Is the thinking associated with the suggestion that concepts of sustainability can guide our daily lives accurate and on mark, or just another wave in the sea of change associated with trying to solve our long-term global problems that is popular to surf at the moment? Everyone is now talking about sustainable development. But how do we move beyond the rhetoric of sustainability while also establishing or maintaining a “big picture” approach to problem-solving? To stimulate your thinking view the 90 second video “What is Our Legacy.”
Trying to operationalize the concept of sustainable development often is met with confusion and complexity around what the idea promotes. An approach to understanding and thinking in a sustainability context needs to move into the mainstream with regards to how integrative thinking can break down the notion of silos on the landscape, generate new solutions, and promote greater ownership of the challenges. This shift in perspective can be the difference between a system in which you add a device to lessen the pollution emission at the end of a pipe to one in which you eliminate the need for the pollution abatement device altogether.
Sustainable development is a dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential, meet their needs, and improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance our Earth’s life-support systems. These, however, are the main poles of tension. Social inequity, the material disparity in terms of needs not being met, as well as the question of why consideration for nature should come before the welfare of humans, are at the center of the sustainability debate. Ecological responsibility is the simple part of the concept. While there is considerable dispute over where exactly the limits are, there is general consensus that we must learn to live together within the means of nature. Socio-economic responsibility, however, is a more difficult and potentially contentious notion. Mainstream economists do not worry about shortages of natural resources to supply our needs and receive our wastes because classical economic theory assumes that human resources can substitute for natural resources.
There are several reasons why thinking and acting in the context of what sustainability suggests does not necessarily come natural to us. Traditional problem-solving attempts to isolate the particular concern, which will often be related more to a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause of the problem. This is because our brain only allows us to process one image or see one item at a time. Therefore, it is equally likely that our brains are more comfortable just thinking about one sector at a time, like economics or ecology. But with the application of sustainability we must exert greater effort in making decisions by making sure we fully exercise our brain to see the different views of a situation, not just the one that seems most obvious. The difference is that single-minded approaches to complex problems can offer insight, but a single approach is dangerously incomplete. Besides the expression of intent of a community or corporation to become more sustainable, there needs to be development of a mindset that will really embrace the systemic approach that successful outcomes in sustainability plans and actions demand.
We must shift our development focus from ‘building more for humanity’ to ‘adapting and sizing ourselves to fit the environments in which we live.’ Human development and sustainable well-being will now be better served in the context of this latter paradigm: sizing our societal and economic activities to fit within the resource limitations of each local and regional ecosystem and developing the governance systems to guide that. With the global reality of total resource overshoot already upon us, it’s the only reasonable policy option to pursue. There is no global policy encouraging everyone to take the correct actions but it is possible to do the right thing at the local and regional scale.
So how do we overcome traditional, fragmented approaches to promoting sustainability that will reach beyond the obstacles related to the capacity of the human mind to “see” more than one subject at a time and our abilities to overcome our pre-conceived notions regarding certain subjects. Is it possible that a picture is truly worth a thousand words?
For example, we have discussed in the last posting the idea that sustainability is like a 3-legged stool; in order for the stool to remain standing all three legs of the stool must be involved in supporting its seat. All three sectors need to be considered in sustainability discussions: to advance and strengthen the interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection (ecological integrity). Focus on only two does not get the job done! Likewise, through the years many have viewed the foundation of sustainable development, as represented by the 3-overlapping circle model of sustainability or the triangle characterizing the Triple Bottom Line (TBL).
The three sectors, in the way they are exhibited by each image, differently imply interaction with each other so continuously that we cannot make decisions, make policy, manufacture, consume, essentially do anything without considering the effects and costs upon all three simultaneously. The concurrent consideration promoted by these images helps the observer to overcome a focus solely on economic concerns, with ecological or social benefits sometimes considered as an afterthought. Instead, fully addressing issues of sustainability is a synchronized act complimenting competing interests to the advantage of all sectors.
