Need to visualise sustainability

Posted on March 13, 2009


I’m not sure how this happened, but I’m working on two sustainability books at the moment.  One of them is highly visual and we’re working with communication design students to produce it. The book has a long running narrative, illustrated by short stories. Each of these is accompanied by a photograph which (tangentially at least) illustrates the story. The photograph is overlaid with a sketch that examines the sustainability concepts in the photograph.  The approach is inspired by this image by Artbandito

I’m very excited by this structure, the threading, the multiple scales and the layering should give some notion of sustainability themselves – every story has a back story, every image can be viewed with a sustainable lens 

While Katie is busily corralling the stories, the big job at the moment for me is the imagery. The photographs are the start, we’ve made the decision to avoid obviously green imagery (so no ferns unfurling). Instead we hope to challenge – we need pictures that ask what it means to be a sustainable road worker (for example).

The overprint is trickier.  The problem is how to convey the essence of sustainability in a few sketched lines.  We need to focus on the notion of sustainability itself rather than the underlying science – greenhouse, carbon, meso climate process, ground water, etc for which there are a zillion diagrams. I’m wading through the net and my bookshelves.

The message in these sketched diagrams is very important.   Here’s the usual “3 circles” approach to representing sustainability:


This, though is not universally accepted:

 “There is some common ground where each of the circles converge, but the main priority in this model is the health of the economy. Economists sometimes refer to this as the weak sustainability model ….. it assumes that the degradation of one group of assets, (environmental, social or economic) can be compensated for by improvement in another and that externalities can be externalised (PRISM and Knight, 2000, cited in PCE, 2002). This weak sustainability model fails to acknowledge the ecological constraints that humans, other species, markets, policies and developments must operate within” (NZ PCE quoted by Pam Willams’ PhD)


The “Strong Sustainability” model is preferred by sustainability advocates:

“This model recognises that the economy is a subset of society (i.e. it only exists in the context of a society), and that many important aspects of society do not involve economic activity. Similarly, human society and the economic activity with it are totally constrained by the natural systems of our planet” (NZ PCE quoted by Pam Willams (PhD)


The strong sustainability model makes it harder to make the mistake of considering the aspects separately – a problem with the 3 circle Venn diagram which leads in the extreme to the Mickey Mouse model (OzPolitic).


Anyone got any favourite images? – feel free to send them along…