Friday, March 22, 2013

Sustainability Ethics: The Foundation of Sustainability2

This is the final in a three part series on reinvigorating sustainability by changing the way we think about it.   Since not long after its emergence as a mainstream concept in 1987, the three leg stool model of sustainability (Ecology, Economy, Society) took root and has been the principle model for describing sustainability.  I refer to this model as Sustainability1.  The unfortunate result of using this metaphor has been a lack of consensus on the precise meaning of sustainability and much confusion about its priorities.  Sustainability1 also did not establish priorities. I find this problematical because it means that everything is a priority or there is no priority, resulting in further confusion.  In the two previous blog posts I laid out arguments for Sustainability2 that make ethics the core of sustainability, its foundation, the filter through which all decisions should be evaluated.   In this final blog I will spend the space laying out the specific ethical principles that underpin Sustainability2.  They have also always underpinned Sustainability1 but ethics has never been much of a point of discussion for the original paradigm. Hopefully the Sustainability2 way of thinking will correct this shortcoming.

So, on to the principles of a sustainability ethics.  To preface this discussion I need to thank several of my University of Florida colleagues for participating in a 5 year long collaboration that developed these ideas to the point where they could be considered ready for prime time.  These include Martha Monroe (Forestry),  Anna Peterson and Richard Plate (Religion), and Les Thiele (Political Science).   We actually wrote a book (Working toward Sustainability, Ethical Decision Making in a Technological World) on this subject and it is available for those who would like to dive deeper and longer into a sustainability oriented ethics.  Let me give you the short version of our thoughts on an ethics of sustainability.  We identified nine core ethical principles that support sustainability:

Intergenerational Justice and the Chain of Obligation
Distributional Equity
The Precautionary Principle
The Reversibility Principle
The Polluter Pays Principle
Protecting the Vulnerable
The Rights of the Non-Human World
Respect for Nature and the Land Ethic
Sustainable Decision Making

A brief description of each of these principles is provided below.

Intergenerational Justice and the Chain of Obligation
The choices of today’s generations will directly affect the quality and quantity of resources remaining for future inhabitants of Earth, and will affect environmental quality.  This concept of obligation that crosses temporal boundaries is referred to as intergenerational justice.  Furthermore, the concept of intergenerational justice implies a chain of obligation between generations that extends from today into the distant future.  Richard Howarth (1992) expresses this obligation by stating,”…unless we  ensure conditions favorable to the welfare of future generations, we wrong existing children in the sense that they will be unable to fulfill their obligation to their children while enjoying a favourable way of life themselves.”   Howarth also suggests that the actions and decisions of the present generation not only affect the welfare but also the composition of future generations.  He argues that by creating conditions that change resource availability or that alter the environment, future populations will be compositionally different than if the resource base and environmental conditions had been passed on, from one generation to future generations, unchanged.  For instance one can envision that mutations caused by excessive ultraviolet radiation through an ozone layer depleted by human activities, or by synthetic, toxic chemicals used without adequate safeguards, will certainly result in different people and conditions.  Howarth summarizes the principle of intergenerational justice and chain of obligation by observing, “A chain of obligation is thus defined that stretches from the present into the definite future, and unless we ensure conditions favourable to the welfare of future generations, we wrong our existing children in the sense that they will be unable to fulfill their obligation to their children while enjoying a favourable way of life themselves.” Consequently the chain of obligation that underpins the key sustainability concept of intergenerational justice includes parental responsibility for enabling their offspring to meet their moral obligations to their children and beyond.  Clearly this would include educating the offspring about these obligations and the basis for them.

Distributional Equity
There is an obligation to insure the fair distribution of resources among present people so that the life prospects of all people are addressed.  This obligation can be referred as distributional equity or distributive justice and refers to the rights of all people to an equal share of resources, including goods and services, such as materials, land, energy, water, and environmental quality.   Distributional equity is based on principles of justice and the reasonable assumption that all individuals in a given generation are equal and a uniform distribution of resources must be a consequence of intragenerational equity.  The principle of distributional equity can be extended to relationships between generations because a given generation has moral responsibility for providing for their offspring, that is, intergenerational equity.  Thus Distributional Equity also underpins the Chain of Obligation concept. Distributional equity is a complex concept and there are a number of principles that underpin and are related to it: (1) The Difference Principle. (2) Resource-Based Principles, (3) Welfare-Based Principles, (4) Desert-Based Principles, (5) Libertarian Principles, and (6) Feminist Principles.

