SATURDAY, DEC 24, 2016

Review of Demystifying Sustainability: Towards real solutions

by Haydn Washington

Eric Lee, A-SOCIATED PRESS

TOPICS: WOULD RATHER KNOW, FROM THE WIRES, OUT OF THE MIST

TUCSON (A-P) — I'm nobody, who are you?.... I fancy myself a student of science, though I deign to include life, the universe and everything among my interests, even poetry. About two years ago I was exposed to some sustainability rhetoric and dubious claims. Since the early 1970's I've been taking in information, not knowing what to make of it, but I've tried to pay attention. A few years ago, at 60, I had an opinion (about what I don't recall), but I dismissed it as an early sign of Alzheimer's. For the past two years I've been concerned with 'Sustainability Issues' in an attempt to put together the information I've taken in as the years went by. I didn't feel any need to wonder what others thought about 'sustainability' as initially I didn't need more information (being more in overload) and I don't care what other people think unless they may be right and offer to correct me. I needed to peer though the macroscope, not unlike Galileo's bewildered acquaintances looking through his telescope (those who didn't refuse outright), and take in a bigger picture.

No idea why, no plan, but as the pages accumulated I realized that I wasn't writing a blog no one would read. The material started to look like an ebook that no one would read. Well, no one of the consumer society as what I was saying was clearly unsellable, bearing no resemblance to what people wanted to hear or believe. My target reader could be a descendant(s) who, using the Way back Machine, might read my typing. Someone might recall the crank in the family who talked shit about 'a prosperous way down' as if things wouldn't just keep getting better and better.

Well, I need type no more. A book was published last year with references (853) and things, by a scholar and a scientist (who may or may not be a gentlemen), who has this credibility thing going for him, letters after his name, and a curriculum vitae. And since he says what I should have said better, no reason to read my typing. Just so I can think I didn't waste the last two years, I'll point out that well-informed and probably sane professors think in terms of a 'Plan A' for fixing things before it is too late and that for some reason I wrote about a Plan B — pointlessly if Plan A works. The real book, available with a cover, offers hope for those looking for a Plan A to save the world. Those seeking to 'turn things around before hitting the wall' should not read anything I've written (possible exception: The System: And how to save it) as I'm part of the Plan B team. I'll be deliriously happy if Washington and ilk manage to pull it off (and to have any chance the ilk will need to read the book). I not only could be wrong (about everything), but likely am. Still, someone should consider a Plan B just in case, as there is no Planet B (the inecolate Elon Musk, who plans to retire on Mars, doesn't know enough to have an opinion, just enough to oversell his wares).

Students of sustainability (and environmental studies) should also consider Schools of Sustainability: The feel-good of sustainability.

The preview [with comments]:

 

Demystifying Sustainability:

Towards real solutions

by Haydn Washington 2015

'Sustainable' must not remain merely an undefined buzzword of our time. The human predicament requires widespread understanding that humanity is in serious trouble because we have overshot this finite planet's sustainable human carrying capacity. Only by immediately outgrowing the 'endless growth' myth can we avert a fatally calamitous future for our species. — William Catton, Washington State University, USA

Sustainability and spirituality are the double helix of our future wellbeing. Rekindling a sense of wonder in our natural environment is essential for the quality of life of our increasingly urbanized society. This book lives up to the promise of its title and goes a long way towards demystifying sustainability for a broad audience. — Julian Crawford, International Society of Sustainability Professionals, USA

Haydn Washington has nicely deconstructed the dominant economic paradigm that is driving us toward global collapse. Alternatives are clearly explained through a tool kit of out-of-the-box thinking that could save us from ourselves. I recommend it to all who care about a quality future for life on Earth. — Colin L. Soskolne, University of Alberta, Canada

 

What is sustainability? Much has been said about the terms 'sustainability' and 'sustainable development' over the last few decades, but they have become buried under academic jargon. This book is one of the first that aims to demystify sustainability so that the layperson can understand the key issues, questions and values involved.

Accessible and engaging, Demystifying Sustainability examines the 'old' sustainability of the past and looks to the future, considering how economic, ecological and social sustainability should be defined if we are to solve the entwined environmental, economic and social crises. It considers if meaningful sustainability is the same as a 'sustainable development' based on endless growth, examining the difficult but central issues of overpopulation and overconsumption that drive unsustainability. The book also explores the central role played by society's worldview and ethics, along with humanity's most dangerous characteristic — denial. Finally, it looks to the future, discussing the 'appropriate' technology needed for sustainability, and suggesting nine key solutions.

This book provides a much-needed comprehensive discussion of what sustainability means for students, policy makers and all those interested in a sustainable future.

Haydn Washington is an environmental scientist and writer of 40 years' experience. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

 

Foreword

by William Rees, University of British Columbia, originator and co-developer of the 'Ecological Footprint' concept

On 'getting real'

This book is about sustainability and how to achieve it. But it is also about two other seemingly unrelated things — the 'nature of reality' and 'humanity as work-in-progress'. The facts are that humans have a limited grasp of reality. Worse, 'We have all by our actions or lack of them — in particular over the last almost half-century — agreed to deny reality' (Saul 1995, p. 18). Fortunately, our species is still evolving. Homo sapiens is unfinished and improvable — but still subject to the demands of natural selection. Both perceived reality and human evolutionary status bear on prospects for sustainability. (You should be worried!)

