can’t agree on a single description of the economic system. In the world of politics there’s often deliberate withholding or distorting of information. In cases where people can arrive at radically different conclusions, or can’t determine a rational course of action, it could be assumed that either the information is incomplete or the wrong question is being asked. For instance, some problems can be more simply addressed on an individual level than on an aggregate level, as long as interaction effects are addressed. (See 3g) To some extent an adequate assessment of sufficiency can be made only by seeking all significant viewpoints and weighing them rationally.

4e)  A massive global collapse is predicted in the next fifty to seventy-five years if the present patterns of population and consumption continue. As the systems become more unbalanced it’ll become harder to move forward. For example, as the environment declines we can expect a gradual increase in health problems. As the economy becomes more unbalanced, we can expect it to become more difficult to earn a living wage. Therefore, any plan to catch up with these accelerating problems must take into account that it won’t take place “on a level playing field,” but instead be an uphill struggle.

4f)  Some individuals may possess special skills or abilities that it would be ridiculous to waste. It may not be in the best interest of the world for a brain surgeon or a concert violist to be doing their own composting, recycling, or research on socially responsible shopping. But, it may be considered the responsibility of these specialists to arrange for their negative effects to be undone. Thus, although we all don’t need to personally undo the damage we cause, according to this approach it’s our personally responsibility to arrange for someone to undo it, if it’s impractical for us to do so ourselves.

4g)  Nipping it in the bud. Timing. Often the cost of balancing a system depends on timing. A habit of brushing and flossing can save thousands in dental costs, not to mention pain. The cost of a swim pass or jogging shoes plus twenty minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week is much cheaper than a $100,000 heart surgery. Similarly, prompt action before many systems become too damaged can save much time, money, and heartache later.

4h)  Not knowing exactly how much is enough (see 3h) is a good reason to maintain flexibility in systems and to put in a little extra as insurance. It’s also a good reason to maintain reserve capacity in yourself. This includes things like leaving some extra time in case something unexpected comes up, maintaining some savings, etc.

4i)  On a practical level you should be careful about starting new organizations (or joining too many), since as the ratio of organizational responsibilities to individuals go up, the systems become overloaded. It’s important to examine organizations for missions that are essential versus merely helpful, as well as methods that are adequate versus methods that aren’t. Similarly, within organizations, tasks may be on a continuum between essential and “it would be nice if….”


Options and Tools

5. Options. If you decide to live a peaceful, sustainable lifestyle, there are several sets of options. One is whether or not to participate in mainstream society. The basic choices: a) Leave the mainstream, for example, to join a commune, or an intentional community, or to isolate yourself, to “go back to nature.” b) To remain part of the mainstream and to make choices that are sustainable. (Note that combinations are also possible: to be in the mainstream with some form of “countercurrent” support community, or live outside the. social structure while maintaining certain ties to it. You can also be in certain systems but outside others.)

5a)  Because of 4e above, maintaining participation in society is considered to be a better choice than leaving it because, once you’ve left, you have less or no influence on the it. In the case where global disaster is predicted, leaving society doesn’t include leaving the planet, thus you’ll eventually be subject to the same end. So it takes more effort to live sustainably in the mainstream, but it has the effect of redirecting the stream closer to the direction it ought to be flowing.

5b)  A second set of options involves the choice of either concentrating one’s efforts on one or a few issues or creating enough peace in all critical areas. Conventionally people concentrate their volunteer or activist efforts on one or a few areas; but a systems approach asks individuals and groups to take responsibility for undoing the damage they personally cause in all areas. The advantages of this approach over the conventional tendency is described in detail in “Advantages Of A Systems Approach To Peace.”  In summary they include:

 ·       Balance and integration, rather than burnout for the individual.

·       Buffering and resolution of conflicts of value (spotted owls versus jobs).

·       Simplification of problems by addressing them on the level of the individual, rather than the aggregate level.

·       Ongoing personal support and skill development that increase the pool of volunteers and peacemakers with enough time, skill and concern.

·       Most importantly: knowing how much is enough, and having a feasible plan to attain sufficiency.



·       You can’t always match your talents to a task that fully utilizes them. (But your horizons are broadened in working in areas that you’re not naturally good at.)

