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Toward Sustainability


Some foxes live in a forest. Day in and day out these foxes hunt and eat rabbits, which also live in the forest. There are lots of rabbits and the well-fed foxes multiply. There are now so many foxes that the rabbits, productive as they are, cannot maintain their numbers. The foxes begin to struggle to find rabbits; some die from hunger. But as the fox numbers dwindle, the rabbits recover in numbers. Neither foxes nor rabbits go extinct. This, our high school biology teacher tells us is how ecosystems function, and is an example of homeostasis. It is also an example of the ever changing nature of sustainability.

In the January/February issue of I.D. Magazine, John May wrote, in his article “Against Sustainability”, a timely criticism of the current sustainability discourse. Although his unease is well founded, he ultimately misses the central issue by focusing on a fixed reading of sustainability instead of a dynamic one. It is important that we remember that sustainability is always in flux, as the foxes and rabbits illustrate.

May begins by stating, “The current discussion of sustainability is both conceptually incoherent and politically inadequate,” thus allowing sustainability to be easily appropriated by green washers seeking to gloss over their true impacts. May laments that “sustainable design is evidently so obvious that it needs no clear definition.” A definition that could hold green washers accountable, and challenge designers to take meaningful action.

To support his position that the current dialog is misguided and needs a philosophical retooling, May strikes at the methods of modernity and our ability to eliminate environmental impact. “Modernity has proved exceptionally good at producing theoretical blind alleys” and “any discourse on sustainability must avoid the trap of becoming yet another modern solution.” We must avoid the arrogance of believing “that the natural world can be measured, managed, and organized through technology into resources.”

This is the ultimate criticism of most current definitions of sustainability, including the one May cites by Jason McLennan: sustainable design “eliminates completely through skillful and sensitive design the environmental impact of the physical objects and services of the built environment.” Like most attempts at defining sustainability, it presents a vision of an end state, but no indication of the path to get there. It suggests that we are the masters of the natural world and can engineer it to our specifications. May is absolutely correct in his criticism. While helpful inspiration, these definitions do not serve designers looking to take meaningful action.

May goes on to highlight three major issues that he believes are missing from and must be part of a coherent discourse on sustainability:

  • Our focus as designers on products and not processes.
  • New-ness and disposability as cultural values.
  • Externalization of by-products from our material culture.

Behind each of these three issues raised by May are questions of perception and measurement. As humans, we have always struggled to change what we cannot understand, and we understand through measurement. Using our senses we explore the world and build webs of causality in our minds. Modernity has supplied numerous detrimental processes and failed ideas, but it has also supplied the most powerful methods ever created for bolstering our senses and helping us understanding the world. From the statistical and probabilistic tools of physics to the observational methods of anthropology, these are the most valuable tools created by modernity. We must use these tools in the service of design to understand and inform our decisions.

As John Thackara so aptly concluded his treatise on sustainability, In the Bubble, we must transition from a planning paradigm to a “sense and respond” mode of working. The world is extremely complex and it is impossible to predict all the impacts of our designs; even predicting market adoption is frustratingly illusive. However, there is a way out of this vicious cycle of “well-planned projects that continue to go awry.” We must see our work as tentative, as hypotheses that we test and refine. We cannot reach sustainability, nor even define it concretely, because it is a dynamic process stretching through time, not some fixed location on a map. Yet we can maintain our balance in the world by groping our way forward and fixing problems as we find them.

Viewed at this level, sustainability may seem paralyzing. How can we possibly use these ideas to fix the problems of our day? In the short term, it seems practical to think of sustainability in more concrete terms like carbon-neutral and focus on achieving those goals. These more concrete ideas and metrics often provide better traction for designers looking to make concrete changes to their designs. It is important that we remember that going carbon-neutral is not the same as being sustainable. We must observe the myriad of effects, and as the situation changes the goals must change too.

No one knows what a sustainable future looks like in detail and the only way to find out is through meaningful innovation in well-informed directions. Rather than attacking designers’ complicity in “incessant innovation”, we must acknowledge that constant innovation is our means of maintaining balance. It is the process by which we find new ways of existing in the world. Thackara’s phrase, “sense and respond”, captures this idea and the humility we must employ as we observe the results of our design decisions. We must sense and respond. The only question is, what will we sense and how will we respond?

May, John. “Against Sustainability”. I.D. Magazine, January/February 2010. 20-21. Thakara, John. "In the Bubble". MIT Press, April 2005.

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Spring 2010

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