The Precautionary Principle
The Precautionary Principle requires the exercise of caution when making decisions that may adversely affect nature, natural ecosystems, and global, bio-geochemical cycles. The Precautionary Principle states that “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”  Global climate change is an excellent example of the need to act with caution. Notwithstanding debate about the effects of man-made carbon emissions on future planetary temperature regimes, the potentially catastrophic outcome should motivate humankind to behave cautiously and attempt to limit the emission of carbon containing gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice lists the four tenets of the Precautionary Principle:
  1. People have a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm.
  2. The burden of the proof of harmlessness of a new technology, process, activity or chemical lies with the proponents, not the general public.
  3. Before using a new technology, process, or chemical or staring a new activity, people have an obligation to examine a full range of alternatives including the alternative of not doing it.
  4. Decisions applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic and must include the affected parties.

The Reversibility Principle
Making decisions that are able to be undone by future generations is the foundation of the Reversibility Principle. Renowned science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, suggested a rule that well describes this principle,”Do not commit the irrevocable.”(Goodin 1983).  At its core this Principle calls for a wider range of options to be considered in decision making.  Addressing the issue of energy choices is an excellent example because a rapidly growing global economy is faced with looming energy shortages, exacerbated by depletion of finite oil supplies.  In the U.S. a shift is underway to reconsider nuclear plants as a major source of energy because they can probably generate electricity at an acceptable cost and also be a source of thermal energy for producing hydrogen from water for use in fuel cells.  The Reversibility Principle would force today’s society to confront the issue of whether or not the choice of nuclear energy as an option is reversible by a future society.  Two questions would immediately emerge from this consideration.  First, is the technology safe enough for widespread use?  Nuclear industry suggests that over the past two decades of a national hiatus from building new plants, the technology has advanced to the point where a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island incident has been eliminated.  The second question is: How would a future society cope with the nuclear waste from these plants?  Converting the waste to harmless materials via a new technology is highly unlikely and the power plants built today would force future generations to store and be put at risk by the radionuclides in the spent fuel rods.  The Reversibility Principle is related to the Precautionary Principle because it lays out criteria that must be observed prior to the adoption of a new technology.  It is less stringent than the Precautionary Principle in some respects because it suggests reversibility as the primary criterion for making a decision to employ the technology whereas the Precautionary Principle requires that a technology not be implemented if the effects of it are not fully understood and the risks are unacceptable.

The Polluter Pays Principle
The fundamental premise of the Precautionary and Reversibility Principles is that those who are responsible for implementing technologies must be prepared to address the consequences of their implementation. The Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) suggests that a company that causes pollution should pay for the cost of removing it, or provide compensation to those who have been affected by it. It was first recommended as a course of action for dealing with some of the environmental impacts of production by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1972.  PPP is described in the OECD’s Recommendation on Guiding Principles concerning International Economic Aspects of Environmental Policies (1972) as follows:

The principle to be used for allocating costs of pollution prevention and control measures to encourage rational use of scarce environmental resources and to avoid distortions in international trade and investment is the so-called ‘Polluter-Pays Principle’. This principle means that the polluter should bear the expenses of carrying out the above-mentioned measures decided by public authorities to ensure that the environment is in an acceptable state. In other words, the cost of these measures should be reflected in the cost of goods and services which cause pollution in production and/or consumption. Such measures should not be accompanied by subsidies that would create significant distortions in international trade and investment.”

The Precautionary Principle suggests that technologists should demonstrate the efficacy of their products and processes prior to allowing them to impact the biosphere.  The Reversibility Principle permits implementation in the face of some level of risk as long as any negative effects can be undone.   PPP addresses existing technologies that have not been subject to these other principles and places the onus for mitigating damage and consequences on the individuals causing the impacts. 

