This is a piece I wrote for a class I’m taking at the Boston Architectural College in pursuit of a certificate in Sustainable Design.
What are the necessary steps to achieve sustainability in an ecological context?
David Orr, in his bood The Nature of Design (2002), has a good list for this – energy efficiency, renewables, dematerialization, diversity and ecosystems, transportation, sustainable resource management, population, distribution, metrics. All these things will reduce the imposition upon and degradation of nature by human activity. Metrics is very important: how are we meauring prosperity, well-being, health and security? In the other reading, Peter Graham notes the value of ecosystem services to our monetized economies – twice the size of the global economy, 42 trillions of dollars in the late 1990s. If this sort of information were communicated to all relevant parties, it is possible that the risk of decreasing the value of these services in the future, by taking certain actions now, would be untenable by stakeholders and specifically by insurers of risk. Possibly, alternatives would be pursued as better investments.
I have always liked the Natural Step framework. In a sustainable world, nature is not subject to increasing amounts of substances from the lithosphere, not subject to increasing amounts of synthesized compounds that overwhelm natural patterns of mitigation, not subject to increasing destruction of habitat and natural system capacities, and in a sustainable world, people are not subject to bargaining away their needs. These conditions of a sustainable world can be used to guide and frame what is going on now. What is your entity doing now which violates these principles, and to what degree? How could you even know? What would be ways to reduce these infractions?
I appreciate these systemic concerns. Orr also looks at our environmental problems as results of a system of disconnection from nature. He advocates for design – of buildings and communities and transportation systems and education systems etc. – to work to re-connect people to nature.
I would also offer that another necessary step would be to foster a presence of mind in each other to resist the dis-connection from nature. Many people have for many years benefited from accumulating wealth and engaging with each other in extractive ways. Elaborate chains of contractual obligations, debts, and trading in markets of imperfect information tend to benefit existing elites. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Better co-operation, better generosity, better ideas about needs and security could help reduce subterfuge, greed and hoarding. More people sharing the wealth would enable more gentle use of the world, and more potential for its restoration.
What are the common features of that process?
Nowadays, there are a couple of different features or different themes to the process of achieving sustainability. There is the eco-efficiency realm, where we try to do the same stuff better. There is the eco-psychology realm, where people are trying to re-invent how we consider ourselves, the world and how to interact with (compromised) natural systems. I think there is a different eco-philosophy realm which is coming at the problems of the natural world from a moral perspective, perhaps from the perspective of those damaged (humans and otherwise) by societal activity.
I think most of the design profession is relegated to eco-efficiency because people working in this field need to sell designs to survive. The designs are paid for by the ongoing inertia of the building industry in whichever economy the designers work. The building industry is a component of global capital’s effort to grow and expand, and is more interested in that perpetuation than its host, the natural world. And until the stocks and sinks of resources are filled in such a way to inconvenience capital accumulation, I don’t think the system will change much. Thus designers can tweak a few things to make a building or a neighborhood development a little less bad, but the opportunities to really respond robustly to ecological disaster are small. Perhaps some eddy in the capital flow occasionally allows a stunt of super-green to occur, but it is a baroque ornament compared to the larger orientation of the capitalismic process. That is, monetization aggregating through time of its own accord.
John Todd is a great example of good ecological design work stuck in an eddy. He has a bunch of great ideas, a few people think they are cool, and they are implemented and are reducing waste. They might even be cost effective in some situations. How can his eco-machines be more widely adopted? I would like to see that. I even have a model of one in my house. How can his work compare with the millions of installed bio-gas digesters in south asia and elsewhere which are achieving a similar reduction of human waste’s entry to natural ecosystems. How can these types of ecologically superior waste management systems wrest prioritization from standard sewerage, sludge settling, and/or outfall pipes sending our “good stuff” out of sight and out of mind (the minds of most)? These technical tricks are important to turn, but there is a bigger problem.
I appreciate ecological design work but I don’t know how it will truly change the paradigm of business as usual to view itself as a subject of the ecological order of the world, rather than its master. To the extent that ecological design can crack the shell a bit, and show people that another world is indeed possible, I appreciate the effort and participate in it myself. Thus I support various measures to increase energy efficiency, utilize renewable energy sources, limit destruction of habitat and productive resource areas, re-build human settlement patterns to engender lower ecological footprints, distribute wealth better, manage population better, and support vibrant communities of cooperation and opportunity everywhere. These are all good features of a more sustainable world, and could also engender active engagement of a new moralism of cooperative participation and sharing, reducing the will of the ego and the frantic effort to win and acquire.
What are the obstacles in the way of achieving sustainabiltiy?
Well, as I’m describing, there are a few basic obstacles like ethical priorities and a perception of dis-connection with ecosystems. In less over-arching ways, the entrenchement of the fossil fuel industry with the governments of our world is a major obstacle to implementing new marketplace relations (where pollution has a significant price) which would at least reduce the damage of the existing economic equilibrium. Reducing the racially-supremacist pattern of resource exploitation of indigenous and traditional peoples would also be a good. Failing to price the risk of ecosystem diminishment is an obstacle. Overcoming the legacy of ecologically obtuse education systems will take a while, as will the re-appreciation of reality-based pleasure such as honest food, wilderness experience, live arts, meditation, holistic health, and bartering. So much of our cultural norms (here in the global north and in industrialized cultures anywhere) depend on the simple model of commercialization that many people are even uncomfortable with non-commercial solutions to life’s basic dilemmas. Heck, I’ve bought into it – I’m paying to be in this course! There are a lot of little obstacles mostly in the way of information and awareness; lasting, sustainable relations with the global ecosystem will require an ongoing paradigm shift and a sweeping deep-ecology moralism.