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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Fewer letters, shorter time frame
September 13, 2012 - 3:46pm

Lots of what sustainability administrators do is administrative/operational.  Most of the rest is strategic (as noted previously).  But what I've noticed is that what I'm working on -- or at least the level of abstraction that I'm working on -- affects how I communicate with folks.  It's not absolutely determinative, but it's a major influence.  My alleged mind requires time and effort to shift between the pragmatic and the abstract.

So when I'm working on something operational (think increased recycling), I tend to talk to folks in operational terms.  I'm easy to understand (or, if I'm not, a lot of folks are very good actors), and what I say about recycling might have a measurable effect on a number of people, but at the end of the day it doesn't add up to a hill of high density polyethylene. 

On the other hand, when I'm working on something strategic that -- at least in theory -- could lead to significant effect, I find it hard to talk to folks at all.  Good strategy is about indirect approach.  It's about attacking preconditions and root causes.  If the shape and size and complexity of my proposed solution closely matches the shape and size and complexity of the perceived problem, I take that as a sign that I need to rethink and re-vision. This frame of mind doesn't lead to simple conversation.

Part of the challenge is that sustainability, in truth, is an issue that can only be described in terms of strategic scale.  Operational tweaking can be demonstrated to increase (for example) energy efficiency, but saying that shifting to more efficient light bulbs increases sustainability is more a matter of theory and faith than empirical evidence.  Any real effect on the planet, the climate or society is indistinguishable from statistical noise and measurement error.

I think this strategic (some might call it "super-heroic") scale is part of the reason that many people's eyes glaze over when the term "sustainability" enters the conversation.  Sustainability isn't an object, it isn't an action or activity, it isn't an outcome of a specific technology or process, it isn't directly measurable or demonstrable.  Truth be told, social/cultural/economic sustainability in any but its grittiest, least pleasant incarnation may not be in our future at all.  So while it's true that the longer we wait the harder and less likely of success our efforts will be, it's also true that sustainability is not a cause it's easy to rally people with anything but the longest possible planning horizon around.

So I'm wondering whether "sustainability" just has too many letters.  Too many syllables.  Too long an associated time frame.  I'm wondering whether all that's necessary, or even useful. 

I'm wondering whether we wouldn't be better off trying to rally folks around "stability".  Stability is a familiar, relatively immediate concept.  It's pretty easy to observe (at least, its absence is).  And in the effectively relevant time frame, I think stability and sustainability are pretty much the same.

Stabilizing the economy so that it's not subject to bubbles and crashes sounds like a good first step to me.  Stabilizing at least the more volatile elements of global society (think North Africa or the Eastern Mediterranean or the Horn of Africa) has to be approached carefully -- stability has too often been used as a euphemism for autocracy -- but it's still necessary.  And stabilizing the climate is an indisputable first step (perhaps the only really significant step) towards reversing global warming.

Who wants to live in an unstable climate?  An unstable society?  An unstable economy?  What politician or corporate flack wants to go out in public and declare stability a hoax?  The abstractness, scale and time frame which have made consensus on sustainability issues vulnerable to disinformation campaigns don't apply if we shift our focus to achieving stability.

And the concept of stability has another potential advantage in the economic realm.  Right now, most folks buy into the concept that economic growth is an unalloyed good.  Mainstream economists treat the potential for economic growth as virtually infinite.  It's virtually impossible to find an article in the business press that isn't premised on the desirability of economic growth.  But the harsh reality is that no economy can grow forever, the desires and expectations of the investor class notwithstanding.  The physical constraints of the planet combined with the entropy law absolutely preclude that.  Sooner or later, our economy will need to evolve so that we can operate and thrive in a more steady state -- at a more constant volume of economic activity -- with no further need to exploit non-renewable resources.  Getting people to feel warm and fuzzy with the concept of stability doesn't lead inexorably to a steady state economy, but it might make that path a little easier to travel.



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