Sustainability as a learning journey: pilgrims and apprentices

Sustainability is not a fixed state that can be achieved and then maintained forever after. Sustainability is a dynamic process of co-evolution and a community-based process of continuous conversation and learning how to participate appropriately in the constantly transforming life-sustaining processes that we are part of and that our future depends upon. If we are not asking the right questions, it is very easy to get confused with the diversity of answers on offer.

Cover image of Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl (graphic design Flavia Gargiulo)

As practitioners in your own field you will have noticed that often there are a number of ‘sustainable design solutions’ competing to be applied to a specific problem. Even for the experts it is difficult — if not impossible — to decide with certainty which answer offers the better solution.

One example of competing ‘sustainable solutions’ is the issue of whether tomorrow’s road transport system should be based on renewably generated hydrogen or a shift towards electric vehicles powered by renewably generated electricity. I have met many informed and passionate advocates for both of these solutions and — at points — have found myself swayed towards one or the other by the force of conviction and evidence provided for either of them.

There are also many examples of how the powerful lobbies of the global petro- chemical, agro-industrial and pharmaceutical industries have used ‘scientific evidence’ and well-funded misinformation campaigns to sell the consumer supposedly sustainable solutions that at best sustain the short-term economic growth imperative of these multinationals but do so at the expense of people and planet.

One such example is the way giant agribusinesses have patented GM seeds and have lobbied national governments to make traditional seed-saving of heirloom varieties illegal, while spending millions on campaigns to promote themselves as working for global food security. Surely the diversity of local varieties of food plants adapted to different ecological and climatic conditions is a vital factor in food security? In a culture of corporate greed and insidious disinformation it is hard to know which expert to trust and which proposed solution is worth implementing.

Any technology-based solution that needs energy and materials can always be criticized on the grounds that these techno-fixes fall short of delivering lasting results, since we are (globally) running out of the materials and energy we need to implement these technologies and to maintain the associated infrastructures over the long term.

We are approaching shortages of many of the key chemical elements that are the basis of our current high technologies. For example, indium is a rare earth element that is crucial for modern photovoltaic technologies and touch screen displays, yet it is on the growing list of ‘endangered elements’ published by the Royal Society of Chemistry (Davies, 2011). At current rates of consumption many of these ‘endangered elements’ might not be available within 10 to 50 years (Cohen, 2007).

In thinking about the implementation of sustainable solutions we have not only to consider the limited availability of certain key materials but also the energy required to develop and deploy these solutions. In the last few years the fossil fuel industry has tried to silence the debate about peak oil with reports on new discoveries. Ever more expensive, complicated, and dangerous technologies (e.g. the fracking of shale gas and the exploitation of tar sands) are opening up access to more fossil fuels stored in the Earth’s crust. The message is: there are a lot of fossil fuel resources left!

This is certainly true. Yet, these reports fail to say that the ‘energy return on energy invested’ (EROEI) along with the environmental impacts of the extraction and use of these reserves will make it uneconomic and unfeasible ever to use these fuels. More importantly still, the International Panel on Climate Change makes it clear that if we were to burn the remaining fossil fuel reserves we would affect global climate patterns in ways that would trigger catastrophic climate change.

It matters little how much of this “unburnable carbon” (Carbon Tracker, 2013) is left; we have to switch to renewable resources for our fuels and material culture long before we run out of fossil resources. As Bill McDonough has suggested: “the Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones”; nor will the fossil fuel age end because we are running out of oil, coal or gas. It is time for us to shift towards a regenerative use of renewable resources.

If we take the current speed of technological innovation into account, it may indeed be possible to achieve radical resource and energy efficiency improvements that will help us in the transition towards a more sustainable culture, but if we see this transition only as a technical problem we are unlikely to create a truly regenerative human culture.

We might develop new graphene-based nanotechnologies that will help us to filter water, store energy and find even more effective ways to collect and distribute renewable energy. We might be able to develop a new material culture based on additive manufacturing if we can grow feedstock for 3D printing technologies based on renewable materials and a new bio- economy. Yet, if we don’t ask deeper questions about our current consumer culture and its value systems and worldview, we are unlikely to use these technological innovations to humanity’s and life’s long-term advantage.

Technology is a double-edged sword. Even if new ‘green’ miracle technologies did come riding over the hill to save us, in the short term, we need more than technological innovation to steer our way into an uncertain and unpredictable future. We need to develop a new sensitivity to the way life as a whole sustains itself and flourishes on a finite planet. Such deeper sensitivity and the humility of acknowledging the limits of our knowing is essential if we hope to apply our technological capabilities with wisdom and foresight.

Since the 1950s our economic system has been driving ever-increasing consumption on the premise that more (growth and consumption) is better. We need to learn from the kind of growth found in natural systems, which shifts from quantitative growth to qualitative growth as the system matures (see Chapter 7). [This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

It’s not that more is better; better is better! Technological change is now so fast that we will also have to address important ethical questions:

How do we best apply the Precautionary Principle with regard to new technologies that seem promising but might have far-reaching environmental and social consequences if employed at a global scale?

Is it wise to mass-deploy all technologies that are technically feasible, or should we choose more carefully how and for what we employ our technological capabilities?

How do we choose wisely between one technological ‘solution’ and another, if experience shows that most of today’s solutions turn into tomorrow’s problems?

How do we stay humble and act with ‘precaution’ in the face of uncertainty and constant change?

We will never reach ‘destination sustainability’. Instead, we had better prepare for the long — and at points surprising — learning journey that will allow us to chart our path into an uncertain future. To walk the path into an uncertain future we would do well to cultivate the attitude of a pilgrim — with respect for all of life, in gratitude for the abundance we can share along the way, and with reverence for the magnificence of participating in this beauty.

We would also do well to cultivate the attitude of an apprentice — acknowledging that nature in all its forms — whether through our fellow human beings or through the multitude of fellow species on this planet — has so much to teach us. As pilgrims and apprentices we have to be willing to question and, at times, give up what we know and who we are for what we could become. Herein lies one of the secrets of transformative innovation for a regenerative culture.

The learning journey that will take us beyond sustainability towards a regenerative human presence on Earth will have to be travelled with a pilgrim’s humility and reverence for life and an apprentice’s questioning and open mind. If we stop reminding ourselves of the limits of our own knowing and stop seeing the intrinsic (not just the utilitarian) value of all life, we will lose our responsiveness to what nature/life has to teach us. If we cease to understand ourselves as apprentices and begin to believe we have permanent answers to offer, we leave the path of ‘living the questions’ and we run the risk of stifling creativity, adaptive capacity and transformative innovation.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

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