Three indisputable facts frame the analysis. First, since the dawn of agriculture, humanity's material and cognitive relationship with the rest of the natural world has become increasingly dysfunctional. The accumulating scientific evidence shows that humanity is now on a collision course with biophysical reality. Second, Homo sapiens has the high intelligence, analytic ability, organisational skills, and material resources needed to avoid catastrophe; third, despite such abilities, the global community has failed utterly to take the necessary evasive action. On the contrary, world leaders, in apparent denial of the evidence, regularly unite in a vigorous chorus of 'steady as she goes'.

Demystifying Sustainability goes a long way toward explaining this conundrum and its origins in unique dimensions of human nature. 'Perception' is at the heart of the problem. Humans rarely perceive anything just as it is. From birth, every sensory input and social encounter a person experiences contributes to the formation of various cognitive filters through which that person interprets all subsequent experiences. Thus, two individuals with different family, social, or educational backgrounds and social groups create their own 'realities'. Consider how many differing cultural narratives, tribal myths, religious doctrines, political ideologies, disciplinary paradigms, ethical frameworks and other worldviews exist to divide the human family. We humans are, by nature, story-tellers [Homo narrator] and myth-makers who collectively, selectively and subconsciously make things up as we go along.

Sociologists refer to this process as the 'social construction of reality' (Berger and Luckmann 1966) but it can function equally as the 'social construction of mass delusion'. Each 'social construct' is a product of mind first birthed in words and subsequently 'massaged or polished by social discourse and elevated to the status of received wisdom by agreement among members of the social group who are creating the construct' (Rees 2013). It is important to note that while 'what we know' may masquerade as reality: (1) all formal knowledge is to some degree socially constructed; (2) not all versions of 'truth' can be equally valid; and (3) many objects and phenomena (e.g. the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics) really exist regardless of whether or how people conceive of them.

Not surprisingly, there are myriad conflicting definitions of 'sustainability' and 'sustainable economic development' (note the three layers of social construction). Some analysts, including Haydn Washington, see Homo sapiens as an evolved species that remains an integral, dependent part of nature and whose societies and economies must be structured to reflect these basic biophysical facts. To them, sustainability requires that human societies learn to exist in harmony with the ecosystems that sustain them. Or perhaps 're-learn' — Dr Washington points out that the feeling 'of being part of Nature, of believing Nature is sacred ... (of needing to maintain) the harmony of the Universe, has emerged again and again in cultures across the world'. Ancient peoples learned, often the hard way, to think of the human-nature bond in terms of harmony, balance, reverence, sacredness, respect, custodianship, stewardship, beauty, and even love. A modern economy based on such values would necessarily mimic the 'steady-state' material cycles and energy flows through nature; humans would neither take more than ecosystems can produce nor discharge more wastes than they can assimilate on a continuous (i.e. 'sustainable') basis. An overriding principle would be the maintenance of biophysical life-support functions. It is hard to imagine an economy so conceived not being sustainable.

At the other end of the belief spectrum are those who argue that humans have transcended their lowly biological origins. By this construct, people are no longer part of, or dependent on nature, and owe no allegiance to the natural world. Such human 'exceptionalism' dissolves fear of climate change, the ecological crisis and resource shortages. Indeed, human ingenuity and technological prowess are the only resources that matter, infinitely capable of seeing us through any temporary set-back. Listen to the ebullient confidence of the late Professor Julian Simon:

Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature.... We have in our hands now — actually, in our libraries — the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years. — (Simon 1995)

Admittedly extreme (and arithmetically absurd), such assertions nevertheless feed the widespread contemporary belief that humanity has freed itself from material bonds to the living Earth (emotional bonds never enter the discussion). Thus liberated, the global mainstream has fabricated a 'sanitised' (Washington's word) version of sustainability that shifts the focus from harmony, integrity and caring to the cold mechanics of perpetual growth monitored by GDP per capita with occasional reference to 'carbon footprints', 'energy audits' and related forms of routine book-keeping.

It doesn't end there. The operational platform for mainstream sustainability is corporate capitalism and its hand-maiden, neoliberal market economics. The neoliberal construct gives us a lifeless, mechanistic model of the economy concerned mainly with maximizing the efficiency and productivity of a 'self-generating circular flow of exchange value' (the flows of money back and forth between firms and households) and the accumulation of human-made capital. With remarkable conceptual sleight of hand [sleight of mind], economists have thus constructed an abstraction of the economy that floats free from both the ecosystems within which the economy is embedded and the human community it purports to serve. Moreover, seeing the economy as a circular money flow with no attention to unidirectional energy and material throughput is akin to considering the human body as a circulatory system with no reference to the digestive track. One might as well ask an engineering student to accept that 'a car can run on its own exhaust' (Daly 1991, p. 197).

As telling, the ethical stance of neoliberal economics toward the living world is 'utilitarian, anthropocentric and instrumentalist....' It is utilitarian in that things count to the extent that people want them; anthropocentric, in that humans are assigning the values and instrumental, in that biota is regarded as an instrument for human satisfaction' (Randall 1988, pp. 217-218, original emphasis). As final insult to reality, the model assumes that market outcomes are determined by rational individuals expressing fixed consumption preferences, where 'rational' is defined as maximising personal 'utility'. The model thus reduces people to atomistic consuming machines devoid of family, community, sense of place and empathy toward the natural world. Ironically, the worldview that breathes life into mainstream economics sounds the death knell for ecological integrity. Dr Washington remarks that the only connection between mainstream economic theory and the living world is that perpetual growth remains the largest elephant in the room.