·       You can’t directly follow your “heart” by getting exclusively involved in the cause that most motivates and inspires you. (But you can see that your cause is in jeopardy if basic life-support systems aren’t maintained.)

·       You lose economy of scale. Once a single-focus solution is developed, it could be mass-produced. Individual one-seven-billionths of peace cannot be mass produced because they are personalized and unique. (Through geometric growth, however, a mass effect can be attained without the loss of the personal.)

c)  A third set of options concerns methodology. There are many of processes and formats. One is an assessment and goal-setting process. Others include discussion/ reflection, experiential learning, environmental engineering, and prayer/meditation. The optimal choice depends on individual temperament and stage of life, as well as on the kind of lifestyle change needed. No matter what the choice, periodic assessment or evaluation is imperative to assure that the process or combination of processes is sufficient.

6. Tools. Because the typical person’s lifestyle falls far short of being “one-seven-billionth of world peace” and because a global crisis is looming, it would be good if there were tools available to shape human behavior—tools that were flexible, respectful of an individual’s right to self-determination, and potent enough to cause large, sustained changes in human behavior. The following tools are generally available:

6a. Small group and interpersonal support: families, a variety of self-help groups, and religion-based communities. In World Peace One there are Goal & Growth Groups which unlike so many groups that support change only in a single area or in a narrow domain, foster change in every aspect of your life.

6b. Assessment instruments. There are a variety of self-assessments available from the psychology and social work fields. [See our Add-ons >  Assessment]

6c. Personal change processes. Besides the change that takes place through small group support or through interpersonal interactions, there are discussion and reflection exercises, goal-setting processes, journaling activities, experiential learning units, etc[Group Genie has this in our CLEAR Superprogram and Add-ons.]

6d. Practical information. Available at libraries, bookstores, and the Internet. This information is on the availability of choices for lifestyle changes.

6e. Single-issue groups. A variety of political, environmental, community, and economic groups exist to promote progressive (as well as neutral and regressive) ends. Some limitations of single-focus groups are the narrow focus, the need to compete for participants, and the additional stress on the political process and on communication channels, causing information overload.

6f. Political leverage. Voting. Advocacy letters. Calls and visits to legislators and other public servants.

6g. Economic leverage. Every dollar can be considered a vote for a certain way of life. Preferred buying, boycotts, and letters of complaint or appreciation have an effect on corporations and financial institutions.

6h. Role models and inspiration. Biographies, movies and personal contact. The Arts.

6i. Learning tools. Tools that increase your capacity to learn quantitatively in certain domains (time management, behavior modification, mnemonics, etc.) and qualitatively (values clarification, “want management,” paradigms, wisdom.)  These tools create leverage or reserve capacity, giving people the time, energy, know-how, and “know-what” in order to fulfill their immediate needs, address the needs of their life-support systems, and also reach personal goals and nurture personal growth in themselves and others.

6j. Geometric growth mechanisms. The example of Alcoholics Anonymous indicates that a solution can grow geometrically.

6k. The not-yet-existent option. In situations where there are a limited number of options, none of them which are satisfactory, often a new option can be created. An example would be new businesses that satisfy a variety of environmental, economic, and socially responsible criteria.

To sum up, a sketch can now be drawn of what it would take to work toward a sustainable lifestyle as deduced using a systems approach:

A person in their middle years (18-60) would be systematically changing different aspects of their life over the course of five or ten years, maintaining the sustainable levels as long as possible. During the productive years they’ll be putting back significantly more than they take to make up for their counterproductive years, as well as for those people who can’t or won’t do enough to offset their negative impacts. The person living a sustainable lifestyle will not only do actions to undo any damaged caused, but will act to maintain the efficiency of the systems and will neutralize any system “poisons.”  They’ll also play an active role in passing this approach on to others. This will all be made possible through a combination of tools, most importantly ongoing personal support and skills that increase one’s capacity to effectively make lifestyle changes.

From reading this article, you should now have a theoretical understanding of how much activity is enough to sustain life on Earth, and a glimpse of what it would mean for you personally to work toward creating your fair share of a sustainable world.


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