State of the Sustainability Movement 2011, Part 2

December 20th, 2010

As soon as I wrote the original post, of course, I started discovering new signs of our times that are not adequately reflected in my earlier assessment. Let’s consider a few examples, and see what conclusions we can draw about where we are in the process, and where we might be going from here.

One of the most remarkable ones is which is “a network of farmers, engineers and supporters, that for the last two years have been building the Global Village Construction Set, a set of the 40 industrial machines that it takes to create a small civilization with modern day comforts,” including machines that can be used to build a village, grow food, and generate energy in sustainable ways.

As they note, in an article written for Interesting Times magazine, “this is a real experiment, and product selection is based on us living with the given technologies. First, it is the development of real, economically significant hardware, product, and engineering. Second, this entire set is being compiled into one setting, and land is being populated with the respective productive agents. The aim is to define a new form of social organization where it is possible to create advanced culture, thriving in abundance and largely autonomous, on the scale of a village, not nation or state.” All of their knowledge and information is “open source”: they are building tools anyone can replicate and use to build their own community.

This idea of creating social experiments that demonstrate the abundance, viability, and vitality of ways of life that are in tune with nature is essentially the same as that of the New Wealth Game that we proposed at the December meeting of the Sustainable Leadership Forum. As they put it, “Our goal is nothing short of paradigm-shattering. And together we can make it a reality at the cost of scrap metal and proper use of ubiquitous, local resources. The GVCS is applicable anywhere soil, sunshine, and water are found, which is just about everywhere. Unfortunately, we cannot do this alone—nor would we want to. It will take global knowledge and cooperation. We challenge you to join us at Open Ecology—see our results for yourself and share it with others; get involved and critique away, then add to the momentum; if you like what you see then give support by becoming a True Fan. Now that we have shared our vision with you—assuming it resonates within you—it is your obligation to do something—anything. What’s truly stopping you? Perhaps nothing at all. We believe the only limit is our imagination and we won’t stop until we’ve empowered the masses. Whatever your beliefs, ideas or talents; we are ready for you. With all our hands and all our brains, we can create a more regenerative and resilient world for all. Let’s show the rest of the world what it really means to evolve to freedom!”

In short, if “ecological economics” is something we can base real wealth on, then let’s put it to work to create our own future, and leave the “gray economy” to wither away under the weight of its own increasing unsustainability and irrelevance. Open Ecology has also proposed that the Global Village Construction Set be used as the basis for a game, and are submitting their concept to the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual $100,000 award “to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.”

The Buckminster Fuller Institute is itself another example that should be considered in assessing the state of the movement. It is “dedicated to accelerating the development and deployment of solutions which radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems”:

We aim to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity.

Our programs combine unique insight into global trends and local needs with a comprehensive approach to design. We encourage participants to conceive and apply transformative strategies based on a crucial synthesis of whole systems thinking, Nature’s fundamental principles, and an ethically driven worldview.

By facilitating convergence across the disciplines of art, science, design and technology, our work extends the profoundly relevant legacy of R. Buckminster Fuller. In this way, we strive to catalyze the collective intelligence required to fully address the unprecedented challenges before us.

“Design” is fundamental to the sustainability movement: “Cradle-to-Cradle” (McDonough & Braungart, 2002), Biomimicry (Janine Benyus, 2002), and the granddaddy of them all, Permaculture (Bill Mollison, 1978), which now has hundreds if not thousands of practitioners worldwide, including in Haiti.

Haiti is an extreme example of the failure of the modern global economic development model to provide minimal standards of health, education, food, and security for the millions of people who live outside of the “developed” world. As Peter Haas has pointed out, the principal cause of the damage in Haiti was not the natural disaster but a failure of engineering. It was not the earthquake that killed 230,000 people, injured 300,000 more, and displaced more than two million others, over half of whom continue to live in makeshift tent cities nearly 12 months later; it was the shoddy design and construction of the majority of the buildings in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Haas, who founded AIDG, the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, has been working in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2005, and fielded multiple teams of engineers immediately after the earthquake.

While governments have proven largely incapable of providing adequate assistance to mitigate a growing number of man-made “natural” disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the flooding of one-third of Pakistan, private groups have sprung up to respond to these calamities, and to put systems in place to avoid future catastrophes, even with the meager resources available to them. (Of the $11 billion promised by the international community for the rebuilding of Haiti only a tiny amount has actually been forthcoming; even the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which raised more than $50 million, has actually spent less than $5 million in reconstruction efforts to date.) The good news is that some of these efforts are progressing, despite the political turmoil, the erosion of hope, and the challenging business environment. Our own Sustainable Haiti Coalition has made some small but important advances, representing two companies seeking to establish operations in Haiti and partnering with a third to create a vehicle to assist businesses through the process.

According to Thom Hartmann, in the Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (1998), Haiti even before the earthquake was a harbinger of what awaits all of us if we fail to resolve our ecological problems. The deforestation, the poverty, and the lack of literacy, suggest that extreme ecological damage could mean not only catastrophic weather events but regression to an earlier and primitive way of life. The fundamental issue, according to Theodore Rozsak’s 1992 study of ecopsychology, is that we have become deaf to “the voice of the earth,” psychologically estranged both from nature and from ourselves; as child psychiatrist Madeleine Lansky puts it today, we are suffering from a kind of collective insanity that is leading us dangerously close to ecocide. In my view this includes both the widespread denial of man’s impact on the biosphere and the blind optimism that technology and the market economy will end up resolving all these problems.