It should be easy for reasonable people to choose between competing visions of sustainability — but there is a complication. So-called 'post-modernists' claim that, since all knowledge is socially constructed there can be no objective reality; modern science, therefore, has no greater claim to truth than alternative ways of knowing. Indeed, extreme relativism would assert that lunacy and science have an equivalent grasp on reality.

This is dangerous psycho-babble. It is particularly nonsensical when the competing constructs pertain to concrete entities and real processes that exist apart from human imaginings. To be useful in addressing problems in the real world, 'words and concepts must be anchored in external reality'. Indeed, 'it is the key to investment in the status quo may proved a formidable stumbling-block. Only climate catastrophe or some other massive ecological shock will be enough to discredit today's expansionary cultural narrative and force the world community to hit the re-set button [install new OS]. Will it then be too late?

More optimistically, if Mother Nature is extraordinarily generous, she may yet give science and protest politics enough time to nudge society toward an orderly transition. After all, humans remain uniquely capable of logical thought, of reasoning from the evidence and of using the results to plan ahead; and no other species comes close to H. sapiens' array of flexible mechanisms for cooperation in achieving common purpose. It helps that millions of people in the streets can be politically persuasive. What more does the world need to shed its fantasies, come to its senses and evolve a more viable global culture? [Rosetta Bliss]

Which brings us back to Demystifying Sustainability. This book describes an alternative way-of-seeing that both celebrates the full spectrum of human potential and clearly represents the biophysical realities within which the human animal must function. People being pushed in shock, confusion and dismay from the collapse of conventional wisdom also need the pull of an attractive option to help catalyse the transition. Haydn Washington's version of sustainability provides such a magnet, replete with the economic security, ecological stability and social cohesion increasingly from techno-industrial society.

In the final analysis, nothing stands in the way of sustainability but human nature — behavioral traits that were once robust have become maladaptive in the very environment they have helped to create. [including verbal behavior, i.e. belief-based narratives] If, in the crunch, primitive emotions, tribal instincts and culturally-programmed denial succeed in their defense of today's ecologically naive expansionist world-view, then nature's great unfinished experiment with high intelligence may well be shut down. We know from the implosion of previous civilisations that natural selection weeds out defective memes (units of cultural information) just as effectively as it does maladaptive genes (units of biological information). In short, if modern global society fails to 'demystify sustainability' and act accordingly, it may be just as unceremoniously 'selected out' as were the Sumerians, the Mayans and many societies in between. [Past Lives of Humans]

 

Introduction

Sustainability — seeking clarity in the mist

"We live today in an age of sustainababble, a cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything from environmentally better to cool." — Robert Engelman 2013

It is time to demystify sustainability, to seek clarity. Is 'sustainability' like the weather, where everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything? Almost everyone uses the word, but is its meaning clear? Is it the key term that will lead us to a workable and liveable future? Is it the single most important concept to emerge (or re-emerge) in Western society in recent decades? [centuries?] Alternately, have we made a radical mistake as to what sustainability is (Foster 2008, p. xiii)? Has it become a meaningless buzz word? Or even worse, has it become 'sustainababble' (Engelman 2013)? Has the term been co-opted by those who seek to use it for their own purposes, and turn it into mere tokenism, while they continue business-as-usual? Has it become a plaything of academic discourse (and ideologies) around which academics then develop arcane jargon the layperson cannot understand? As one of the authors of UNEP's 'The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity' has noted, sustainable development is often 'more talk than action' (Sukhdev 2010). Is it all of these? This book will seek to demystify the topic, delve into these meanings, and examine what sustainability is (and is not), and what it should be. It is hard to think [impossible to think] of a more crucial topic in today's world, a world with an environmental crisis, an ecological footprint of 1.5 Earths (GFN 2013) and a species extinction rate at least 1,000 times above the norm (MEA 2005).

So what do we mean by 'sustainability'? There are well over 300 definitions of sustainability (Harris and Throsby 1998), and indeed MacNeill (2006), who worked on 'Our Common Future' (WCED 1987), suggested that a new way to define 'infinity' was the ever expanding number of interpretations of 'sustainable development'. One should not assume that people in fact mean the same thing when they use the word. The terms 'sustainable development' and 'sustainability' have been said to reflect the growing groundswell of concern about what is happening to the world (Soskolne et al. 2008) — an environmental crisis of unparalleled magnitude. Even in 1969, the US National Environmental Policy Act said it was government policy to 'create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony' (Engelman 2013, p. 7). Hence one description of sustainability is that it is 'an attempt to provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments both now and into the indefinite future' (EPA 2013). One can of course debate what 'best' means. 'Best' might be said to be about maintaining the diversity and creativity in both human culture and Nature. At the heart of the concept of sustainability should be a vision of achieving human and ecosystem well-being together (MEA 2005). Of course one can also debate what 'well-being' is, and the simple answer to this would be that this is human culture and Nature both continuing as vibrant, diverse and creative systems. We should aim for our culture to be like this, and we should also seek for Nature to continue that way. Why? Because Nature runs the ecosystem services that support our society, but also because it enriches our lives, ethics and culture. Another ethical reason we should want this is because we love and respect Nature and believe in its 'intrinsic value', its right to exist for itself.

