Circles sink button

Posted on April 18, 2011


Over the last few days I’ve been exploring how we might promote “not-buying stuff”.  I thought I had hit on it with  a big green button for “impulse sustainability”, but then undid myself with the realisation that we don’t really know what such a button would do – or even if it could.

This series of diagrams comes from Principles and Engineering for Sustainable Development (Dodds and Venables 2005).  The series  places a Venn diagram and a version of  ‘Strong Sustainability’ in a progression that leads to “sustainability achieved”.  It does a good job of showing a progression (let’s assume the y-axis is time) from things considered separately – to an integrated, sustainable whole.   It suffers though,  at this end state, from a similar problem to my button – it gives little direction as to what is sustainability.

The three circles in the top section of the diagram represent the three “pillars” of sustainability: environment, society and economy – the latter expanded to technocentric concerns.  In the first instance, the three pillars (circles) are separate.  This is classic unsustainability.   It is the integration of them that makes sustainability.  In the second section, the pillars have come together to form the classic Sustainable Development Venn diagram.  Sustainability is in the middle bit.   There’s two problems here.  First: most people think the whole diagram represents sustainability.  It doesn’t – only the middle bit does.  Calling each rump sustainability (eg: economic sustainability) is wrong.  Second: other than the observation that the pillars are together it gives no guidance as to how the otherwise separate things are combined.

In the third section, two significant changes have happened.  “Sustainable Development” has grown to fill almost the entire model.  Perhaps even more importantly, the pillars now overlap to a stage where the environment contains the other two pillars.  This nested model is the basis of Strong Sustainability (more usually drawn as concentric circles).

Finally we get to “Sustainability Achieved”.  Unfortunately, it might as we say “Justice Achieved” or “Banana Achieved”.   It only makes sense when we look back at the pillars that were separate in the previous sections of the diagram and know that they’re in there somewhere.

This is a problem of any pillars based model.  We are presented with three separate pillars each as a single element, but with little or no guidance about what constitutes a sustainable whole.  Sustainability after all is a holistic concept, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

This sequence does a good job of reminding the engineers it was aimed at that “sustainability means living within all three types of long-term constraint: technology cannot be deployed as though it has no environmental or societal implications. Engineers must therefore be key players in sustainable development”.

For me, though, this little sequence of diagrams shows that my green button can do little to provide a framework for action.   The button might work more metaphorically  – as a reminder to “think green” – much like De Bono’s six coloured thinking hats prompted being being cautious or optimistic (and so on).