Protecting the Vulnerable
Because there are portions of the human population that are especially vulnerable to the actions of the more powerful, the ethical principle, Protecting of the Vulnerable, addresses the rights of the more at risk populations as well as the obligations of the powerful to protect and not exploit  them.  It also addresses the damages caused by the more powerful to the less powerful.  A wide range of vulnerable populations can be identified: children, the elderly, the physically and mentally disabled, the sick, indigenous people, people caught in conflicts, the impoverished, and future generations.  Poor people are especially vulnerable and with the forecasted bird flu pandemic a catastrophe of unprecedented scale could result.  The last severe flu pandemic in 1918 resulted in 50 million casualties, most of them in developing countries and among the poor in developed countries. 
Many populations, including the animal world, are vulnerable to the actions of the more powerful in the human species.  The destruction of ecosystems under the guise of development, introduction of technology (including toxic substances, endocrine disruptors, and genetically modified organisms), and general patterns of conduct (war, deforestation, soil erosion, eutrophication, desertification, and acid rain, to name a few) are some of these actions.  People who are essentially powerless due to governing and economic structures are vulnerable to the decisions of those who are powerful because of their wealth or influence.  This asymmetrical power arrangement is governed by moral obligation.  Those in power have a special obligation to protect the vulnerable, those dependent on them.  In a family, a child’s dependence on its parents gives them rights against their parents.  Future generations are also vulnerable because they are subject to the effects of decisions we make today.

Protecting the Rights of the Non-Human World
For sustainability to be realized, society must protect nature and the systems that support it, meaning that biotic and abiotic components must be considered.  The biotic components are referred to here as the living, non-human world while the abiotic components are termed the non-living world.
In the context of this principle, the living, non-human world refers to plants and animals.  In some discussion it could be extended to bacteria, viruses, mold, and other living organisms.  This principle is an extension of the principle of Protecting the Vulnerable to animals but also to plants that are in danger of extinction.  Clearly animal rights fall under this principle.
The non-living portion of the earth is essential to supporting life and a set of sustainability principles should address the requirements for protecting this key element of the life support system.  Some would argue that ethics should require the character of beautiful places such as the Grand Canyon be protected in perpetuity.
In short, protection of the nonhuman world, like anything else, requires respect and a connection to it.  And according to Thomas Berry, this lack of connection, especially a spiritual connection, is a major ailment of modern society.

Respect for Nature and The Land Ethic
An ethics of respect for nature is based on the fundamental concepts that (1) humans are members of the earth’s community of life, (2) all species are interconnected in a web of life, (3) each species is a teleological center of life pursuing good in its own way, and (4) human beings are not superior to other species.  This last concept is based on the other three and shifts the focus from a anthropocentric to a biocentric outlook (Taylor 1981). 
Humans are part of precisely the same evolutionary process as all other species.  All other species that exist today faced the same survival challenges as the humans.  The same biological laws that govern other species, for example the laws of genetics, natural selection, and adaptation apply to all living creatures.  Earth does not depend on humans for its existence.  On the contrary humans are the only species that have ever threatened the existence of Earth itself.  As relative latecomers, humans appeared on a planet that had had life on it for 600 million years and not only have to share Earth with other species, but are totally dependent on them for survival.  Human beings threaten the soundness and health of the Earth’s ecosystems by their behavior.  Technology results in the release of toxic chemicals, radioactive materials and endocrine disruptors.  Forestry and agriculture destroy biologically dense and diverse forests.   Emissions pollute land, water, and air.  Unlike natural extinctions of the past from which the Earth recovered, the present human induced extinction is causing disruption, destruction, and alteration at such a high rate that, even with the self-extinction of the human species, the planet may never recover.  An ethics based on biocentrism would result in humans realizing that the integrity of the entire biosphere would benefit all communities of life, including non-humans.  It is debatable whether this concept is merely an ethical one because it is also a biological fact that humans cannot survive without the ecosystems upon which they depend.   However human beings have the capability to act and change behavior based on knowledge, in this case being aware of the causal relationship of behavior on the survival of other species.  An ethics of respect for nature consists of not only realizing this causal relationship, but also in adopting behaviors that respect the rights of non-human species to both exist and thrive (Taylor 1981).
Published in 1949 as the finale to A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic’ defined a new relationship between people and nature and sets the stage for the modern conservation movement. Leopold understood that ethics directs individuals to cooperate with each other for the mutual benefit of all. One of his philosophical achievements was the idea that this ‘community’ should be enlarged to include non-human elements such as soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.  Aldo Leopold suggests the there should be an ethical relationship to the land and that this relationship should and must be based on love, respect, and admiration for the land.  Furthermore this ethical relationship should not just be due to economic value but also be based on value in the philosophical sense.  Central to Leopold’s philosophy is the assertion to “quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem.” While recognizing the influence economics has on decisions, Leopold understood that, ultimately, our economic well-being cannot be separated from the well-being of our environment. Therefore, he believed it was critical that people have a close personal connection to the land.