'Sustainability' is a fascinating topic full of contradictions, tangled meanings, unstated assumptions and confusion. Indeed it seems that many people are at cross-purposes and use the word 'sustainability' to push their own particular agendas. There is also a frustrating 'looseness' in terminology. We will discuss whether 'sustainability' and 'sustainable development' are actually the same thing. This is either assumed to be true, or subject to a debate involving a surprising passion. Some think so, others argue sustainability is the goal and sustainable development the path. Others think they are related but separate. Others claim that 'sustainable development' is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, that you cannot continue to 'develop' and yet be sustainable, since we have degraded ecosystems in so many major ways. Others again claim in response that it depends what you mean by 'development' [if 'development' = 'change' then 'sustainable evolution' is a coherent meaning] , that it can be 'qualitative' development that does not use resources, not quantitative growth. Given that the word is used by many different disciplines, we will also need to ask 'sustainability for whom?'. Or for what? What exactly is it that we are keeping sustainable? The lifestyle we value? Our society? The nation's GDP? Or is it the ecosystems and the ecosystem services on which society depends? Or is it Nature as a whole, of which we are a part, and to which we owe respect and care?

There has been a trend within academia and society to keep the term 'delightfully vague', as if that vagueness makes 'sustainability' more adaptable. As if by not defining the term, we might get society to at least act to solve some parts of the environment crisis, without really considering the root causes, so that we might get some action without challenging the 'endless growth' worldview that drives most environmental problems. Some have claimed this was a 'clever strategy', but one can also wonder if in so doing it has not avoided the hard issues? Thus 'sustainability' can come close to meaning 'all things to all people', so it can be argued it has come to mean nothing. Any concept that has to encompass almost everything must lose its own meaning (Ott and Doring 2008) Part of the problem is that commonly people do not define what they mean by 'sustainability' or its component parts. Partly it is that they don't start by considering where they come from philosophically and ethically. What are the worldviews, ethics and values that underpin what they mean by the term? Thus the literature is full of people talking about a 'sustainability' that is their own (undefined) meaning of the term, while others speak of their conception of the term. No wonder people get confused! In this book I shall seek to cut through the mist around 'sustainability' and focus on key solutions. I shall move towards meaningfully defining 'sustainability' and its component parts: ecological, economic and social sustainability. Furthermore, I'll offer an ethical judgment as to what they should be if our human civilisation is to continue on Earth into the long-term.

To return to sustainability's meaning, it is this vision of joint human and ecosystem well-being that I argue is essential, and the lack of which has led to the environmental crisis. Re-establishing this vision (as the core of sustainability) I believe is a crucial part of solving the environmental crisis. We shall see however that others don't think this is what sustainability is about. This is why this is a conversation we must have. This is an essential issue, an issue I invite the reader to themselves demystify [I'm trying], and so take real and effective action. We cannot meaningfully discuss sustainability unless we discuss population and consumption, as we do in Chapter 7. We need also to talk about 'worldview' and ethics if we are to talk meaningfully about sustainability, as we do in Chapter 8, and about a very human failing: denial, as we do in Chapter 9. We will also need to consider appropriate technology for sustainability (and some inappropriate ones), as we do in Chapter 10.

This book is not a book written for academics, it seeks to demystify 'sustainability' for the 'educated layperson' who wants to delve deeper into what 'sustainability' means, or should mean. It seeks to cut through the jargon and theory so as to help people consider the real problems that hold us back from reaching sustainability, and consider the real solutions that can act to bring into being an ecologically sustainable society and future. We shall look at how to meaningfully define 'sustainability' (and its strands). We shall look at what economic sustainability should be. We shall look at the key importance of ecological sustainability, arguably the most over-looked strand of the topic. We shall also look at what social sustainability should be. Like most other scholars, I too conclude that we need all three strands of sustainability, but with the terms actually defined, and the key solutions stated and acted on.

The final chapter looks at the solution frameworks we need in order to sustain the Earth and a sustainable future. Along the way, we shall discover that key things are 'broken'. In the West (now globalised widely) we shall see that our economy is broken, our society is broken, and our ecosystems are breaking. It is thus first and foremost the task of 'sustainability' to heal these broken things into a harmonious and sustainable whole. That is the 'Great Work' in front of us (Berry 1999) that we discuss in Chapter 11. It is a challenge, but also an opportunity to get things right. We will find in this book that again and again we discover that the main thing holding humanity back from reaching a meaningful sustainability is our blind commitment to endless growth. Growth in numbers of people, growth in the GDP, and growth in consumption and use of resources. The key and inescapable conclusion of three decades of environmental science is that endless growth is the cause of unsustainability [clear to those paying attention since the 1960's]. However, this is a reality that society remarkably rarely acknowledges or discusses. What we need now is a growth in key intangible things, a growth in accepting the reality of the predicament we face, a growth in compassion and caring [love and understanding], and finally a rapid growth in action towards real solutions, not tokenism. [get our science-based narrative straight]

In this book I shall refer to 'Nature' with a capital 'N'. It is worth explaining that this is not because I 'deify' Nature, make a fetish of it, or believe in any human/Nature 'dualism'. It is simply a mark of respect for the 'more-than-human world' (Abram 1996) that has nurtured humanity physically and spiritually since we evolved. Given the generosity and beauty that Nature has manifested to humanity, it is a respect I believe is fully deserved. Sustainability at its core (I shall argue) is the search to find a harmony between human culture and the Nature from which we evolved and of which we are a part. And reaching that harmony and balance is something well worth striving for: the true path to wisdom.

[For references and critically important information needed by world citizens (as in avoiding human extinction maybe), beg, barrow (library?), steal, or buy the book.]

