Sustainability – First Principles v2.0

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When I first got professionally involved with campus sustainability, there was really only one first principle: greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, and the higher education sector needed to show America how to correct that. Call it First Principles v1.0.

But then came “sustainability is a three-legged stool”. Call it v1.3. Environmental sustainability (mostly global warming, but now with added awareness of water issues) was still key, but social sustainability and economic sustainability came into play on the basis that if people were under significant social and/or economic stress they might take actions injurious to the environment (polluting water, clearing forests, burning fossil fuels, etc.). My read on the campus sustainability community is that a majority of folks are still running v1.3. It’s internally consistent, so it’s stable. And there’s enough substance that long-term play value is pretty good.

But an increasing number are running v1.5. Still a three-legged stool, but no longer is environmental sustainability the most important leg. All three legs are equally important. If the human race (or any significant portion thereof) operates beyond the relevant environmental, social or economic constraints, then we (or the relevant “they”) are doomed. Increasingly complex. Increasingly ominous. Not an easy narrative to sell, even on campus. Still, more intellectually honest.

But recently I’ve been moving — slowly and haphazardly — towards First Principles 2.0. Environmental sustainability is no longer in first place. In fact, it’s probably running at the back of the pack. Social sustainability is now the key. Let me try to explain:

The environment, society and the economy are all systems. Systems can operate sustainably, in that they can avoid behaviors which will bring them crashing down. Sustainability, for any particular system, is akin to stability. In more technical terms, it’s a form of super-stability in that the system has not only achieved a form of equilibrium but it also manages to return to that (or a similar) equilibrium even when faced by significant external change. So an economy might be stable if demand and supply are in balance, and might be super-stable if it returns reliably to balance in the face of some external change like a major resource shortage or a new source of demand. A society might be stable if all the various groups and individuals within it interact according to an agreed set of rules, and might be super-stable if those rules can bend (without breaking) to adapt to a war, or a fundamental change of technology or an opportunity to expand via colonization. An environment (or at least a climate) is stable if the overall pattern of weather 100 years ago is pretty much the same as today’s, and if we think weather patterns 100 years from now are likely to be unchanged; it’s super-stable if over millions of years it adapts to changing external conditions (the tilt of the earth’s axis, solar activity, intergalactic war, whatever) and always stays within a fixed set of limits.

What passes for “social sustainability” is pretty much the same as social super-stability. Think of it as a high degree of social resilience. Any society, embodying pretty much any set of rules and relationships, can be stable in the short term. Military dictatorships are stable in the short term. Stalinist communism was stable in the short term. Absolute monarchy is stable in the short term. But each of those forms of society tends to be disrupted — even if it’s replaced only by a society that resembles it in many ways (e.g., a monarchy with a military dictatorship). Societies based on institutionalized and inflexible oppression tend to be brittle. Participatory societies are more resilient, and so more sustainable.

Similarly with economies, resilience tends to come from broad patterns of participation. Allow economic participation only by royal warrant or some other restrictive criterion, and difficulties (most often stagnation) ensue. Concentrate too great a share of economic activity within too small a share of society, and recession will follow.

In terms of both social and economic sustainability, that’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. Promote sufficiently broad participation in both economic and socio-political activity and the human community becomes pretty resilient. Hit it with a war or an epidemic or a natural disaster (all short of total annihilation, of course) and it’s very likely to bounce back over some geologically trivial period of time.

But environmental sustainability is different. What we care about is not that the environment is stable, or even super-stable. What we care about is that the environment is stable and predictably within a range that enables human society (including economic activity) to function sustainably. “Environmental sustainability” — in terms that are meaningful for you and me and our respective descendants — can be determined only given a level of social (including economic) resilience. And it’s become increasingly obvious to even the staunchest climate science denialist that the resilience of our society is being tested. The severity of that testing is scheduled to increase. With no end in sight. The eventual result if nothing much changes is predictable: the climate will establish a new equilibrium, but it won’t be an equilibrium amenable to human society as we know it.

My hope is that by focusing on social (and economic, but in truth the economy is just part of the larger social system) resilience, we can increase our collective ability to adapt to the climate changes which our activities to date have already baked into the environmental system. With luck, along the way we’ll re-establish a sense of community, the current lack of which has effectively prevented coordinated action to minimize environmental unsustainability.

It’s not a question of giving up on the environmental front, so much as a recognition that the very success criteria for environmental sustainability efforts are, in fact, defined largely by the degree of resilience any particular society has attained. And that our current society (like the economy that supports it) is increasingly — and increasingly obviously — brittle.

Proceeding from First Principle 1.0, my task (and the task of other sustainability wonks) was to address the environment. But as our understanding evolves, our task becomes to make society more resilient so that it can (1) survive the now unavoidable perturbations of the climate, and (2) reshape its priorities so that it redesigns its activities so that it stops amplifying climatic perturbations.

If I’m right, achieving sustainability becomes far less a technical problem, and far more a social one. And if that’s true then if we (and by “we” I mean all of us in higher education) are not part of the solution, then we’re part of the problem.

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