Vinit Allen is the Executive Director of the Sustainable World Coalition, an environmental organization sponsored by Earth Island Institute producing events and educational materials to promote actions that restore and maintain the health of the planet.
He is the publisher of the Sustainable World SourceBook, a visually stunning guidebook offering essential information regarding the critical challenges that we face today, as well as providing realistic solutions to our major global issues.
Endorsed by luminaries like Marianne Williamson and Lynne Twist, the Sustainable World SourceBook was a year-and-a-half in the making, and contains the coordinated work of 13 researchers.
Randy Peyser: What compelled you to write the Sustainable World SourceBook?
Vinit Allen: I was attending the Johannesburg U.N. World Summit in 2002 and realized that we really didn’t have sufficient public awareness as to the extent of our many global crises, nor of the potential solutions to them. It became clear to me that without widespread public awareness of these two points, there would simply not be an adequate response to save the planet. This is no longer academic; we have very little time to make dramatic changes or else we face a devastating near future.
I realized that promoting this basic understanding of our urgent common threats and providing a direction forward needed to be my highest priority. I knew that I had the ability to make a powerful contribution because I had experience in event production. So I started my own organization, the Sustainable World Coalition and produced the Sustainable World Symposium in San Francisco in 2004 and 2006.
Randy: What was the focus of your Symposium?
Vinit: The focus of the Symposium — as well as for the Sustainable World SourceBook – is to bring about the best solutions regarding the big global issue areas, which includes the environment, energy, human society and economy. It was my intention to motivate attendees, and readers, to become engaged in doing their part, whatever that might be.
Randy: The Sustainable World SourceBook delineates the steps each of us can take to decrease our environmental footprint and it is very easy to read. Can you say more about the book?
Vinit: When we were creating the content, we not only wanted to provide a clear overview of the major global issue areas concerning the environment, energy, human society and economy, but we also wanted to demonstrate how these issues affect us locally.
This SourceBook contains lots of “What you can do” points and concludes with a resource directory of 500 of the most useful organizations for personal engagement. All of the information is presented in a concise 100-page, colorful magazine-style format so that the material is very user-friendly.
Randy: Where are we failing? What is the most urgent need that you see?
Vinit: This could be the most important question of all for us… how is it so clear that we are rapidly destroying the only planet we have, and yet we still lack the collective will to change our ways?
I have written an article, Ecological Avoidance Syndrome (EAS), in which I analyzed this phenomenon, this lack of appropriate response, and I break it down into 3 primary components:
- Denial. Given the abundance of published evidence and scientific consensus, it is amazing that many people still claim issues like climate change are not really a threat to our way of life (and I would add, civilization itself as we know it). Yet given the prominence of opposing viewpoints presented in the media and the potential costs to us if we were to get serious about addressing it here in the U.S., perhaps this collective denial is not so surprising after all.
- Distraction. Many people are aware of the size and importance of the challenges we face, yet are choosing to stay focused on their personal day-to-day concerns, distracting themselves with entertainment and/or work — which have become familiar comforts.
- Cynicism. Given the scale of the issues, it’s not hard to understand why some would adopt an attitude of hopelessness, figuring that whatever they can do will ultimately make no difference.
The most urgent need now, as I see it, is to educate enough people with the essentials of what we’re up against, both globally and locally, and the specifics of what we can do to make a difference. Once we have a compelling vision of a world in which everyone has the basics for a decent life, and is surrounded with love and respect, then we will be motivated to contribute whatever we can.
Randy: What are some steps we can take as individuals to improve the environment?
Vinit: Fortunately there are several books now that list the many things we can do to contribute to a better world. I highly recommend the Better World Handbook or It’s Easy to Be Green. But it’s also important to know what actions will create the greatest impacts; for example, the fact that reducing the number of miles we travel will have more impact than our consistency in recycling our bottles — though of course, we should be doing both.
We know from many recent studies that, generally speaking, reducing or eliminating animal-based foods from our diet and moving to a plant-based diet will have the greatest overall reduction of our personal ecological footprint, meaning that it reduces our resource consumption, as well as our harmful emissions output. A close second is reducing our transportation footprint — reducing car miles, airline flight quantity and distance, etc.
Another powerful action is to evaluate our banks and investments on the basis of their environmental and social responsibility, and if necessary, change over to those that perform with high standards. We can, and should, do the same in terms of the companies from whom we buy our food and material goods. Over the course of our lifetime, this will make a huge difference. One excellent resource is the Responsible Shopper program on Green America’s website, www.greenamerica.org
Randy: What is being done that is good?
Vinit: There is a huge awakening happening all over the world now as to the urgency of our impending crises, from students, to scientists, to corporate executives. Recent research indicates that there are well over a million public service organizations working for social good and environmental health, although clearly we need to be doing better at coordinating our collective work.
In every sector of sustainability, models of how things can be done effectively — in ways that benefit both people and the environment — are either currently in practice in different parts of the world or being developed.
These solutions are both on the micro level — such as solar ovens or hand-crank laptop computers, as well as the macro level, such as giant wind farms and technology sharing between nations. Obviously, there are far too many examples to list here, but there are excellent compendiums of these solutions, such as the book and website, Worldchanging.
Randy: How did you get into this field?
Vinit: Yes, who can I blame for all this?! Well, I have always been very connected to nature — it has always seemed to me that nature was the very embodiment of health, purity and innocence. My understanding of social justice, white privilege, poverty, and the causes of this “people” aspect of sustainability has been more recent. But it was the Johannesburg World Summit that first gave me the impetus to create my own organization and begin producing educational presentations and materials.
