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.

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