Sustainable Decision Making
One of the hallmarks of sustainability is its emphasis on long range thinking.  It implicitly calls for considering the impacts of contemporary society decision making that could possibly have negative consequences for future peoples.  The antithesis of sustainable decision making is what might be called ‘once-off decision making’ in which the participants consider the decision in limited terms and do not address what the long range effects may be.  Even green projects that supposedly result in lower environmental impacts provide only short range benefits without consideration of the quality of life of future generations.  For example, the U.S. Green Building Council has developed a building rating system know as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), with one aspect being the reduction in heat island effects by employing light colored materials for roofing, which reduces internal and external building temperatures by reflecting the incident radiation back to space. Current practice often results in the selection of thermoplastic materials for this purpose, that while effective in reflecting energy, must be replaced every 20 years with no prospect for recycling.  The immediate result is a significant waste disposal problem.  The long term result is depleted resources and large quantities of waste that will impact the quality of life of the world’s future populations.  This same basic ‘once off’ thinking applies to a vast array of building products such as carpeting, ceiling tiles, and drywall. They may have immediate benefits but create future problems.  A principle of sustainable decision making would provide a rationale for reconsidering the tendency toward short range thinking, replacing it with an approach that will provide the maximum in both short and long term benefits.

So that wraps up the third part of this series on Sustainabiility2.  Look out for at least one more, on the subject of risk.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Revamping and Reinvigorating Sustainability

In my last blog post I suggested that sustainability is losing traction, stagnating, and becoming less relevant.  I gave three reasons for making this assertion:

                      1.  Sustainability is an ill-defined and exceptionally broad concept.
                      2.  The intellectual capital underpinning sustainability has faded.
                      3. The sustainability model is inadequate because it ignores human nature.

So there are likely one of two questions that might be asked:  Either  (1) How can you re-envision sustainability to address these serious problems? Or (2)  Is it time to move on and leave sustainability to the historians?  I choose to think that the former question is the better of the two because sustainability does have ‘name recognition,’ and has gained a fairly high degree of respect in spite of its slow disintegration.  A better mental model for thinking about sustainability could revitalize it and provide it with a new and improved identity that capitalizes on its many positive outcomes over the 26 years since the Brundtland Report (1987).   As a preface to my suggested mental model, let me lay out some attributes that the new model should have in order to succeed over the long term, that is, it is universally understood and readily applied.  From this point on I will refer to the older sustainability model as Sustainability1 and the revised model as Sustainability2.  Here are the three attributes:

First, Sustainability 2 must be far less complicated than Sustainability1  and far easier to define, yet keep the basic essence and spirit of the original. The expectations for Sustainability1 were simply too great.  It evolved from a framework for eradicating global poverty to one for solving all of the world’s economic, social, and environmental problems.  The green building arena, which I know so well, is a great example of this problem of complicatedness creep.  So-called sustainable buildings are expected to be environmentally friendly;  provide learning, work, and living spaces that also cure social problems;  and that cost little more than conventional buildings. This is clearly not workable much less understandable. I recollect the first international meeting on green buildings in the UK in 1994 when the now very successful green building movement was just becoming emerging.  One speaker, Bill Bordass, especially caught my attention by questioning the complicated agenda of the emerging movement.  In contrast to the movement’s then very ardent disciples who were developing complicated models and rating systems, he maintained  that trying to solve a host of problems was not on, that the outcome would be many problems poorly addressed rather than one priority problem being resolved rather completely.  He suggested that the main problem needing to be resolved was energy. Almost 20 years later it is likely that he is correct, that energy and its carbon footprint are the dominant problems for the built environment problems.  We also learned that green buildings for which the project team has  applied the broad sustainability models often perform worse than conventional buildings in their energy consumption.  This is precisely the problem dogging Sustainability 1.  Addressing many complex issues without prioritizing them will likely lead to a lot of problems being badly attended to.  My own thought is that protecting ecosystems and the environment, which would include the global climate system, must be the priority.  Everything else is at risk if this matter cannot receive the focused attention it deserves.  Ethics, as I will not below, must be front and center in a new model, and the ethics must be specific enough to address the priority of nature and the planet over everything else.  Period.