Prior to the sustainability focus, I was a marketing coach and a graphic designer. I still use those skills to help promote the work. For many years I have also had a spiritual practice, mostly influenced by Buddhism. This practice has given me a larger perspective on my life purpose and the fate of planet Earth.
The Universe is much bigger in every respect than I can ever know — this gives me both the humility and the willingness to not be attached to how things turn out, which is essential on our journey of evolution.
Randy: Would you like to share some information about the various projects you are working on right now?
Vinit: We are working on a new global version of the Source Book featuring voices that represent every continent. It will be translated into several languages. In addition, we are producing a study guide called, the Learning & Engagement Guide, to accompany the SourceBook for classrooms and discussion groups.
I am also involved in “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream” Symposium, created by the Pachamama Alliance. This is a symposium produced all over the world by over 3000 trained volunteers. This symposium features powerful documentary video excerpts that offer much of what the SourceBook does — understanding our current global challenges, how we created this predicament, and our best way forward from here — but in an event format.
From my perspective, this 4-hour event is the most important event one can attend, since it is about the fate of our world. It conveys both the urgency of our current plight, as well the hopeful way forward from here.
Randy: When does this symposium take place?
Vinit: These symposiums are produced whenever the volunteer presenters decide to put one on. People can find out when the next symposium is at www.AwakeningTheDreamer.org
Randy: What are your plans for the future?
Vinit: My vision is for the Symposium and the SourceBook (which is often sold at the end of the Symposium) to increase their penetration around the world exponentially — to help us reach a critical mass of people who understand our urgent situation and are engaged in work (at any level) to bring forth a just and sustainable world for all.
I want to work closely with global partners, and be based in a self-sufficient community of similarly engaged people.
Randy: I know you are out of the country right, since we are doing this interview by Skype and through emails back and forth. I’m curious as to where you are right now and what are you doing there?
Vinit: Presently, I’m in Guatemala, which is an interesting mix of indigenous people (the great majority of Mayan descent) and mestizos, those with both Spanish and indigenous bloodlines. I am inspired by these people and their simplicity, open-heartedness and dedication to family and work.
In addition to seeing different parts of the country, I am meeting with various people who are volunteering with service organizations, building bridges and schools, teaching children, etc.
Randy: Do you travel a lot? If so, what are you discovering in your travels?
Vinit: Yes, I do travel a fair amount, although I also recognize that represents a sizeable ecological footprint, and make sure I at least pay to offset the emissions. I try to get out of the U.S. periodically and usually visit so-called developing countries (“third-world” countries is now generally considered a condescending term, understandably) for two primary reasons: one is to get outside of the American cultural mindset, which I feel is important to do to support a “global citizen” awareness, and secondly to learn from a different culture, see how they experience life, and to be in close contact with those who get along on far less resources and amenities.
Everywhere I go, I am amazed and inspired by people, given their daily challenges and difficulties. Their level of acceptance, patience, and ability to somehow provide for their family and lead a good, honorable life with their meager resources is very striking and remarkable.
Randy: Can you provide an example of a person whom you have met in the course of doing the SourceBook whose story has touched you?
Vinit: I’d have to say that the person who has moved me the most regarding the book was an inmate at San Quentin prison. He wrote me a three page, hand-written letter (very rare these days!) expressing his gratitude for the book and how it has become a lifeline to the world for him, giving him both concern and hope — which is exactly what the book is meant to do.
Randy: What is your personal vision for our future as a planet? Do you think it’s really possible?
Vinit: This is another question that is absolutely vital to ask ourselves — what is possible for our future as a planet, for our future as the human species? What kind of world could we create that we would be inspired by, and be fully engaged in working towards its manifestation?
Our inter-generational task to shift humanity’s current trajectory over to an integrated, sustainable direction is so massive that only such a vibrant positive vision, a blueprint of what’s possible, will provide the necessary motivation.
So, tuning into the Vision… do we start with what we have, good bad and ugly, and try to improve it? Certainly we will continue to improve the things around us as we can… but it is clear that with human consumption and the consequent resource depletion occurring at an exponential rate, we have very little time to come up with a very different way of doing virtually everything.
Therefore, let’s see about designing a world that would have sustainability principles already in place in the various human cultural systems — social, political and commercial.
Randy: What are some of the sustainability principles that you suggest?
Vinit: Core principles would include:
- Diversity. Healthy ecosystems in nature are generally composed of a great deal of diversity of species, both plant and animal, which give them strong resilience in the face of major changes and stress.
- Precaution. When making any important decision involving some unknown factors and risks, it’s best to err on the side of caution, even if it may be more expensive to do so.
- Cradle to Cradle. Nature doesn’t “waste” or throw away anything; everything is used by everything else in a closed loop. It’s possible for humans to design things this way, too.
- Polluter Pays. The damage that businesses do to the environment is often not accounted for, financially or otherwise, but rather is a so-called “externality,” not unlike so-called “collateral damage” — killing of civilians during wartime. When businesses are held accountable for their negative social and environmental impacts, their performance improves dramatically.
What would this world look like? Generally smaller scale, where the sovereignty to make decisions is distributed to as local a level as possible. Communities are self-sufficient in terms of their energy and food production to the extent practical. Education is available to all, as generally practiced in Europe. People are happy, trusting, loving… and sing to each other in the fields, the way they often do in Africa.
Hey, sign me up!
To purchase the Sustainable World SourceBook or find out more about the Sustainable World Coalition, visit www.SWCoalition.org
Randy Peyser is the author of The Power of Miracle Thinking, www.MiracleThinking.com. She also edits books and helps people find agents and publishers for their books. www.AuthorOneStop.com