 

From back cover of book:

"Sustainability" may be the most important word in our language, and also the most misused. This brilliant, deep, accurate, well-referenced book should do wonders to rectify that. It should be required reading for every high-school student, CEO, and politician. — Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Stanford University, USA

Demystifying Sustainability bids the modern world to abandon magical thinking. It provides just what the world needs most in its time of gathering crisis — a viable, alternative way-of-being that both celebrates the full spectrum of human potential and accurately represents the biophysical realities within which the human animal must function. — William Rees, University of British Columbia, Canada

Haydn Washington brings wide reading and experience, plus a sharp mind and sharp knife, to cut away the obfuscation and denial that mystify the discussion of sustainability. The book is accessible without any "dumbing-down," and does not evade the difficult questions of overpopulation, overconsumption, deification of growth, and overconfidence in the ability of technology to substitute for morality. Herman Daly, University of Maryland, USA

Washington boils down the 300 definitions of sustainability to distill the potent essence of the term, and then applies it to point us in the direction of a better future. — Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Institute, USA

 


 

Editorial Reviews

‘Sustainability’ may be the most important word in our language, and also the most misused. This brilliant, deep, accurate, well-referenced book should do wonders to rectify that. It should be required reading for every high-school student, CEO, and politician. — Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Stanford University, USA

Demystifying Sustainability bids the modern world to abandon magical thinking. It provides just what the world needs most in its time of gathering crisis – a viable, alternative way-of-being that both celebrates the full spectrum of human potential and accurately represents the biophysical realities within which the human animal must function. — William Rees, University of British Columbia, Canada

Haydn Washington brings wide reading and experience, plus a sharp mind and sharp knife, to cut away the obfuscation and denial that mystify the discussion of sustainability. The book is accessible without any "dumbing-down", and does not evade the difficult questions of overpopulation, overconsumption, deification of growth, and overconfidence in the ability of technology to substitute for morality. Highly recommended. — Herman Daly, University of Maryland, USA

Washington boils down the 300 definitions of sustainability to distill the potent essence of the term, and then applies it to point us in the direction of a better future. — Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Institute, USA

We want a future that is not only sustainable, but also desirable – a future that allows a prosperous and equitable economy embedded in a harmonious society that remains within planetary ecological boundaries. Our current ‘growth at all costs’ system and its trajectory are neither sustainable nor desirable. Haydn Washington has provided a powerful demystification of sustainability and a guide to the future we really want. — Robert Costanza, Australian National University, Australia

It is hard to have a serious discussion about a subject as important as sustainability when we don’t even agree on what it means. Harder still if we don’t even know that we don’t agree on its meaning. Haydn Washington understands this difficulty only too well and his book succeeds grandly in demystifying sustainability. — Peter A. Victor, York University, Canada

This book does not beat around the bush. It does not talk in circles. It does not pretend that sustainability is so difficult to grasp that it cannot be achieved. Nor does it pretend that it can be achieved by following business-as-usual trajectory. It does name problems by their name. It does ask difficult but necessary questions. It does propose real solutions. This book is a must read for everybody, in both so-called developed and developing countries, from students to policy-makers. — Helen Kopnina, The Hague University of Applied Science, The Netherlands

‘Sustainable’ must not remain merely an undefined buzzword of our time. The human predicament requires widespread understanding that humanity is in serious trouble because we have overshot this finite planet’s sustainable human carrying capacity. Only by immediately outgrowing the ‘endless growth’ myth can we avert a fatally calamitous future for our species. — William Catton, Washington State University, USA

Sustainability and spirituality are the double helix of our future wellbeing. Rekindling a sense of wonder in our natural environment is essential for the quality of life of our increasingly urbanized society. This book lives up to the promise of its title and goes a long way towards demystifying sustainability for a broad audience. — Julian Crawford, International Society of Sustainability Professionals, USA

Haydn Washington has nicely deconstructed the dominant economic paradigm that is driving us toward global collapse. Alternatives are clearly explained through a tool kit of out-of-the box thinking that could save us from ourselves. I recommend it to all who care about a quality future for life on Earth. — Colin L. Soskolne, University of Alberta, Canada

Haydn Washington is an environmental scientist and writer of 40 years’ experience. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, Australia.


So read the book which includes more vital information and 853 references to more information. Oh, as for the review? The Foreword and Introduction may be enough to move on to the book, but, let's see, Washington is a little weaker on science than I had expected. He associates science with 'Modernism' (p. 12), which it is and that is not a good thing from Nature's POV as science/technology has been very much an enabler of growth/planetary destruction over the past two hundred years. Early science has been necessarily reductionistic, seeing things through various conceptual microscopes. The knowledge and understanding generated by microscopists may suggest a view of Nature as 'nothing more than matter-in-motion', but such knowledge is the necessary precondition for science to develop a 'better view' through the macroscope which may be our only hope for living on this planet without destroying its life-support system given that the technological genie has been let out of the bottle.

That science has been made ill use of is obvious, but it should be equally obvious that ecological systems science (as macroscope) alone offers understanding of our trajectory and how to change it to avoid 'hitting the wall', avoid 'existential threats', or to put it straight up, get through the coming bottleneck and sidestepping human extinction. Washington, despite his obvious wide reading, seems unacquainted with Howard T. Odum's system science. In sections where he should have been writing about 'emergy', 'transformity', 'emergy yield ratio', and how trade needs to be based on 'emdollars', there is zero mention. I infer he has not read 'Environment, Power, and Society', 'Environmental Accounting', or 'A Prosperous Way Down'. This is a possible omission that could account for his being oversold on alternative energy. It is a bit like discussing astrophysics without mention of Kepler or Newton. Still, not a fatal oversight. Readers should consider, however, that Odum's science is foundational and leads to a 'better view'. Washington's view is not wrong, just could be more conceptually robust.

