Sunday, September 28, 2008

John Ehrenfeld's "Sustainability by Design"

John R. Ehrenfeld, who before his retirement was affiliated with the MIT Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development and the Departments of Chemical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering, now serves as executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and is senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture, and reported the following:
Since flourishing is etymologically derived from flowering, natural systems seem like a very good place to begin a search for inspiration. Nature, the wellspring of human life, is the source of mystery and enchantment. In discussing the foundations for the definition of sustainability, I noted that flourishing is one of several emergent properties of natural living systems, along with resilience, health, and others. Is there anything about these systems that can explain these properties or cause their appearance?

This passage opens Chapter 9 of my book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. Its appearance marks a key place in the development of a set of cultural beliefs and values that must replace those currently driving our unsustainable societal patterns of activities. The central thesis of my book is that unsustainability arises out of the unintended consequences of normal cultural activities: an unavoidable result of living. In the past, these unintended consequences might have been insignificant, but today their impact on the world and all who live in it has grown so large that it threatens the possibility of a future where we can flourish.

Sustainability, as I define, it is just this thought: the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever. Human flourishing goes beyond the biological and includes the attainment of time-proven values such as justice or dignity. Sustainability is definitely not the same as sustainable development, which is little more than a continuation of the cultural patterns of the present albeit perhaps more eco-efficient. But delivering more of the same even with less impact cannot change the fundamental trajectory of the modern world. Sustainable development is a technological and technocratic package of “solutions” that cannot fix the underlying causes of unsustainability. Some symptomatic improvements will certainly result by applying these kinds of solutions but they are only quick fixes.

It will take a complete shift in basic beliefs and values to alter the present cultural trajectory. And to do that people will need new metaphors based on different fundamental stories of how the world works and what makes us human. This chapter offers up a new story for nature, following a previous discussion of what makes us human: caring rather than needing; being instead of having. Nature is seen as a complex system, where the future cannot be predicted as present day science would presume. Organic, holistic, qualitative, bio-centric, and communitarian replace mechanistic, atomistic, quantitative, anthropocentric and individualistic in the nature story. By encoding these and other values and beliefs in the artifacts and societal processes, cultural patterns can slowly shift subversively toward sustainability.
Read an excerpt from Sustainability by Design, and learn more about the book and author at the Yale University Press website and the "Sustainability by Design" blog.

--Marshal Zeringue