A diagrammatic model or picture that illustrates the concept of sustainability can offer a means for people to more easily acquire a way of understanding the process of sustainable development naturally, automatically, or without conscious thought by the process of developing a second nature to the way we think about and do things. The idea of second nature refers to an acquired behavior or trait that is so long practiced as to seem innate – habits, characteristics, etc. acquired and fixed so deeply as to seem part of a person’s nature – something that comes naturally, automatically, or without conscious thought (e.g., after enough practice, driving a car becomes second nature). The acceptance and continual use of a visual tool, a conceptual framework, symbols describing what we are trying to consider, as a constant reminder helps us apply systemic thinking and action throughout the analysis of problems and solutions toward sustainable development design.
As sustainability concepts begin to take hold, this triad of concerns, which were once considered an impractical blue-sky ethic, are defining both long-term strategy and everyday practice for sustainable development decision-making. Symbolism can be effective in helping the general populous to better understand why the overriding economic priority in our society is not profit and growth, but rather people and planet. The effective reminders of image symbolism can reinforce a person’s second nature in embracing the ways we can move people from a consumer society to a conserver society, from mere product greening to actual downshifting, from always more to enough. A holistic approach, better informed by the sustainability symbolism described here, is crucial to developing new methods of analysis and decision-making. The adjacent image demonstrates such an approach.
The 3-overlapping circle model offers a framework that simply looks at the positive and negative effects and interactions among the 3 different elements of sustainability – ecologic, social, and economic outcomes. This framework helps users to understand the different interconnected relationships of a specific issue, decision, and/or potential action by expanding the Venn diagram into a “Project Map.” Development of this map, as in the adjacent image, acknowledges that there are ecologic (environmental), social, and economic objectives that only collectively advance sustainability. We avoid simply examining “types of undertaking” without attention to their interconnected ecological and socio-economic contexts, which otherwise might miss some of the most important factors affecting eventual success. In addition, as Bob Gibson states, examining singular types of undertakings neglects the potential amplified collective significance of undertakings that by themselves are individually inconsequential.
The result of this impact mapping process will identify the potential positive and negative effects of the proposed effort on the ecologic, social, and economic sectors if the project is implemented in its present design. In other words, project mapping should provide an in-depth understanding of what the project is all about. With this greater awareness of the potential project outcomes, its design can be re-evaluated to explore alternatives in design that will eliminate negative impacts. Project mapping essentially summarizes the sustainability scope for any project or program by asking:
- Does this activity provide environmental benefits? What are they?
- Does this activity offer equal benefits to all elements of society? What are some?
- Does this activity provide economic benefits? What are they?
- Was this activity agreed to through the participation of all people (stakeholders) impacted by the activity?
If the answer to anyone of these questions is NO, then the project or program should be re-designed to address the unsustainable components.
The new development transition is about creating communities that make efficient use of land and infrastructure, and require less material and energy, while providing decent living conditions. This new vision would unify concerns for habitability, efficiency and environment, concerns that are currently fragmented in different agencies and disciplines. The economic transition in pursuing community development that is comprehensive and integrated means moving towards a system of production, distribution and decision-making that is harmonized with equity, welfare and human fulfillment. It would balance multiple objectives: eradicating human deprivation, reducing inequality, staying within environmental carrying capacity, and maintaining innovation.
Clearly, therefore, a different approach to nurturing and sustaining life in a place like Belize is worth exploring, superseding special interests, protecting what is wanted through fear-based thinking and decision-making, and which is committed to maintaining the status quo, even as it undermines the vitality of communities it pretends to serve. These conditions tend to beset communities with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as they struggle to overcome long-standing problems associated with poorly thought-out development and its impacts on their economic vitality, as well as the unsustainable use of both human and natural resources. In many instances, presently the local, regional, and national will is not there because there is not the process of consensus upon how to proceed.
For a more detailed discussion of the ideas in this posting go to the following paper – Flint, R.W. 2010. Symbolism of Sustainability: Means of Operationalizing the Concept. Synesis, Winter-Spring 2010: A Journal of Science, Technology, Ethics, and Policy 1(1): T25-T37.
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