To merely mention points of agreement would involve many pages, so to continue with another point of difference, the only sentence in the book (p. 207) that made me do a facepalm was, 'The only way to reach sustainability is activism.', (his emphasis) meaning political activism. In the next paragraph he mentions Berry's list of three things contemporary history demonstrates: '1) The devastation of the Earth; 2) The incompetence of religion and cultural traditions to deal with this devastation; 3) The rise of a new ecological vision of the Universe.' (The Great Work 1999) Okay, I'll go with 1) and 3), but to 2) add politics. Religion promises 'salvation'; politics promises 'solutions'. Enough said. We all have issues with denial. Even Washington, despite a chapter on the subject.

There remains 'The Great Work' to be done. Alternative to identity religion as belief and to belief-based identity politics, to mass movements of True Believers, to 'salvation' and 'solutions', is love and understanding of this Earth and the things of it — choiceless awareness in obedience to the nature of things (mindful science). Recognizing the 'what-is', without flinching, without denial or feel-good assertions, is the realism (as alternative to optimism or pessimism) Washington concludes is needed. To firm up our collective grasp of reality we need to add to The Great Work the therapeutic marginalizing of belief, beginning with the belief in belief. As long as we can believe what we want to, we will, and that may be the root cause of our dysfunction. The belief in illimitable growth is one dysfunctional belief, but replacing it with another is not going to work especially if the other doesn't feel as good (or better) to both believe in and act upon (and reality-based policies won't be either). To find and face reality, we need to stop believing in belief, as all belief-based certitudes mystify our grasp of reality. Is there an alternative to politics and religion (as-usual) as social control system? A possible alternative could be drawn from the teachings of Zhen while keeping the Kogi example in mind.

"I have played many roles sometimes with the majority, but more often attempting to shock the scientific establishment into a better view." — Howard T. Odum

Those who talk 'emergy' may self-identify as Odumites, followers of H.T. Odum who appeal to or are impressed by his authority more than rigor, so their views/concerns are understandable but 'idiosyncratic'. H.T. spent much of his career 'attempting to shock the scientific establishment into a better view' as do others still who may or may not be 'followers'. Copernicus' 'better view' is accepted today, but it took over a hundred years (over two hundred for the church). That Odum has not been accepted among ecologists, much less the scientific establishment, is clear. That it is because he is wrong/confused/idiosyncratic, is not. Criticism is hard to come by, but see: http://www.eoht.info/page/Howard+T.+Odum and other sources of disconfirming claims should be shared for the benefit of those who would rather know than believe.

 

For more: A synopsis 

First 17 pages: including chapter 1


Note to students of sustainability:

A few environmental and sustainability professors will think outside the SYSTEM serving box, whether they have tenure or not, but expect that many will not as doing so could be maladaptive. Eisenhower was able to get away with telling Americans what they didn't want to hear, but had to wait for his farewell address. Tenured professors can say what they think, but students and lesser professors tend to self-select out of the educational system unless they say what others around them want/like to hear, and that includes what students want to hear. Washington may be among the few to carve out an apostate niche, but that is not evidence he is wrong. Despite the Ehrlich's call for the book to be required reading in all high schools, and by inference all Schools of Sustainability, it probably won't be. It will be read and "dealt with" (marginalized) because that's what SYSTEM serving scholars do. But whose interpretation of sustainability will dominate and what will be the deciding factor? Evidence? What-is? Finally seeing the elephant in the room? Only those who would rather know than believe are likely to not merely read the book, but to think 'it' through without marginalizing 'it' [evidence and reason].

Prior to the Industrial Revolution was the feudal SYSTEM (the human realm as distinct from the agroecosystem in Nature's realm) and the industrial society needed a new narrative. The feudal SYSTEM needed to justify hereditary aristocracy, and "God's mandate," the divine right of kings, was that narrative supplied by the theologians. With the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution arose a new power to rival the Lords themselves and their feudal SYSTEM. A new narrative was needed, a new men of words intelligentsia arose to supply the new narrative. First iteration was classical economics. Nice, but didn't quite serve the new SYSTEM perfectly, so it morphed into neoclassical (neoliberal) economics we know and (most) love today. Economists replaced their predecessors, the theologians, to explain to the commoners why the new elites had to do what they 'had' to do. The God's mandate narrative was utterly incompatible with the needs of the new robber-baron serving SYSTEM that needed a Growth's mandate narrative.

The last real revolution (the Americans merely rebelled to replace the British industrial society with their own industrial SYSTEM and communism merely offers planned growth) was the feudalindustrial one. We are poised for another as the bottom line demystified sustainability narrative is utterly incompatible with Growth's mandate. So let's call it Nature's mandate. The first challenge to Growth's mandate arose with the environmental movement that was effectively subsumed into the SYSTEM (failed: Rio Earth Summit 1992).

Environmental issues (quite real unlike fine words) spawned many departments of environmental studies and government departments to serve the SYSTEM. A good deal of science was involved/included, some pollution issues resolved, some parts of the environment protected, but the mandate was to 'protect' the environment while growing the economy (stupid). Heretics, like the Ehrlichs and Washington, are numbered among the environmentalists, but like classical economics, environmental studies/polices didn't quite serve the SYSTEM, and are in the process of being replaced by/subsumed into sustainability studies.