Second, Sustainability 2 must stimulate newer thinking that can underpin its application and lead to deep philosophical and intellectual support.  The demise of so many of the early ideas that generated excitement about sustainability bodes poorly for the Sustainability1. In the previous blog I gave examples of the concepts that have faded badly including The Natural Step, Natural Capitalism, Ecological Economics, Industrial Ecology, and Biomimicry, to name but a few. In fact it is difficult find any Sustainability1 concepts that have maintained significance and utility since the initial burst of activity in the 1990s.   Certainly a new conceptual model for sustainability must resonate with society at large, including its leading thinkers, to stimulate a continuous stream of debate about implementation rather than descend into a struggle over semantics. 

Third, Sustainability2 must account for human nature and behavior.  It would certainly be ideal if the majority of humans would agree to a shift to using only chemicals that have a precedent, develop only the most environmentally friendly technologies, and refrain from creating new antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.  However this is not how humans behave and behavior absolutely must be factored into any revision of sustainability.  The problem with risk is that there has to be a decision system that sorts out when a technology is deployed.  And this decision system must have wide popular and political support for it to work.  We continue to see the deployment of technologies that probably should have stayed in the laboratory to better learn about their risks when dispersed as chemicals, antibiotics, energy systems,  communications and computational devices, and hundreds more.  Genetically engineered plants, nanotechnology, robotics, and chemicals continue to emerge into the biosphere without being screened in a systematic fashion by a risk assessment system based on ethical principles.

So the question of human nature and risk taking should be included as a key element of Sustainability 2.  Several years ago, when I was becoming aware of my loss of faith in Sustainaiblity1, it felt not unlike a spiritual struggle, coming to grips with the existence of God and one’s choice of a spiritual path.  It dawned on me that this loss of faith was because I could not identify the WHY’S of Sustainability!?   Why is sustainability important? Why should we be so concerned with protecting nature as its fundamental concept?   Like many spiritual awakenings, when the answer came to me, it was sudden and powerful.  And here is what that answer was:  Sustainability is really about ethics, about doing the right thing in our wider relationships with nature and other people, from our families to indigenous people on the far side of the Earth.  

So here are the three pillars (not stool legs!) that I suggest better represent sustainability and which I believe constitute the key elements of Sustainability2:

1.       Ethics
2.       Economics
3.       Risk

Ethics is the keystone, the rock of sustainability.   and includes specific ethical principles that I will enumerate in yet another blog (sorry, trying to deliver this message in digestible bites!).  It provides the WHY? for sustainability.  As a side note, I am of course assuming that the laws of physics certainly apply and cannot be violated either.

Economics is an important reality check on everything we do.   It constrains almost all our decisions about energy systems, to how we live, how we build, the automobiles we purchase, how much we are willing to invest in reversing environmental damage, and so on.   There are limited financial resources and decision making must not ignore the economic constraints.  It should be noted that the distribution of resources among various ends also has to be taken into account.  Every dollar invested in weaponry is one less dollar that can be invested in education or some other societal good.  Here too ethics should govern decisions about resource distribution.

Finally, Risk is the pillar that addresses the inventing and exploring nature of humans.  Humans are fundamentally inventors and love to know why things work and how to change the way they work. We see this almost constantly in the forms of technology emerging from laboratory and finding its way into homes and businesses around the world.  Technology is clearly a two-edged sword.   In the form of more efficient buildings and renewable energy systems, it supports sustainability.  On the flip side, the development and release of powerful toxic chemicals and antibiotics into the biosphere, the deployment of nanotechnology and biotechnology, can degrade the biosphere and its human and nonhuman occupants and pose unacceptable risks.  It is ultimately up to society to decide what risks are acceptable and what technologies are deployable. Government agencies act as a proxy for citizens in controlling the deployment of technology and assessing risk.  In the U.S. and many other countries, these agencies receive direction from rules and regulations based on laws passed by the legislature and signed by the President.   The legislature and President are elected by the citizens and so it is through the chain from citizens to branches of government, to the agencies of government that the risk willingness or adverseness of the people is expressed.  Clearly it is an imperfect system with imperfect knowledge and imperfect tools with which to act.  But it is what we have.

