Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sustainability: A Big Idea

"Sustainability is a "big idea," a global concept that has arisen to meet a contemporary challenge, one unlike anything humanity has faced in the past: global ecological crisis. ... For those of us deeply concerned about environmental trends, especially those entailing irreversibilities, the task is not to get the right definition. It is to continually refine the idea to meet the threats, especially the novel threats, those like overpopulation and overconsumption that human society has not faced in the past...and does not fully face now. The central task is to take what is self-evident at two extremes of scale--the limits of ever-expanding activity for the individual and for the planet--and to locate limits in human organization"(31)

Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency.

Princen develops the principle of sufficiency--enough--against the idea of efficiency, driver of endless growth and limitless consumption. It is a principle of self-regulation and satiety, linchpin of a conception of ecological rationality.

The book as a whole sets out to develop and defend this conception, and performs a valuable service in theorizing what "self-regulation" might mean when scaled up from individual to society. Among the key points I've identified so far:

"human decisions must be framed in a time scale that spans many generations of humans" (32)

"Decisions aimed at sustainable practice must, on a daily basis, from the individual to the collective, from the citizen to the polity, be risk averse with respect to the biophysical underpinnings of life. The long term as indefinite future is a necessary ingredient, and thus a first-order criterion of ecological rationality" (33)

The third defining feature of sustainability is decision making that aims at the intersection of the biophysical and social systems. Conservation, preservation and pollution control [three plausible ways of conceptualizing environmental goals] have typically treated the environment as "out there." ... But when the environment "out there" is brought "in here," when decision making is as much about managing human behavior as it is about managing biophysical dynamics, questions of excess become legitimate. (33)

"Change is inherent in complex adaptive systems. But to have integrity, to be self-sustaining, systems must find that middle ground, that in-between position of enough--but not too much. ... A system has integrity, resilience and adaptiveness when each factor varies within a comfortable range, only rarely exceeding that range." (35)

"systems must have built-in mechanisms of restraint to keep in the safe range, to operate in the middle ground. Such mechanisms depend on a system's ability to store and channel information" (36).

Bringing the environment "in here"--and making human behavior part of the definition--is key to gaining a sense of sustainability as a social project.

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