The tension between Growth's narrative and Nature's narrative is the irreconcilable difference that will necessitate the revolution to come. Environmental and sustainability students are poised to lead that revolution by replacing SYSTEM! with system, by pointing out that the new narrative is based on system (as in ecosystem, life-support system) over SYSTEM! (as politico-religio-economic SYSTEM). Economics students can be part of the revolution by becoming eco-nomists. So it's Nature's system over self interest (as SYSTEM!) or 'system over self' to boil it down (see H.T. Odum) instead of SYSTEM! over self.

To 'turn things around' and otherwise save the world, students need to decide between reforming the SYSTEM by endlessly tweaking it or revolting against the SYSTEM to replace it. Destroying the SYSTEM and replacing it with another dysfunctional one is mere rebellion resulting in a regime change and is not revolutionary. Doing what is needed to turn things around, starting with changing core memes, would be revolutionary. Not all revolutions involve pitchforks. This is non-trivial: Reform/rebel or revolution. Can the growth hegemon be reformed into its opposite? Will rebelling against it change it? We are beyond talking about no growth, we have to face the need to de-grow the economy, population, per capita consumption, and at best to transition to a prosperous descent.

'Descent' is not the SYSTEM's narrative, not what humans want to believe. If you reject the SYSTEM's narrative expect to be unemployed and unemployable secondary to your refusal and inability to work to serve growth interests. The number of Schools of Sustainability in the US has, for nearly 10 years, doubled every four years. This is exponential growth on steroids. A lot of money/debt (student) is involved. You are not going to be paid to de-grow anything (to 'destroy' the industrial society), so most are at high risk of ending up serving the SYSTEM and not saving the world.

A possible future involves environment/sustainability students going rouge, becoming independent scholars, autodidacts, and questioning everything. Subject all claims to whithering doubt and see what remains. Consider what your schooling offers, but no more. Never let your schooling interfere with your education. The near universal belief in growth must falter, all belief in belief must pass away. Just say no to ideology and rhetoric. Be a Force of Nature, an Earth Agent, by allowing your understanding to be determined by the what-is, not by what you nor anyone else wants to think. Cognitive dissonance? Embrace it. The truth will cease to seem strange once you get used to it. The revolution needed starts with changing the core meme or narrative of growth that animates the global Empire of Growth. Students who have not yet been subsumed may prevail.

Students are at risk of spending their life enabling continued growth by becoming merely eloquent feel-good wordsmiths and clever ape technologists. As the limits of growth become more apparent, believers in growth, the elites and the 99%, will double-down on sustainable growth (aka development) by investing more in sustainability products, services, and promises. Sustainability ('sustainable' development) is a growth industry, currently doubling every four years. Those serving the SYSTEM will be greatly rewarded (for a time). Meanwhile the pace of planetary destruction will not be slowed. Students, our best, most idealistic and brightest, may commit themselves to sincerely believing, and convincing others, that they are devoting their lives (as latter-day priests/priestesses) to saving the world, when they are merely serving the SYSTEM while its prosperity lasts at the expense of all about them and future generations (if any). Merely eloquent concept mongering is a disease of the academic community. Scholar heal thyself and marginalize those who are so infected that they do not seek a cure. Work to transform industrial society into its opposite by replacing core memes, or serve the SYSTEM while it lasts.

When enough of us change our worldview, then governments, business and the education system will follow. To quote Gandhi: 'We must become the change we want to see in the world' — Haydn Washington


Notes from the Ecolate:

The commons game, with its built-in negative responsibility, pays the individual (in the short run) to reduce the annual revenue for everyone (in the long run).

In the third century B.C., Zeno of Citium began his career as a philosopher by assuming that human happiness can be best achieved by living "in agreement" with oneself. Thus did this Stoic give new expression to the motto "Know Thyself" inscribed earlier on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. As he grew older and wiser Zeno decided that it was also necessary "to live in agreement with nature." A Stoic rewriting of the Delphi motto could well be: "Know Thyself, and Thy place in the Natural World."

The intellectual development of the Western world in the scientific era, particularly in the past century, can be seen as a repetition of Zeno's personal history. The world-view that was first built on an exclusively individualistic basis is now seen headed for disaster unless we take account of nature, where the word "nature" refers not only to the external material world of plants, animals, rocks, and all that, but also to the nonmaterial world of logical relationships. "We get what we pay for" --so we had better make sure that we pay for the right behavior.

The political scientist William Ophuls has said, "Ecology is a profoundly conservative doctrine in its social implications." The garden-variety conservative of our day is all too often a conservative only in the sense that he wants to preserve every societal arrangement that has in the recent past enriched some enterprisers (including himself), without asking about the total consequences of the rules by which the profits were made. An ecoconservative, in contrast, out of a profound concern for the survival of the real wealth of the biological world and a passion for taking time seriously, rejects any arrangement that betters the individual by sacrificing the interests of all others, particularly the interest of posterity. To state the obvious, in the long run, the society that survives is the society that develops and conserves rules that serve the long-term interest of society. [e.g. Kogi]

A coldly rational individualist can deny that he has any obligation to make sacrifices for the future. By contrast, those who, for whatever reason, regard the resources at their disposal as an inheritance from the past that they feel obliged to pass on to their descendants, have a better chance of producing future generations prosperous enough to be able to continue to wrestle with the problems of increasing the quality of life.