So where, you may ask, what happened to  two former pillars of sustainability, Society and Ecology? The answer is that they have not disappeared, they are addressed under the category of Ethics. More on this in the next edition.

NEXT TIME: Tying up the loose ends in Sustainability2.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Resolving the "Problem of Sustainability"

I am a  university professor with an intense interest in a relatively new field commonly known as sustainable construction.  As a consequence of this affliction I spend a lot of time writing and researching about how to take the general sustainability concept and adapt it to help create a resource-efficient, environmentally friendly, and healthy built environment. However, over the past two years or so I find I have reached a fork in the road, so to speak, when it comes to teaching my students about sustainability because I am not the ardent, true believer in sustainability that I was more than 20 years ago. My thinking about the relevance and importance of sustainability as the guiding light for the future is changing and I am slowly reaching the point of re-envisioning it for both myself and my students. The reason for my change of heart and thinking can be attributed to three factors which I will briefly describe below.

1. Sustainability is an ill-defined and exceedingly broad concept.  Sustainability has acquired a wide variety of definitions, at least 30 by my count, and the result is that it can mean substantially different things depending upon the person. In effect it can have almost any meaning you desire. This is certainly a problem if only for communicating.  Additionally sustainability is a very broad concept.  Sharachchandra Lele referred to sustainability as a "....metafix that will unite everybody from the profit-minded industrialist and risk-minimizing subsistence farmer to the equity-seeking social worker, the pollution-concerned or wildlife-loving First Worlder, the growth-oriented bureaucrat and, therefore, the vote-counting politician."  The consequence of such a loosely constructed concept is that it can be, and is, widely abused.  Nowhere is this truer than in the built environment where we commonly bandy about terms such as sustainable design, sustainable materials, sustainable construction, sustainable ecological design, and sustainable energy, to name but a few, all as equally squidgy in their definition as sustainability.  The blog, TriplePundit, captured the problem of sustainability by quoting Advertising Age which named sustainability as:

 " of the 'jargoniest jargon' words of 2010 that they 'wish you would stop saying,' right up there with monetize, choiceful, and the new normal, among others.  They explain their decision by describing sustainability as “a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources. It’s not synonymous with ‘green.’ Is organic agriculture sustainable, for example, if more of the world would starve through its universal application?"

It should be obvious to anyone that definitions are important and that without them we cannot communicate and instead end up with a situation akin to the Tower of Babel. Many would like to rely on the Brundtland Report (1987) definition: "Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." There is not much wrong with this definition as such but there is also widespread disagreement regarding its acceptability.  In short, a very broad concept without a widely accepted definition is likely doomed.

2. The once important and noteworthy sustainability concepts are fading.  Does anyone remember natural capitalism, ecological economics, biomimicry, cradle-to-cradle, Factor 4 and Factor 10, The Natural Step, industrial ecology, and eco-efficiency?  None of these once key implementing strategies and efforts to better articulate sustainability has gained traction.  Most emerged in the 1990s, gained significant short-term notoriety, and have since either faded or disappeared.   Take biomimicry as an example.  I was greatly impressed by the arguments put forward by Janine Benyus in her 1996 book, Biomimicry, that we could redesign our systems to emulate nature and that nature abounded with a huge number of potential examples. Fast forward to 2013 and this is the advertisement for a permaculture course  in a recent email:

"The most common example of biomimicry and permaculture is velcro, which was invented by a Swiss engineer who removed burrs from his dog, and noticed how the small hooks on the burr grabbed to his dog's fur.  Another great example is better packaging designs.  Have you ever considered how nature packages pomegranate seeds inside a pomegranate?  What we teach is fundamentally the art of biomimicry -- observing nature and designing our whole way of life with the patterns of nature, while often allowing nature to do much of the work for us."

