Beyond Sustainability

“Sustainability” is not the end of the line.

Regarding the definition of sustainability, you can note that it is focused on conservation over evolution. Literally taken, sustainability is about sustaining and goes along the lines of reduction and simplicity. It focuses on preservation, limiting and not making things worse. This seems to be a main aspect making it worth thinking further. Moving beyond sustainability means beyond sustaining or restoring the current state and moving towards actively improving the environment.

Nature continuously strives for improvements. Life is about evolution, growth and thriving. It is abundant and wasteful, which it can easily be, because there is no waste. Everything is a resources and no one would ever call the rotten cherry on the ground trash. The Cradle-To-Cradle® concept [1, 2] nicely reflects this thinking and aims at putting it into practice in our society. It does not limit, it facilitates, improves, and constantly evolves. The key to our future is not to limit and constrain yourself and society, but to think in cycles and to give back.

What we give back is our contribution. Thinking in material terms from nature’s perspective, what we are giving back these days is toxic waste, polluted water, and dirty air. Nature doesn’t care much. Earth is about 4.5 billion years old; Homo sapiens time on earth is only about 200.000 years. Earth will most likely be here for another few billion years … with or without us. All this is probably more about us humans than about earth. We are the ones who will eventually get back what we give to planet earth today. We will eventually consume toxic waste, polluted water, and dirty air. In fact we already are consuming some of it today.

What is important to understand from my perspective, and the Cradle-to-Cradle® concept illustrates that nicely again, is that we should be striving to be part of nature’s continuous improvements; part of a positive evolution. We should not try to be less bad, but we should strive for being good; for being a positive power on this planet. Why can’t our houses produce clean air? Like the trees? Why can’t our plants produce clean water? Like natures plants? Why can’t our waste be a resource? Like natures “waste”? Not possible? Think again. The EPEA GmbH [3], provides a Cradle-to-Cradle® certification and already certified cloths, chairs, a carpet, building material that filter the air and even a TV. The key concept thereby is the observation of two cycles that would allow us to sustain our way of living with much less negative consequences. It involves identifying and separating a technological cycle and a natural cycle. While the natural cycle takes care of feeding our used nutrient back to natural cycles as a resource to process, the technological cycle takes care of feeding our technological nutrients back into new technological cycles. Both cycles are very carefully separated from one another. Of course, this approach does require a redesign of our production and consumption processes, but is it not worth it?

It’s not all nice and shiny and there has been some criticism on the concept [4]. Applying it on a large scale might facilitate a centrally planned economy. The also postulated idea of being wasteful and abundant as nature faces the issue of mass and over population, which might produce too many nutrients for nature to handle and the problem of hype and mismarketing is inherent these days. It is however, an approach, an idea, a concept, which provides what a lot of other concepts lack: ideas on how to proceed and improve.

It can guide us on how to make things better. It can provide a starting point and it can be improved over time. We need to improve what and how we feed things back into nature. What we sow now is what we reap tomorrow. And as Antoine Lavoisier said: “Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme” (nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed). We can transform things in cycles and we ourselves are part of a transformation process. And … maybe even more important, we are in a position to steer it, at least to some extent.

References

[1] William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, 2003, Macmillan USA

[2] Homepage of Michael Braungart, http://www.braungart.com, viewed 24.08.2012

[3] EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency) GmbH, http://www.epea-hamburg.org/, viewed 24.08.2012

[4] DI Rahim Taghizadegan, Cradle-to-cradle – die nächste Sau, die man durch das globale Dorf treibt?, wirks – Das Mutmach Magazin, http://www.wirks.at/?p=18, viewed 24.08.2012

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Defining Sustainability

Coming from a scientific background I like to clearly define the topics I am talking about and the terms I use to do so. Defining Sustainability is a special topic though…

The term “sustainable development” was first widely articulated by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987 and framed as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [1]. More than 140 alternative and modified definitions that have emerged since then have been identified by Johnston et al. and this proliferation of alternative definitions of the term “sustainability” has created a situation where this central concept has come to mean many things to many constituencies [2]. At the level of the dictionary definition, sustainability simply implies that a given activity or action is capable of being sustained (i.e. continued indefinitely). This definition however conflicts with the idea of evolving systems that change over time. It is also difficult to apply to the environmental domain, where even highly damaging practices can be sustained within time frames that are seemingly indefinite with respect to a human lifespan. Some people also argue that ecosystems will in time (but maybe too late for the survival of our species) adapt to the changes we inflict upon them. Thus it seems to be difficult to give a direct definition of sustainability or sustainable development and Johnston instead proposes the utilization of four basic principles of sustainability [2] that have been identified by “The Natural Step Framework” [3]:

  1. Substances from the lithosphere (the earth’s crust) must not systematically increase in the ecosphere (the planetary ecosystems).
  2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
  3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of Nature must not be systematically deteriorated.
  4. There should be fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs.

These principles basically demand a minimal human intervention in natural processes (which is almost impossible given the rising human population) or the application of the aforementioned cyclic processes, which eventually give back what has been extracted. The key to sustainability is thus the identification of cycles of use and reuse, which is the basic principle of nature and is also utilized e.g. in Braungarts Cradle-to-Cradle concept [5]. Holling defines the latter as a panarchy and “the heart of what we define as sustainability” [4] and states: “We define panarchy to be the structure in which systems of nature […], of humans […] and combined human-nature systems are interlinked in never-ending adaptive cycles [..] that take place in nested sets at scales ranging, for example, from a leaf to the biosphere, over periods from days to geologic epochs. [..] The fast cycles invent, experiment and test; the slower ones stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past successful, surviving experiments. In a healthy system, each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, protected from above by slower, larger levels, but invigorated from below by faster, smaller cycles of innovation. The whole panarchy is therefore both creative and conserving. The interactions between cycles in a panarchy combine learning with continuity.  