Continuity [sustainability] is at the heart of conservatism; ecology serves that heart.

Professor of Human Ecology Garrett Hardin, University of California Santa Barbara, final words of Filters Against Folly: How to Survive despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent 1985.



Intro to Sustainability 101

Schools of Sustainability

Educational background of 30 AEU tenured and tenure-track sustainability faculty

Review of Enough is Enough: Building a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources

Review of World on the Edge: How to prevent environmental and economic collapse by Lester Brown

 


 

An Ecolate Manifesto

'For the first time in history a conviction has developed among those who can actually think more than a decade ahead that we are playing a global endgame. Humanity's grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker. Our population is too large....' — Edward O. Wilson, Half Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life 2016

Keep your eyes on the ball: Don't be distracted by wordsmith ideologues offering political/economic 'solutions' or religious 'salvation'. Face the biophysical realities that determine the endgame. Endeavor to 'know' (iterate toward) reality without believing/asserting you 'know' anything.

Plan A is to 'save the world' before hitting the wall of biophysical limits. Our fragile collective grasp of reality currently urges 'damn the inconvenient science, full speed ahead!' while arguing about who gets to sit where and for how long (social justice/equity). Failure to get a better collective grip on what-is, on the Nature of things, has multiple species extinctions as a consequence (Anthropocene mass extinction event currently underway) that could include humans. It's a high-stakes endgame (how many more species will go extinct and will humans be among them?).

The mass of humans do not think more than a decade ahead (5-year plans at most are characteristic as few can think beyond 'next paycheck' or 'next quarter's profit'). Don't expect the 99% to figure out what has to be done (by reading Washington, Wilson, et al. or 'believing' those who have) and use democracy to demand needed non-feel-good changes. To 'save the world', students and other would-be members of the intelligentsia need to 'get smart' as autodidacts, figure out what's-a-happening, and FIGHT the good fight within the global intelligentsia for reality-based worldview dominance from the top down lead by 'those who can actually think more than a decade ahead' who would rather know (Mother Earth) than believe (in illimitable Growth, etc.). In ecolate time, a decade is a heart beat.

Students as learning machines are among those most able to change memes, who most need to read Washington, Wilson, et al. Those who would rather 'believe and party on' than know, need to be marginalized, not the other way around per business-as-usual. When the shared belief in the growth hegemon falters secondary to an increasing inability to believe in it, those in a position to say 'I told you so' could fill the coming leadership vacuum to install a new reality-based OS for humanity to operate under provided one is developed first. Otherwise ISIS and ilk (ideologues with 'solutions' e.g. the 'self-righteous Left' and 'dogmatic Right') will.

Transitioning sooner will be better. If soon enough and we turn things around before hitting the wall, then it's Plan A, or if after collapse, it will be Plan B to rebuild. So Plan A and Plan B may be the same, differing only in terms of when they are implemented per intelligentsia guidance. The default Plan X-as-usual is to let the ideologues with 'solutions' and/or 'salvation' dominate per history-as-usual. Plan A involves 'revolution'ary change, as tweaking the SYSTEM will not 'transform' it into its opposite.

Those who can think only in terms of 'off with their heads' (politics-as-usual) will loose even if they 'win'. The revolutionary change needs to be memetic: educational and maturational. A fundamentally different narrative/OS based on what-is, on biophysical reality, is alternative, would be 'revolutionary'. We need to transition to a steady-state eco-nomy, but you can't replace a belief in 'growth' with a belief in 'steady-state' (that is as good or better). Finding and facing reality as best we can per best guess (science); putting our best grasp of what-is above human wants or preferences, would be revolutionary, would make for a different OS. Marginalize infantile likes/dislikes, for/against, pick/choose, good/bad, cling/reject, optimism/pessimism, believe/disbelieve... all self-interests and prattle about human exceptionalism as we are the environment. Endeavor to know and to know what you don't know. Get good with reality.

We need to FIGHT for our collective sanity. So think of replacing (in effect destroying) the current growther SYSTEM by replacing (questioning is merely a beginning point) its core meme rather than ineffectively tweaking it to 'make it work better' by 'reforming'/'transforming' it. You can't token it to death. Think a clean install of a new OS based on degrowth (managed descent) leading to sustainable non-growth within limits that is strictly obedient to the system Laws of Mother Nature. Develop the needed new OS now based on an 'ecolate' worldview. If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy (in the long-run beyond a few generations).

When people come to fervently demand 'solutions' and 'salvation', either sane humans with a reality-based OS will trade upon such credibility as they merit or the ideologues-as-usual will tell people what they want to hear. It's a high-stakes endgame. This fact has to be hammered into the intelligentsia's blindered head. We would do well to avoid extinction or 'a boot stamping in the human face forever'. Orwell had little influence until the intelligentsia realized that he had told them so. A few elite intellectuals could turn things around by unifying the intelligentsia behind an ecolate OS (when the possibility they might be wrong creeps in to create a teachable moment), who could persuade the public to upload a new OS for Humanity 2.0. Bottom line: This is a FIGHT for our collective sanity and survival as responsible members of Earth's geobiosphere.

Thou must find in thy religion [socio-politico-religio control system], stability over growth, organization over competition, diversity over uniformity, system over self, and survival process over individual peace.

'We're in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone's arguing over where they're going to sit.' ―David Suzuki

 


 

Demystifying Sustainability: Towards real solutions, A synopsis 

 


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