It struck me that biomimicry must certainly have fallen on some hard times if velcro and pomegranate seed packing were the best examples... they were also the best examples in 1996For me this advertisement actually points out that biomimicry as a core concept of sustainability has virtually disappeared because it  is very old news and there is not much new, good news connected to biomimicry.  The story about velcro is true, Georges de Mestral, invented velcro by observing the burrs in his dog's fur, but this was in 1948! humans have always observed nature and used what they learn to improve their quality of life and also to make money! And what about the packing of pomegranate seeds?  Very old news! So what has happened since the biomimicry was popularized in 1996?  Was there an explosion of new inventions that truly emulated nature?  Sure there have been a few success stories (see the website of the Biomimicry Institute) but the number of inventions rooted in biomimicry is tiny compared to the vast number of new ideas emerging from laboratories. While it may be a useful concept and provide some small number of solutions, the point is that it, like The Natural Step and other provocative ideas, has fallen by the wayside.

A few years back when I began struggling with what I call The Problem of Sustainability, I could not seem to reconcile the nature-based approaches of sustainability (such as those advocated by biomimicry, Natural Capitalism, and the Natural Step) with actual human behavior.  It struck me clearly one day when I was spending yet another session in my dentist's chair.  She had drilled the problem area out of a tooth and filled it with a synthetic, very durable material and then shone a UV light on it to quickly harden it in place.  This dental technology had zero to do with nature, it was completely human-made, yet very effective and supported my health. We can state most definitely that in this and most other cases,  biomimicry input = zero! Each of the other fading sustainability concepts has gone through much the same trajectory: creation, excitement, and slow fade. Worse yet there have been precious few new sustainability  ideas that have emerged in the last 10 years.  Resilience is the current flavor of the day and I have little confidence it will gain traction.  The vitality of any concept or movement is the creative activity it inspires.  Sustainability seems to be failing badly in this regard and as consequence it may be ultimately doomed to obsolescence.

One notable pattern of behavior regarding some of the once key sustainability concepts is that their champions often turn them into a business enterprise. Examples include The Natural Step (Paul Hawken), Cradle-to-Cradle (William MacDonough), and biomimcry (Janine Benyus),  each of which offers or offered pricey certification, training, and consulting services.  It seems that many of the good ideas that are put forth in this arena end up losing their authenticity.  

3. The three-legged stool model of sustainability is inadequate because it ignores human nature.  The most commonly used metaphor for sustainability is three-legged stool supported by three systems: Ecology, Economy, and Society.  It is common for advocates of sustainability to state that these three systems must be in balance for there to be this so-called condition of 'sustainability.'  Upon closer examination it is clear that these three systems cannot be balancedIt is simply impossible to describe precisely what this balance amounts to, much less how to be develop the balance or be able to measure if the three legs the same lengthSo what if the Ecology leg is very long?   Clearly this thought model is seriously flawed because both the social and economic systems are embedded entirely within the global ecological system and are dependent on the health and productivity of nature for their survival.  However even this embedded model of sustainability leaves a lot to be desired because it ignores human nature and the human drive to invent and explore.

When I was mulling over how to take account of this important factor, I mentioned my dilemma to one of my grad students, Brent Philpot, and he pointed me to a paragraph written by the ecologist, Gary Peterson, in a book I had edited on defining ecological design in the context of the built environment The following quote by Gary makes it clear why humans are different than other species:

"It is important to include human behavior in ecological analyses because humans are Earth's dominant species.  Humans, individually or in groups, can anticipate and prepare for the future to a much greater extent than ecological systems can.  People use mental models of varying complexity and completeness to construct views of the future.  People have developed elaborate ways of exchanging, influencing, and updating these models.  In contrast the organization of ecological systems is a product of mutual reinforcement of many interacting structures and processes that have emerged over long periods of time.  Similarly, the behavior of plants and animals emerges from the successes of evolutionary experimentation that  has occurred in the past, rather than looking forward in anticipation of the future.  The difference between forward-looking human systems and backwards-looking natural systems is fundamental.  It means that understanding the role of people in ecological systems requires not only understanding how people have acted in the past, but how they think about the future."

Thus the difference between human systems and natural species is profound and cannot be ignored, even when supporting a worthy paradigm such as sustainability.  Humans deduced the laws of physics, discovered the nature of matter, traveled to the Moon, and continue to produce novel  materials and devices that have no precedent in nature.  We are risk-takes and revel in pushing the envelope in everything we do.  So the question yet to be answered is: How do we realistically account for fundamental human nature in a model of sustainability?

In the next blog I will suggest a new mental model that could potentially reinvigorate sustainability and once again help it regain its significance in providing guidance for making choices.

NEXT TIME:  An alternative model for sustainability