Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
A week or so ago, Gil Friend reported on what Yvon Chouinard said at a recent Greenbiz Forum conference. Here’s the quotes he reported:
If all these companies are doing all these great sustainability things, why is the world still going to hell? It's the obsession with growth! Companies that have been in business for 500-1000 years focus on three priorities: quality, innovation, and controlled growth.... We've been growing 25-30%/year, in a recession, while other companies are hurting. We must be doing something right. Every time we've done the right thing for the planet, we've made more money.... [Makower: It's the hardest thing in the world for companies to be seen as authentic.] Chouinard: Because they're not!... [Makower: In some ways Patagonia and you are similar to Apple and Steve Jobs.] Chouinard: Not at all! Their stuff is disposable, not repairable, and they want you to buy new one every year. I've got no use for that.... There's no difference between a pessimist who says 'We're doomed, why bother?' and an optimist who says 'We're fine, why bother?' Nothing gets done.... If you want to change government, change business, because business runs govt. If you want to change business, change consumers. Make consumption uncool!... We've got to move from complexity to simplicity. The more you know, the less you need.
It may seem hypocritical and certainly ironic to hear this coming from the founding and head of Patagonia, one of the most successful consumer goods company around. But Chouinard has been leading the “green” way for a long time. I’ve been saying the same things for quite a long time, but there is a big difference when I talk or write like this from my mostly academic perch and when a leader like him says it.
Is his company doing what he says needs to be done? For two years now they have highlighted Black Friday with an ad that tells potential customers, “Don’t buy this.” They don’t mean never buy anything from them, but to consider whether they really need whatever it is they are looking at and find suitable alternates before making the purchase. It is really uncool to not buy something under these circumstances. Chouinard notes that Patagonia continues to grow, even at a time that the recession has eaten into consumption levels on the economy-wide scale. I have to give him two cheers, but that’s more than just about anyone else in the consumer products industry would get from me. In any case his concern about continuing growth is well grounded and should be taken seriously.
He makes another statement that needs a comment from me. He said, “We've got to move from complexity to simplicity.” I don’t quite understand what he meant. Maybe the full transcript would clear it up, but I don’t have access to it. Complexity is a description of the world. It is either complex or not. We can’t change it to anything other than it is. In all but the most highly prescribed conditions, the world we have to deal with is always complex. While people are to a degree predictable, they can depart from the expected in any real situation, rendering it complex even if we want to think about it as “simple.”
Trying to simplify complexity is one of the primary reasons we are concerned about unsustainability today. Science does this all the time and its findings depend on it. There is yet a science of everything, although some cosmologists are working to create one. All sciences whether natural or social pick a part of the world to study and set strict bounds on the domains they investigate and employ methodologies peculiar to that domain. Each discipline within these sciences produces truths about their part of the world that we then use to construct our institutions and the rules by which society functions. If these rules were complete and comprehensive, it might be possible to create rules and institutions that work (nearly) perfectly to produce the desired outcomes. But they are not and, as a result, the goals are often missed. Unintended consequences come along as well.
I write often that unsustainability is an unintended consequence of modernity. Reductionism, or said otherwise as the conversion of complexity to simplicity, is one of the primary modern belief structures and is responsible for these departures from an ideal social world. The other is a mistaken or distorted view of what it is to be human, but that’s a subject for other posts. Rather that attempt to simplify what simply (sic) is complex, it is critical to change the way we think about the world and come to understand it. The scientific model, powerful as it is, with its positive statements about the workings of the world must give way to a pragmatic way of gaining understanding. Pragmatism, from the outset, accepts complexity and its methods for probing the world can produce useful beliefs, but always beliefs that are understood to be fallible and contingent. Many of our key institutions have become hubristic because they unquestioningly believe their working hypotheses based on positivistic thinking. I have written widely about this and discuss it in my forthcoming book so will not go further here today, except to chide Chouinard for his mistaken take on the world.