2013: The end of sustainability?

One of the most interesting comments I’ve read for while came in this article by Andrew Zolli for the New York Times, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy late last year:

Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: How to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

Having spent a large part of my career working in and around environmentalism and conservation (see an earlier post on lessons learnt in primate conservation), a reality-check of ‘sustainability’ is something I’ve had on my mind for a while. With its arch enemy – population growth – driving ever-upward, I’ve often wondered whether we’re just stalling for time or delaying the inevitable. The problem with this school of thought, of course, is that it’s considered by many to be defeatist, particularly by those in the actual business of conservation and environmental protection.

Technology allows us to stretch the limits of what’s possible – grow significantly more food per acre, or live in climates we were never meant to live in – all activities which make us feel comfortable about the world and the places we live within it. Much of this technology has become invisible. We no longer think about the innovations that allow us to grow more, or healthier, food. Or those that get electricity to our homes, or the satellites that help get cars and planes from A to B. It’s only when we don’t have access to these things that we suddenly realise how exposed and dependent we are on them. Surviving technological meltdown is the subject of a wide number of books, including the aptly-titled “When Technology Fails” by Matthew Stein.

The environmental movement (which is to all intents and purposes linked to sustainability) is around forty years old. Its birth is widely linked to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“, her seminal book which argued against the increasing use of pesticides in farming. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hugely popular within the ranks of the chemical industry, but it did spur the birth of grassroots environmentalism which in turn lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If pesticide use continued, Carson argued, Springs of the future would be void of bird life, amongst others (hence the title).

In another of my favourite books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Jared Diamond graphically illustrates what happens to communities and civilisations which live beyond their means. We can learn a lot from history, but today not enough of us are listening. Our world population of over seven billion is already two to three times higher than what’s sustainable and, according to the World Population Balance website, recent studies have shown that the Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about two billion people at most European’s current standard of living. In short, we’re in trouble.

During a recent talk at Pop!Tech I highlighted two things that I thought needed to change. First, we need to get people to listen and take interest, but not in the way the wider non-profit movement has historically tried to get us to (i.e. guilt-based education). Second, we need to rethink our relationships with local business, local resources, and each other. You can watch that ten minute talk below, and find out more of what we’ll be up to on the soon-to-launch Means of Exchange website.

As I admit at the start of my talk, I have more questions than answers right now. But I do know that, with the current economic climate, conditions are better than they’ve ever been to get people to rethink their relationship with money, resources and each other. These may not directly impact the environmental or sustainability agenda, but the secondary benefit of people making better use of the human, social, financial and environmental capital around them almost certainly will.

18 thoughts on “2013: The end of sustainability?

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  4. Jeremy Smith says:

    Agree with your thoughts on principles of resilience v sustainability Ken – just hope that people focus on implementing the actions, technologies etc that resilience demands rather than arguing endlessly over whether it is the right term.

    Because I have seen a lot of time wasted arguing over which are the right definitions – green / eco / sustainable / responsible / ethical etc etc.

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  6. kiwanja says:

    Thanks, Jeremy. Of course I’ve used all those terms pretty liberally, but one thing Means of Exchange as a project is very focused on is building tools, and conversations around solutions. I’ve never been one to get bogged down in debate. I totally agree with you that the focus needs to be on action.

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  15. Millie says:

    Ever since I read Andrew Zolli’s book, the one paragraph that stuck with me was where he talked about the intersecting 3 circles of sustainable development and drive toward the equilibrium vs. what building resilience means (moving forward in face of shocks, constant disruption). In that context, I find your blog very interesting and timely.
    I’ll give you an example of where I think these two forces are colliding head on from the work we do in Montenegro. It’s been almost 4 decades since there has been a systemic look into biodiversity hot spots in the country (majority of which being in National Parks)- so we’ve done an analysis of what is going on with those hot spots that were previously identified. Intuitively we knew what the results would be, but it was fascinating to see it on a map… you see this clear displacement of species in face of new communities being built, and new road constructed, and flows of tourists streaming in the national park. It won’t be a surprise if we see an outcry from the environmental movement how this is a horrible trend that must be reversed, and if it happens, it is likely and unfortunately to shift a debate to how do we restore the balance, how do we get back to the equilibrium, and it is seemingly a completely wrong question to ask, a question that undermines complex changes happening in the community and the nature that, for all debates and political back and forth, will continue to live hand in hand. What I think we will see more of in the next few years is community-developed solutions on how to prosper by investing in the one thing that underpins the development of citizens living in and around National Parks- biodiversity.
    I like your points from the PopTech talk and they bring me back to the basics, to Elinor Olstrom and Governing the Commons. I work in a development organization, and I’d very much argue that we can do no (or least) harm by following those 7-8 guiding principles in the work we do.
    Thanks again for the very nice post.

  16. kiwanja says:

    @Millie – Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like the post. There’s plenty wrong with ‘development’ and in my last blog post I wrote about the challenges the tech-for-development community is facing. Although I had 2013 in the title of this post I expect it’ll take years for the wider sustainability/environmental communities to face up to reality. In the meantime, grassroots activist groups again will take up the charge (Occupy spring immediately to mind). No change there, then.

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