Holling further acknowledges: “We recognize that human behavior and nature’s dynamic are linked in an evolving system. We realize that the seeming paradox of change and stability inherent in evolving systems is the essence of sustainable futures. We now know that to counteract the current pathology we need policies that are dynamic and evolutionary.”

So one possible definition of sustainable development based on these contributions might be the seeking for change and stability in evolving systems and the understanding of cycles and their scales to identify points to trigger positive change and foster resilience and sustainability with respect to the four basic principles of sustainability.

References

[1] United Nations General Assembly (1987). Report of the world commission on environment and development: Our common future, chapter 2: Towards sustainable development. Annex to document A/42/427

[2] Paul Johnston et al., Reclaiming the definition of sustainability. Environmental science and pollution research international , 14 (1):60–66, 2007

[3] Karl-Hennrik Robert, Herman Dalyc, Paul Hawkend, and John Holmbergb. A compass for sustainable development. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 4 (2):79–92, 1997.

[4] C.S. Holling. Theories for sustainable futures. Conservation Ecology , 4, 2000

[5] Braungart, M., McDonough, W., Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the Way We Make Things.North Point Press, 2002

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Where are we Heading?

Over the last 4.54 billion years our planet has been in a continuous evolution from a deserted and unlivable environment into a wonderful blue and green paradise. Only in the past few decades has mankind disrupted this well balanced ecosystem and turned large parts into toxic dumps and vast deserts of concrete. This is at least the current view of a majority of eco-organizations and ecologically concerned individuals. It also draws on the fact that we perceive ourselves as outside of nature, which according to Daniel Quinn and others, is “the most dangerous idea in existence” [1, 2, 3] since many people think that “humans belong to an order of being that is separate from the rest of the living community. There’s us and then there’s nature. There’s humans and then there’s the human environment.” [2]. Reconsidering this and assuming that we are a fundamental part of nature [4], we are urged to ask: Are we really a disturbance of the earth’s ecosystem or are we part of its evolution?

A few billion years ago, alga transformed the earth’s atmosphere and microorganisms tapped into the carbon of the atmosphere to create their shells, which now form the strata of the earth (layers of sedimentary rock and soil). Did anyone back then accuse them of destroying the earth? Would we have, if we had been around? In fact, they were the basis for new life forms and they made the genesis of mankind possible. Can we claim something similar for us? Would we want to? Are we precursor for something new and even more developed? And even more important: If the answer is “yes”, are we ready to face the consequences?

We basically harness natural resources like rare soils and the energy that the earth and its plants have harvested from the sun and stored over millions of years. We utilize the soils to build electric appliances and the energy to fulfill the vast energetic needs we have while transforming this planet once again. Similar to the alga and microorganisms, we are not certain about the implications of this transformation and don’t know whether we can still live on it once it is transformed (although it has been widely suggested that we can’t [5]). Are we ready to accept this and go on? Is it too late for a change anyway? Or should we do everything we can to try to keep our planet inhabitable for us humans?

In contrast to early alga and microorganisms, we humans are able to consider our actions and to control them with respect to their outcome (at least to some extent). So from our perspective, we should try everything to change our course even in the last minute. This is where we see the concepts of sustainable living and sustainable development coming into play.

Nature, humans, and human-nature systems are strongly intertwined in adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal that form an ever evolving eco-system [4]. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, founder of The Natural Step, Sweden argues that “the only processes that we can rely on indefinitely are cyclical; all linear processes must eventually come to an end” [3], which gives us a first idea about what is sustainable and what is not. However, he also observes that our society is continuously processing natural resources in a linear direction, which will eventually reach an end (soon) and thus is not sustainable. To ensure our own continued existence, we will have to identify our linear processes and turn them into cycles. This way, we might eventually reach a sustainable lifestyle driven by sustainable development and positive evolution. If we are not a disturbance of the earth’s ecosystem, but an integral part of it … what stops us from acknowledging this and finally starting to behave appropriately?

Please leave a comment if you have a different opinion, additional thoughts, critical remarks or the answer to any of the raised questions!

References

[1] Elizabeth Goodman. Three environmental discourses in human-computer interaction. In Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems, CHI EA ’09, pages 2535–2544, New York, NY, USA, 2009. ACM.

[2] Daniel Quinn. The new renaissance. http://ishmael.org/Education/Writings/The_New_Renaissance.shtml, accessed 05.05.2011, 2002.

[3] Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Educating a nation: The natural step. IN CONTEXT, 28:2–12, 1991.

[4] C.S. Holling. Theories for sustainable futures. Conservation Ecology, 4, 2000.

[5] Mathis Wackernagel and William E. Rees. Our écological footprint: reducing human impact on the earth. The New Catalyst, 1996.

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Researching Sustainability

Searching for the deeper meaning in my research I became intrigued by the area of sustainability, sustainable living and sustainable development. Due to my background in computer science especially the fields of sustainable human-computer interaction and sustainable smart homes served as a starting point for my research, which then lead me deeper into areas like deep ecology, the gaya theory and eco-spirituality. I am especially fascinated by the idea of cycles in our life and the aim of not only conserving what is there, but actually contributing and improving the world around us. In the near future I will post a bunch of articles about my recent findings and then this blog will serve as a source for continuous updates around a wide area of topics.

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