Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Part I: What intrinsic qualities enable sustainable societies?

By Ken Hall on January 18, 2010

This is the first of a three-part posting on the concept of intrinsic sustainability. In this post, Ken Hall describes the essential qualities of a sustainable society. Subsequent posts deal with the challenges of sustainable design teams and the built environment.

Miriam-Webster defines intrinsic as belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing. The challenge we face today is that sustainability is not intrinsic to our current way of thinking, designing, building, conducting business, and relating to each other and the places where we live.

Achieving high-performance environments requires substantial changes from business-as-usual thinking – for designers, builders and occupants. This is especially true when attempting to achieve a net-zero or carbon neutral environmental design.

First and foremost, the entire human chain – design team, client, and eventual users of the facility – must all share the intention to achieve predefined performance mandates, even if that means living within limits and being more flexible about received notions of comfort.

Secondly, we must relearn the principles of passive design and integrate them with clean technologies to deliver appropriate renewable energy for the needs of a sustainable society.

In each case, this is easier said than done. There are many forces that resist sustainability and attempt to keep things the way they are. To better understand the forces that make achieving sustainable design so difficult, it’s helpful to remember Paul Erlich's Impacts Equation:

I = P x A x T

Erlich’s premise is that impacts are a product of population, affluence and technology. Here in the west, our population is relatively small, yet we cause significant impacts due to the magnifying influence of our affluence and technology. In Asia and India, we see the growing impact of cultures whose populations have always been larger than ours – and have recently begun to gain access to increasing affluence and technology.

Many have argued about the details of this equation- for example, that ‘green technologies’ (T2) could function to mitigate impacts and change the equation:

I = (P x A x T)/T2.

However, there’s a counterproductive ‘rebound effect’, which suggests that when we implement green technologies or improved efficiency, we actually use more of the technology and our impacts continue to increase.

My view is that we are missing a fundamental component in the equation- Culture. I argue the Impact Equation should be

I = C? (P x A x T)/C?

The sustainable or nonsustainable impacts of our population, affluence and technology are determined by culture. A consumer culture magnifies the nonsustainable impacts, whereas a culture of stewardship lessens the impact of P, A, and T. This dual potential of culture is expressed by the question marks in the equation. Culture could be and often is in both places at once.

Culture is the primary enabler of human adaptability, and culture will determine our ability to achieve sustainability. I submit that this is a hopeful equation; it suggests the possibility for improvement; that with a sustainable culture we can achieve sustainable population levels, with appropriate affluence and technology.

The world view of a culture is a vital factor in determining its influence on sustainability. For example, our western worldview includes hidden assumptions about growth, exploitation of resources, and consumptive lifestyles. Most serious are the cultural assumptions that have de-sacralized Earth by objectifying it as a natural resource.

Our cultural assumption is that technology will solve our problems when "free markets" receive the right price signals; yet our economy externalizes the costs of ecological impacts on distant places and future generations. This transfer of damage is much easier to do when Earth is no longer seen as sacred, as a one-time endowment of a living planet.

Put simply, our dominant western culture is not intrinsically sustainable. This is why achieving high-performance design mandates is the exception and not the rule. The path to a sustainable society depends upon a new way of viewing earth and a new story that we tell ourselves about who we are. Thomas Berry writes eloquently on this topic in The Dream of the Earth. The degree to which society is able to shift worldviews to become intrinsically sustainable, is the degree to which we can achieve sustainability. David Korten calls this The Great Turning.

Image credit: Jeff Binder