Sustainability 101 in a nutshell?

Posted on July 29, 2007

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The earth is a spaceship with limited resources governed by an intricate and fragile web of natural and human systems whereby actions should be backed by critical thinking and participatory decision making to avoid unintended consequences sometimes temporally and spatially removed from the origin.

 

Jim Trauth (ThoughtLaggard) blogged this today:

I collected up some old books while home recently – among them an old favorite: Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. The one lesson? It’s in chapter one:

“…the whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

The remainder of the book is short chapters demonstrating simple examples of the lesson. It strikes me that this may be the lesson that environmentalists and businesses must all learn, if they’re to get along and play nice.

I’m not entirely sure what “the lesson” is, but no matter, both interpretations of the slight ambiguity are useful.

Possible single lesson for sustainability:

We should learn from Hazlitt and articulate a single sentence. Yes. We have definitions of sustainability, indeed we have lots of them (Murcott indentified 57 separate definitions in 1997). The widely used “The ability to meet present needs without compromising those of future generations”, is a good definition (if anthropocentric) but this is not the one thing we need to know, no more than Hazlitt’s quote defines economics.

Alternative single lesson for sustainability:

We should learn from Hazlitt and articulate a single sentence and that sentence is:

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

With a straight word replacement that translates to:

The art of sustainability consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

What’s wrong with this?

1. The “art of sustainability” is cumbersome. Improving this is problematic though. Sustainability is not a discipline, indeed we would prefer it to underpin all disciplines. Let’s avoid being circular and not actually use the term in our lesson.

2. While the “looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects” adequately describes temporal effects, it does not cover other scalar effects – especially spatial.

3. “looking at…effects” gives no indication of making choices for the better. Yes, sustainability has underlying value statements.

4. “Not merely for one group but for all groups” is good but still anthropocentric: ‘Parallel care and respect for the ecosystem and for the people within’ is sometimes used.

The Natural Step Framework takes a formal approach, describing their four system conditions…

…a sustainable society is one which does not systematically increase concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust, or substances produced by society; that does not degrade the environment and in which people have the capacity to meet their needs worldwide.

…but if we use this as our lesson descriptor, it gives little indication of the characteristics of a sustainable practitioner nor of complexity, nor systems thinking.

So, a straw-man single sentence lesson for sustainability:

The earth is a spaceship with limited resources governed by an intricate and fragile web of natural and human systems, actions should be backed by critical thinking to avoid unintended consequences sometimes temporally and spatially removed from the origin.

The spaceship bit might seem cute, and I’d happily lose it, but I can’t think of a different metaphor that it so succinct and engaging – and this is supposed to be a single sentence lesson!

How does this activity align with Education for Sustainability curriculum components? (annotated tables here and here). On first look it seems pretty good. Perhaps missing is the ability to participate creatively in inter-disciplinary teams, and the role of participatory action (Jensen and Schnack 1997):

Our point of departure is that relevant answers to environmental problems are not only a matter of quantitative changes (less consumption of resources, less transport by car, less electricity consumption, etc.), but also (and maybe more so) of qualitative changes. Therefore, the aim of environmental education is to make students capable of envisioning alternative ways of development and to be able to participate in acting according to these objectives…
A school does not become ‘green’ by conserving energy, collecting batteries or sorting waste. The crucial factor must be what the students learn from participating in such activities, or from deciding something else…
Education for democracy, or political liberal education, is, in itself, a fundamental educational task. We do not believe in educational efforts in relation to the environment, health and peace which are divorced from this fundamental perspective…
democracy is participation. In a democracy, the members are not spectators, but participants; not equally active participants in everything all the time, naturally, but always potential participants who decide for themselves in what and when they will be involved.

So, try again, this time with participation (and a “whereby” because it is getting long)

The earth is a spaceship with limited resources governed by an intricate and fragile web of natural and human systems whereby actions should be backed by critical thinking and participatory decision making to avoid unintended consequences sometimes temporally and spatially removed from the origin.

Now it’s too long, I wonder if Henry Hazlitt would like a go? Or anyone else, all editing gratefully received.

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