Yet it is equally pointless to sink into despair. Human action has gotten us into this mess, and it’s only human action that can get us out of it. Indeed it is in some ways the consequence of humanity’s growing scientific knowledge and mastery of technology — including the technologies of the agricultural and the industrial revolutions — that have led us to this impasse, by allowing us to grow the human population beyond the capacity of the planet to support us, at least in the manner to which those of us in America have become accustomed. The institutions that wield these technologies are, for the most part, large corporations, so it’s encouraging to discover that increasing numbers are joining such alliances as The Sustainability Consortium, the UN Global Compact, BSR, and others. The promise of such associations is that, working together, companies can establish some ground rules that protect the environment, seek to end poverty, hunger, and disease, and provide education and opportunity for all.

The question then is whether accumulating more knowledge and engineering capability is sufficient to accomplish this, and have us reverse the unintended consequences of our civilization’s hubris; or whether we also need a more profound transformation, a shift in our experience of what it is to be a child of the universe and our awareness of what it might mean to become more fully self-realized as humans.

There is of course a sense in which these questions are as old as humanity itself; yet the way they land on us today is what reveals the unique historical character of our time: sustainability, it seems, is about to become the touchstone of the age (or else there won’t be anyone around to report on our failure to achieve it). Once again, welcome to 2011 — and may it be the year of the tipping point (as well as, incidentally, the International Year of Forests), the emergence of a stem strong enough to support the full flowering of the species, without collapsing under the weight of its material accumulation… The fear I hear expressed is that China will create another 300 million middle-class “consumers” in the next five years, exacerbating global warming and then selling us the technology to mitigate it.

The December 20-27 issue of The New Yorker magazine has an article by David Owen on the so-called Jevons Paradox, according to which increasing efficiency in the use energy and materials only leads to greater use. This is purported to be an argument against such folks as Amory Lovins, who believes that greater efficiency is not only better for the planet but is also more profitable. But if it’s also more profitable, the argument goes, it will inevitably seek to keep expanding, and we’ll end up using more energy and materials than ever — presumably accelerating our downfall rather than slowing it. Though we probably won’t notice until it’s too late, because we’ll all be too busy enjoying our increased well-being.

The silliness of this argument is best summed up in the description of Jevons’ argument by Len Brookes: “When we talk about increasing energy efficiency, what we’re really talking about is increasing the productivity of energy. And, if you increase the productivity of anything, you have the effect of reducing its implicit price, because you get more return for the same money—which means the demand goes up.”

Of course, if we always sought more of everything that was cheaper just because it was cheaper, without regard to whether we actually wanted it or believed it was useful to consume it, we’d have a parody of even our own crassly commercial society, which at least appears to be struggling to escape the dismal “laws” of economics and take into account the less fictional laws of ecology, which permit sustainable prosperity on condition that we nurture that which provides it. Certainly, there is much more to be said about this; but what’s obvious is that the framework of conventional economics is simply not large enough to take into account most of reality, and its hypotheses do not adequately predict outcomes because in reality such outcomes are the result of people interacting and exchanging ideas and information.

A much better model for understanding economic behavior might be that of microbiology, in which bacteria continuously engage in the exchange of DNA, enabling them—quite remarkably—to adjust to local disturbances on a global scale within a relatively short period of time. As Nadeau points out, in The Wealth of Nature (2003):

In the life of bacteria, bits of genetic material within organisms are routinely and rapidly transferred to other organisms… Because the whole of this gene pool operates in some sense within the parts, the speed of recombination is much greater than that allowed by mutation alone, or by random changes inside parts that alter interaction between parts. The existence of the whole within parts explains why bacteria can accommodate change on a worldwide scale in a few years. (p.153, emphasis added)

Understanding the nature of ecosystems can help us better understand the dynamics of the human behavior that occurs within them, including the reasons why we sometimes persist in getting it wrong.

The behavior of large populations, of markets, of businesses and financial institutions, and of national and international policies are all critically important questions: too important, in fact, to leave to any single discipline—in particular one that is frequently arrogant, doctrinal, and simply wrong. That many practitioners of mainstream economics continue to perpetuate discredited frameworks and assumptions is a matter of historical observation; what’s important is to offer alternatives that are more accurate, more functional, and more persuasive. In the case of the Jevons Paradox, it’s to reexamine efficiency and consumption within the broader framework of ecological economics, and resolve the “paradox” in terms of the system as a whole. Greater overall consumption of energy may be compatible with natural cycles if the energy is drawn from them, instead of from fossilized reserves of carbon; more importantly, the uses of energy need to be restorative and regenerative of the natural environment in order to conserve the possibility of expanding of wealth, education, and innovation everywhere in the world.

The triple bottom line? Economically, we’re in the midst of a severe recession, and of a long term realignment of factors and conditions, requiring a paradigm shift in both thought and practice to avoid continuing crises and global failures. Environmentally we remain on a collision course with climate change, species extinction, and other factors that, unchecked, are most likely to lead to ecological collapse. And socially we are struggling to awaken to a collaborative modality of action, that combines learning, planning, and entrepreneurial initiative to provide for a more sustainable outcome.

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