I am patiently awaiting the arrival of my new book in August. It develops the idea of flourishing far beyond my previous works and ties both the sources of our present unsustainable state and pathways to escape from future disasters to an understanding of the way the human brain works. I do not plan to write many posts elaborating these ideas until the book is out. But I was reminded that I have two other books that have led up to the story I am now telling by seeing a quote from the first, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture on somebody’s blog.

The quote was:

We’ll conclude by another quotation from John R. Ehrenfeld’s book: “To be a powerful force for redesigning the present, hurting world, sustainability needs to avoid becoming just another thing to measure and manage, and instead become a word that will bring forth an image of the world as we would hope it to be.”

That book was published eleven years ago, but I am afraid that the use of “sustainability” has hardly changed toward expressing that thought. Flourishing, the image that the quote evokes, has become more widely accepted and discussed, but not in its original contextual fit to the way sustainability was defined: “sustainability is the possibility that all life will flourish on the planet forever”, or, more practically, for many generations into the future. My use of “forever” was ok as a metaphor, but put off some critics.

As long as people conflate these two concepts as sustainability-as-flourishing, they will gravitate towards the generative use suggested in the quote. As a footnote to the previous post in this blog, I noted that there is a proper use of the word when describing the stability of ecosystems. Given that the stability of many of the world’s ecosystems, including that of the Planet, itself, is being threatened, the negative form, unsustainable, would be more accurate. When applied to ecosystems, including those that contain the human species, sustainable means maintaining a diverse species population, capable of surviving for long periods, using only resources within the system and energy from the Sun.

If the focus of world leaders and the nations they lead were on the endangered Earth system, then I would expect strategies with the label, sustainability, to guide action in the right direction, that is, the way it is defined in the above quote. But that is not at all the case. Sustainability, except for its use in ecologically oriented circles, is being applied to open, economic systems and their component institutions. One exception is its use in strategies to replace the use of fossil fuels with solar technologies. This use refers to stabilizing the planetary eco-system.

Other strategies being employed in households, businesses, urban areas, and in the policies that guide them are almost entirely some form of eco-efficiency, that is, use of methods to produce and consume goods and services that deliver more value for each unit of environmental harm. This has been the primary means for sustainable development, since that concept was introduced in the late 1980’s. Unlike ecological sustainability, a property of the whole system, sustainable development refers to the process of economic growth. Eco-efficiency is a relative, not absolute measure. As long as the numerator, some measure of output or its equivalent monetary value, grows faster the efficiency improves, the net effect will be increased negative impacts. While these concepts were developed largely to reflect concerns about the environment, they can be applied to social issues as well.

Here too, growth hasn’t lessened many social ills, such as inequality, in the developed world. It has raised the income of many in other parts of the world, but that growth comes with a cost. More income means more consumption and an increase in negative environment impacts. What’s missing in all these forms of economic or material composition calculus is the imposition of limits. The Earth system is already overstressed in terms of the quantity of resources it can provide and the waste it can assimilate. Various estimates of the impact of the human species vary, depending on the premises, but all indicate that, at present, we are already consuming and disposing at rates equivalent to about 1 1/2 Earth’s.

Virtually every serious (and not-so-serious) strategy for coping with this fact involve some sort of technological solution: higher eco-efficiency or remedial/preventive technologies. A few groups of activists and academics are exploring more fundamental solutions that involve changing behavior at cultural scales, but little consensus has emerged on either the right program or on the critical question of how to make the changes happen. I do not think the challenge is a great as many argue, but I have yet to see much, if any, penetration of the role of the brain in shaping and maintaining present self-destructive values and practices. Maybe that will change, even just a bit, with the publication of my book and with more evidence coming from the neurosciences.

There are no easy answers, even those that involve shifting the dominance of the brain hemispheres, but change must be made. We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place, but cannot let that impede an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation and the impossibility of staying put. All signs point to the complex world carrying us to a new (unknown and unknowable) set of relations among our species and the world out there. It is as if we are partying, as in the 60’s, without a clue to what is happening.

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