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

In theory

By Travis Lee on March 13, 2009

A friend of mine is very fond of the quote, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” Depending on whom you ask, this morsel of wisdom came from Albert Einstein, Yogi Berra, or Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut. The three of them can fight it out wherever they are, but the point is that things are rarely as clear-cut, or easy, as their defining theory suggests.

I think about this quote in the context of sustainable design from time to time. The theory of sustainable design is a vision for the way design should, and hopefully someday will, be. It’s filled with lofty and noble goals – like comprehensive life cycle analyses run on every system and designs that use only materials that can be perfectly reclaimed and reused as technical nutrients. This theory is admirable, and is nothing short of necessary for the sustainable design movement to be able to achieve its ultimate goal: design that meets today's needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. Like a lighthouse guiding a ship to harbor, this goal must be constant, unwavering, immobile.

But too often some in the sustainable design community become so entrenched in the theory of sustainable design that they lose sight of the fact that achieving it requires more than just persistence and commitment. Many, although not all, tend to have professions outside of designer or engineer. They are not tasked with creating actual products day to day. They stand in the lighthouse (again, an admirable and necessary position) and criticize the ship’s crew when they tack away from the shore to face an oncoming wave or avoid another ship. “Incrementalism is not the solution!” they yell. “Turning that direction will only get you so far!”

I want to assure those in the lighthouse that the crew knows this. We get it. Every crewmember on this ship understands that, theoretically, the quickest path between ship and harbor is a straight line. But in a storm that theory falls apart, for the crew must account for sizeable waves, wind gusts and other ships. Consumer demand, market forces, and the cutthroat world of globalization combine to make a pretty big storm. The indirect path, while slower, is necessary in practice, and if we head straight for the shore we could very likely capsize or crash. The unfortunate reality is that, unlike the theory, the practice of sustainable design is full of contradictions, unknowns, bargaining and compromise. So, please keep the lamp burning. Please continue to discuss what sustainable design should be. Your guidance is looked for and appreciated – but understand that getting there takes some strategic steering from time to time.