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

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