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One more indicator that "sustainability" won't make society sustainable
February 27, 2014 - 3:43pm

Two emails landed in my inbox today. 

The first one came from The Royal Society, in partnership with the National Academies of Science.  It announced the publication of a joint guide to inform a public debate around climate change which both academies proclaim to be both necessary and urgent.  In a sense, it documents for non-scientific readers that we as a species are one stop closer to both understanding and experiencing a planet inhospitable to human habitation.  The news the guide presents, I strongly suspect, will still be couched in terms too indefinite, and will tell a story advancing too glacially, to hold the attention of folks who get their news primarily from Facebook or "Inside Hollywood".

The second came from greenbiz.com, a newsletter advising business folks on sustainability issues.  In "One Minute Manager" fashion, it proposed a 3-step sustainability action plan which any firm can implement.

The problem, of course, is that even if every corporation in the world implemented the 3-step plan as expeditiously as possible, it wouldn't change the situation described by the scientific bodies, at least not enough to matter.  The reason is simple, even if not obvious to most students and faculty.

Unless you're a strong believer in serendipity (strong enough to bet your grandchildren's lives on it), any plan has to be evaluated on two levels: what it's trying to achieve and how likely it is to lead to that desired end result.  This particular plan fails significance on the first test -- it isn't trying to achieve any definable state of sustainability.  If anything, it attempts to decrease the demonstrable unsustainability of the business operations to which it's applied in some gradual, incremental, and inherently incomplete manner.   It provides a road map neither to a biophysical world in which businesses can continue operating indefinitely nor to a form of business which can operate indefinitely in the ever-more-challenging world that we've already created.  Rather, it provides a process and a thought-model which might allow businesses to operate a little less unsustainably -- and, hence, for a bit longer -- without actually asking them to change the fundamental nature of those operations.

To put that into perspective, it might be useful to look at a short video which fairly clearly presents -- at a level of complexity that any college student should be able to handle -- a scientific definition of sustainability.  It's the first in a series of short videos which I hope to disseminate around Greenback in the coming months.  The definition isn't quite as precise, nor as comprehensive, as I'd want when conversing with other sustainability professionals, but it's pretty close.  And it's pretty accessible.  And the realizations it might trigger (in the presence of active thought) among our undergrads are profound.  In a nutshell, it described two cycles -- one biological, one geological -- which have been active on Earth for millions of years.  Each cycle (by a process of evolution, not serendipity) achieved a state of equilibrium (we'll leave the punctuation argument to the side for now) which has been in effect since time immemorial.  That is, of course, until humanity stepped in as a disruptor.  The author of the video (like the scientific community he cites) defines sustainability as living within the constraints -- the bounds, the limits -- imposed by those process cycles in such a manner that their ability to attain equilibrium isn't disrupted.

Of course, the 3-step action plan makes no mention of biological cycles, nor of geological cycles, nor of equilibrium.  The 3-step plan offers a form of techno-fix -- not the electronic or quantum-mechanical "high technology" that term often describes, but a fix by way of technology -- by changing not what we do so much as how we do it -- nonetheless.  If we just consider factor X a little more seriously, and so tweak process Y to reduce negative impact Z, then we can claim to be operating sustainably.  Even when, by any objective standard, we're not.

Which isn't to say that the thought model which the 3-step plan presents is inherently wrong, but it accommodates wrong actions as well as it does correct one.  It was developed in the context of the very mindset which has led society to the brink of disaster, and which has no power to lead us in any other direction.  The two different mindsets are explained, fairly clearly, in a later video in the same series.  That our familiar mindset -- and any technological solution based in it -- has no power to help us create a planet hospitable to humans is well explained in the book Techno-Fix, by Michael and Joyce Huesemann. 

Of course, the vast majority of curricular materials presented at Greenback and other universities have their roots either explicitly or implicitly in the prevailing paradigm: 

  • Humanity is special, and distinct (if not physically separated) from nature. 
  • Society is constantly progressing, in the sense of evolving to a somehow better state than existed previously, and the potential for future progress is infinite. 
  • Much of the credit for recent progress can be attributed to an ever-growing, ever-more-efficient economic system; this system is an unquestionable good, as we're counting on it to provide remunerative employment for our alumni, world without end.

So long as colleges and universities continue to base curriculum on the mindset of "nothing to see  here, everything's fine", so long as recognition of climate change and topsoil loss and biodiversity loss and ocean acidification and androgen disruption (in everything from amphibians to humans) and water pollution and desertification are treated as exceptions -- as mere hiccups in the continuing story of human progress -- then "Inside Hollywood" is likely to have more impact on public perception than does any report from the National Academies of Science.  At least until Hollywood itself is underwater.  By which time, of course, 3-step plans will be irrelevant.

 

 

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