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ELEMENTA Sience of the Anthropocene


Environmental Studies Program


This paper draws from The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin to highlight some of the most likely pitfalls on the political road to a sustainable planet. Through the literary device of dreams that can change the world, Le Guin explores how the individual’s egoistic desire to save humanity can be twisted by the limitations of our psyche and our society, turning an already uncomfortable future Earth into a devastated planet. It is a stinging critique of answers handed down from above, and a call to action for those of us who just get by here below. Her story warns of the ancient “road to hell”, paved and trodden by would be saviors with the best intentions but also points to the license that public apathy provides to the powerful when the costs of environmental harm are borne by the powerless. These disconnects, combined with cycles of rationalization, silver bullet mentalities, and the tendency to scapegoat others for negative side effects, can all derail sustainability transitions. Lathe provides an allegorical assessment of this process, but much more study is needed to fully understand and regulate the resulting governance treadmill.



Original Citation

Webster, D.G., 2017. Scape goats, silver bullets, and other pitfalls in the path to sustainability. Elem Sci Anth, 5, p.7. DOI: