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Sustainability: Where are the roadblocks?
Emily Gertz, 15 Mar 05

Yesterday, in one of the sitting-on-the-hallway-floor conversations that seem to be the lifeblood of SXSW, someone commented to me that he was disappointed at how uninterested technologists seem to be in sustainability. It was unfair to single out the technologists, I said--plenty of people across many professions are uninterested in sustainability! OK, he asked, so where is the bottleneck?

At which point I held forth in a fairly scary fashion on Descartes and Bacon, (Back to Grad School 1.0, SXSW Edition) and the origins of reductionist "nature as enemy" thinking in Western culture, magnified by 500 subsequent years of technological change and population growth.

What do you all think? Stepping back for a few from the points of leverage--like leapfrogging energy technology, improving the lives of women, creating green media--where's the ultimate bottleneck to sustainability? Does identifying it help move us forward?

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Comments

The main bottleneck is the almost univerally-unquestioned assumption that doing good requires sacrifice (paying more, less income, more work, etc), and that to do well in life (ease of living, high income, etc), one must do harm.

No way to overcome that until more people go out there and start proving that assumption to be false. No amount of debate about it is going to do it.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 15 Mar 05

In terms of technology and technologists, I think that the bottleneck has been (in this century, anyway) the focus on the bottom-line as the measure of a technology's worthiness. This approach has meant that many potentially sustainabilty-focussed technological systems were left to languish because they just weren't potentially profitable.

However, the opensource movement (in many fields, not just software, eg: http://www.bios.net/daisy/bios/15) is definately a step in the direction of sustainability.

As people begin to realise that the right to tinker and develop new things from systems you own is an aspect of a free, open society, we will begin to see more and more sustainability-related projects coming out of people's garage's and basements rather than industrial labs.


Posted by: Nigel Jacob on 15 Mar 05

I tend to agree with Joseph that people just have to be shown that it's possible. As the WC piece on the Kyoto treaty said so well, we need to stop the Nero-esque fiddling and prove to the opposition that the sky won't fall if we start doing things differently.


Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 15 Mar 05

Hmm, let's see: reductionism, disconnect from nature, scientific hubris, patriarchal dominator systems, profit-uber-alles, meritocracy, "bread and circus" (sport/entertainment replacing religion as the opiate of the people). We've got our work cut out!

-- John


Posted by: John Norris on 15 Mar 05

Well, not to be snide, but the idea that there would be any *one* bottleneck seems a little unlikely. What I have been hearing echoes of in the wind is more like a recognition of multivariable complexity--the reality of many simultaneous inertias--and the strange realities of complex systems, where interventions have unexpected and sometimes disproportionate effects. Maybe one-dimensional thinking is 'the' bottleneck!

You could always look at the Platonic valorization of ideas and concepts, and the Christian myth of the Fall, both of which tend to favor disembodied mental experience over embodiment and physical experience. Descartes was standing on the shoulders of giants...not necessarily of the big and friendly variety...


Posted by: hans samuelson on 15 Mar 05

Maybe over-thinking and over-conceptualizing problems is the bottleneck.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 15 Mar 05

Grr I know I posted here...

The problem is you. You are not like the general public and its about time you think about what that fact entails.

Because your very different anything that feels right to you is garanteed to feel wrong to the general public.

Because your very different any sacrifice that seems unimportant to you is sure to be thought of very differently by the general public.

What matters to you isnt what matters to them.


Now lets look on a few cases.

1 solar. It doesnt LOOK good on a house it looks UGLY! It is unestetical it is technological meets redneck and it needs a complete astthetic makeover before it can go primetime. It needs to blend in and be more subtle. It needs to fuse with the floorline not sit on the roof like a garish technoholiday display. It needs to be a part of the home not an alien invader.

2 Wind. The windmills need to look less tech and more astehticly neutral. They need to blend and they need to colored such that you dont tend to notice them.

3 small cars... instead of shrinking the cars people want to buy and use you need to shrinkthe impact large cars have on the environment. Its time to stop fighthing the wants and needs of the general public and start looking into how to cope with them. How can you make an suv that is clean and effiencenit given its size and boxyness? Why duh by combining the ideas of a powered roadway and the suv to make a road powered suv that only needs to run its engine when it goes off grid. It may seem wasteful of energy but to be blunt thats not for you to decide any more then its for a non computer type to decide the internet is wasteful of energy and force everyone to run on far weaker lower energy chips and force the internet to use less energy....

Its about the goal not the details your getting stuck in the details.


Posted by: wintermane on 15 Mar 05

One vs several bottlenecks: note that I split the difference between the title and text of the post on whether to identify one vs. multiple bottlenecks. Tricky of me.

One thing I grapple with a lot lately is the divide between bringing about a change in consciousness (yesterday in the SXSW keynote, which we attending WCers are striving to post soon via our consolidated notes, Bruce Sterling described it via the term "mindfulness"), and simply making a more sustainable system that people can live/operate/consume in as unconsciously as they do in current systems.

We tend towards the latter view here on WC, which might make a digression into Descartes, the Fall from Eden and other fundamental moments in the basis of Western intellectual alienation from natural systems rather irrelevant. I would like to think that "showing people it's possible" is poised somewhere between the two--if not explicitly. We model that it's possible, informed by understanding of the deeper roots of how we got here, if it's helpful.


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 16 Mar 05

Bottleneck: the conceptual division/distinction of human culture from the natural world. We, as humans, believe we are somehow 'separate' from the ecosystems that sustain us and all life: we are something unnatural and therefor over/under/above/below--one of these--nature. This goes both ways, neoprimitivists thinking that only 'natural'--as if humans were not natural--ecosystems are to be striven for, and whateveryouwanttolabelthem, 'superhumanists' or whatever, that believe that 'culture' dominates 'nature', and is not part of the natural world.

I believe (and perhaps this is a naive hope) that if human society were abl to conceive of itself as a perfectly natural extenion of the good earth, as it were, then we could see that what we are in is a symbiotic relationship. Sustaining the environs is sustaining ourselves.


Posted by: livingfossil on 16 Mar 05


I too like Joseph's comment... we don't need to sacrifice to "do good". This is a huge misconception.

However, what I see is the main bottleneck is agreement on what sustainability means and what are the end goals that we are trying to reach.

If we agree on end goals and have the ability to measure progress towards these goals then it would be easy to show people that its possible.

What do you mean by sustainability and what are the end goals you are looking for?


Posted by: Joe Deely on 16 Mar 05

This could go on and on indefinitely, as we will all have slightly different opinions of what constitutes a bottleneck, whether or not we're dealing with one or many.

Excellent points have been made by all. To some extent, even the inarticulate, angry wintermane points to some legitimate hurdles.

The most critical bottleneck, though, is certainly one of individual recognition of interconnectedness. Once we view the world as an extension of the self, having to recycle, reuse or compost will become easier, even if, like a visit to the doctor, it can be something of a chore.

Your follow up post, Ms. Gertz, is excellent and it nicely compliments the "you're-the-problem-stupid" ranting of wintermane and Mr. Willemssen's suggestion that over-thinking may hinder our efforts. How will we bring about the "change in consciousness?" Most likely by "making a sustainable system" you describe.

Granted, such a system won't exist in our lifetime, if ever, but this doesn't mean we don't have reason to strive for it.


Posted by: Hungry Hyaena on 16 Mar 05

How will we bring about the "change in consciousness?" Most likely by "making a sustainable system" you describe

Precisely. The change in thinking *follows* the change in experience - not the other way around. Imagine if to enable e-commerce, for example, people like Jeff Bezos needed to "prove" with words that e-commerce would work, and that everyone would need to "change their consciousness about e-commerce" before e-commerce could become common.

No, he just went out and did it and the change of thinking about it follows along.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 Mar 05

I guess the problem I have with the "no sacrifice" model is that a lot of middle class people are not happy. They are on a high-debt, high-consumption, treadmill.

Why shouldn't "live like an Italian" storyline be happier? Get yourself a small car, and start driving to picnics, take alongpasta and red wine.

(Geez, if you want to talk "big picture" think about how many people finance those SUVs while they juggle credit card debt.)


Posted by: odograph on 16 Mar 05

The problem, and its solutions, are fractal. That is, there are recurring patterns at multiple scales. It's important to find the scale at which we can be competent to change things. In our personal lives what prevents us from living more sustainably? We can work on that first. When we find ourselves embedded in systems we feel powerless to change, we need to find what leverage we can, and we need to join forces with enough other people to have influence at that scale. It will be long, hard work, heartbreaking often, likely not finished in our lifetimes. Let's do it anyway.

I don't think there is a "single" bottleneck, but if there were one, I'd nominate "the myth of exceptionalism." This is the myth that, although a behavior is bad in general, in *my particular case* I have an excuse. For example, "Well, yes, flying in airplanes is generally not sustainable, but *in my particular case*, I fly all the time because I'm doing such important work." Or, "Well, yes, I know driving an SUV is wasteful, but *in my particular case* it's okay, because I go camping at least 6 times a year." Or, "Yeah, I know that eating feedlot meat is incredibly wasteful, but *in my particular case* meat is an important part of my weight-loss program." And so on.

I suspect that some will take offense at this. No offense is meant - I'm as big a hypocrite as anyone. But I'm working hard on recognizing the "exceptionalism myth" in my own life. It's hard work, but worthwhile.


Posted by: David Foley on 16 Mar 05

I'd nominate "the myth of exceptionalism." This is the myth that, although a behavior is bad in general, in *my particular case* I have an excuse. For example, "Well, yes, flying in airplanes is generally not sustainable, but *in my particular case*, I fly all the time because I'm doing such important work." Or, "Well, yes, I know driving an SUV is wasteful, but *in my particular case* it's okay, because I go camping at least 6 times a year." Or, "Yeah, I know that eating feedlot meat is incredibly wasteful, but *in my particular case* meat is an important part of my weight-loss program." And so on.

I suspect that some will take offense at this. No offense is meant - I'm as big a hypocrite as anyone. But I'm working hard on recognizing the "exceptionalism myth" in my own life. It's hard work, but worthwhile.

The whole "exceptionalism myth" is premised on a notion that somehow all lives are of equal value and is far too atomistic in its approach. And this is an outgrowth of that first way of thinking which you mentioned, which is the attempt to create sustainability through individual action, which is simply a delusion which we entertain.

If Amory Lovins has to burn way more energy than the average person through his work to make the world more fuel efficient, then that's a net gain for sustainability. He is simply incapable of personally wasting as much as he saves for the planet as a whole.

You see this same type of thinking applied to things like John Kerry's campaign - "Oh, look at the hypocrite fly around in planes and ride in SUVs." The President of the United States has massive influence on outcomes, so to confound the personal consumption impacts of presidential candidates with those of average people is not a very clear way of addressing what is a systemic, global issue.

As soon as you start playing games with judgments about personal behavior and people's freedom to make choices about it, then you're setting yourself up for massive resistance. The whole reason that environmentalism has gotten gutted as a movement is because it's been accurately characterized as a bunch of people judging their fellow humans and telling them how to conduct their lives, all while putting themselves on pedestals about how wonderful their own behavior is. No one likes to be treated that way. No one.

Then, you get into all the impacts to the environment which are built in to our daily lives and not subject to behavioral modification. Escalators are going to keep running even if you don't ride them. Planes are going to fly even if you don't fly on them. And so on.

Sometimes when you slice something up it loses the integrity which is inherent in it, and breaking down a global problem into 6.4 billion pieces just doesn't make sense.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 Mar 05

That second paragraph was a quote, not my own comment.

Not quite used to how to use the tags with Movable Type commenting.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 Mar 05

I'm on the side of redesigning the system, and letting most people stay unconscious--let them take their cues from the system and each other like they do now, and as most humans have always done. Consciousness-raising is a large project. We're only halfway out of the medieval era in terms of religious beliefs, while we're already at the end of the industrial era technologically. Come back in 500 years and by then people will see themselves (once again) as part of nature. It will happen, but not soon.

Meanwhile, design the new system so well that it's merely seen as an upgrade that people do as a matter of course. Use the language of upgrade and improvement to sell it. The Mini doesn't sell itself as a downgrade from an SUV. It says, "I'm faster and better-looking, I've got a wicked attitude. Watch out."

So I agree that the bottleneck is our own disbelief in ourselves, our own unwillingness to sell the green future as smarter, sexier, more fun, and all around much better, not just for animals and plants, but for humans as well.


Posted by: Jeff Rusch on 16 Mar 05

Jeff, that was really well-put.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 Mar 05

I second the compliments on Jeff Rusch's recent post.

Joseph, I agree with the thrust of what you write, but I think the "myth of exceptionalism" is a serious problem. To use your example, Jeff Bezos created a global demand that started with one individual, thereby changing the thinking. If more people walked the walk rather than just talking the talk, the paradigm shift would be accelerated.

As Jeff points out, though, in 500 years, we're likely to see a world society with a better understanding of its intimate ties to the environment.


Posted by: Hungry Hyaena on 16 Mar 05

Its just as likely that in 500 years everyone will be even more disconnected from nature as large numbers of people live thier entire lives either in space or massive towers. 500 years is a long time after all and I dont see society as a whole going more toward nature I see them walking away from it and leaving it.


Posted by: wintermane on 16 Mar 05

If more people walked the walk rather than just talking the talk, the paradigm shift would be accelerated.

OK, so is Amory Lovins "walking the walk" or not? I'm sure he consumes an inordinate amount of resources compared to the average person, with all the air travel he does.

Then of course it raises the question of what it means to "walk the walk". Who determines this? What are the metrics to measure its effectiveness?

I've raised this point before, but an overzealous attachment to behaving in an environmentally "pure" fashion often leads to the kinds of attitudes and behaviors which actually foster reactionary actions that far outweigh any marginal benefit from the "pure" lifestyle pursued by that individual. People often relish rubbing wastefulness in the face of people who judge them about the consequences of their actions.

Being connected with nature is a far deeper way of being than most people realize. I've also covered that in previous comments, but the gist is that a great deal of the environmental movement is premised on disconnecting people from the "Tao of society", such that we are told to constantly think and struggle against the default settings of our societies. And to do so is unnatural.

You see it also in the tension between animal rights acitivists and hunters. Who is more connected with nature - a bow hunter or some coffee-swilling urban weenie who couldn't handle themselves in a remote environment?

If you simply go to the goal of changing the structure and options that people have in such a way that the distinctions between "society's Tao" and "nature's Tao" become less and less pronounced, then we'll naturally have a process by which people connect themselves with nature (which includes connecting with one another).


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 Mar 05

Joseph wrote:

"The main bottleneck is the almost univerally-unquestioned assumption that doing good requires sacrifice (paying more, less income, more work, etc), and that to do well in life (ease of living, high income, etc), one must do harm.

"No way to overcome that until more people go out there and start proving that assumption to be false. No amount of debate about it is going to do it."

Joseph, your point is well taken about every person's natural resistance to being judged, and the perception of environmentalists as sanctimonious hypocrites. Perhaps what I wrote is too atomistic. I was trying to say that sustainability is not atomistic - it's fractal. The basic rules and patterns operate at multiple scales. Some are too large to be immediately affected by individuals or small groups. In our households and neighborhoods, we have some ability, right now, to do as you suggest - go out there and demonstrate the satisfaction, joy, health and real security of a more sustainable life. If we create the pattern at the scale we're competent, we'll have an easier time creating the pattern at larger scales.

But I think more people know this than DO this. You suggest that we "go out there and start proving that assumption false." I do that, and I bet you do too. But what about others who could, but don't - what's stopping them? I think it's fear, manifesting as various "myths of exceptionalism" - that is, stories of why, *in my particular case* it's okay to live in a way that I know is wrong.

We may agree more than you think. I think you're saying that people will move toward sustainability through inspiration, not browbeating - and our job is to go out and create that kind of inspiration. I agree wholeheartedly with that. But for inspiration to lead to action, one needs assurance. That means overcoming fear, inertia and indifference. That means we need to examine the chimeras in our minds.

You ask what are the metrics of "walking the walk?" Excellent question, without a good answer. But one place to start is the "ecological footprint." It provides a very clear, compelling message. To virtually all of us participating in this conversation, the message is: "For everyone to live like you, we need more than the planet we have."

What do we do with that information? In your admirable case, you work to change that, to inspire others to do the same, and to redesign the systems that give rise to this problem. But most people don't - that was the original point in this thread. I agree with you that accusations and judgments won't help. But I don't think that people avoid sustainability because they feel judged. I think they tell themselves stories about how, *in their particular case* they can't do better, and really don't have to, and it's not their fault, and all we need to do is change these other people, or the big bad corporations, etc. etc.

Inspiration, as you point out, is vital. But so is an honest assessment of our stories, and confronting the fears underlying them.

BTW: I know Amory Lovins, and I'm sad to say that I think it's been at least 20 years since he's "walked the walk." The ratio of the harm of his lifestyle to the good of his efforts is far greater than it was 20 to 30 years ago. I think that matters, especially on a practical level: Amory used to be more convincing and compelling, because his convictions were clearer, and more closely matched by his everyday life. He's gone flabby.


Posted by: David Foley on 17 Mar 05

They say that everyone's politics grows out of their view of human nature. If you think people can work together effectively, you'll favor those solutions. If you think people need strict laws and punishments, you'll favor those solutions. And so on ...

I think the question "environmentalists" face is what parts of their nature is already shared with plain folks, what part can be sold to plain folks, and what part just need to be worked around (because it is never going to sell).

I think it is OK that different groups will come up with different answers to those questions. Well, people ARE going to come up with different answers to those questions. That's just the way it works.

Some of you who see folks as resistent to environmental messages, and some of you think they are ready for change (for example to examine their own "myths of exceptionalism") - you're probably both right.

I'd say be smart and tailor your message to your audience, and take what you can get on a pragmatic level.


Posted by: odograph on 17 Mar 05

Being connected with nature is a far deeper way of being than most people realize. I've also covered that in previous comments, but the gist is that a great deal of the environmental movement is premised on disconnecting people from the "Tao of society", such that we are told to constantly think and struggle against the default settings of our societies. And to do so is unnatural.

You see it also in the tension between animal rights acitivists and hunters. Who is more connected with nature - a bow hunter or some coffee-swilling urban weenie who couldn't handle themselves in a remote environment?

Great comments, Joseph. When you've got the majority of the population of the world living in cities (and more to come), trying to argue that getting people out of them somehow helps the planet, and is the morally "pure" choice, is not only ecologically innaccurate, but a great way to be sure most people in the world tune the message out. That's a sustainability bottleneck if ever there was one.

I hope folks here have or will read Alan's great essay on the evolution of environmentalists--http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002358.html--from iconoclasm and into innovation and change agency, or, even better, making tactical use of both positions to best advantage.


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 18 Mar 05

Good stuff here.

Joe's opening comment

The main bottleneck is the almost univerally-unquestioned assumption that doing good requires sacrifice (paying more, less income, more work, etc), and that to do well in life (ease of living, high income, etc), one must do harm.

No way to overcome that until more people go out there and start proving that assumption to be false. No amount of debate about it is going to do it.

is right on the mark, in my experience. I'm encountering that assumption consistently -- among enviros and business people and ordinary folk, and in many cases from people who should know better.

Huzzah to Jeff too. Bucky Fuller used to say that if you wanted to keep people from flying off the road because they were cornering too fast, you'd have much better results by banking the curve than by trying to convince them to drive slower.

But the key that I don't think anyone's mentioned (there's a lot here, so I'm sorry if I missed anything) is the price distortion of our highly subsidized markets. (Not just financial subsidies, but also, as RFK Jr points out, the subsidized trespass that we call pollution.) Internalize the externalties (I think Amory once estimated to "true" price of gasoline at 10x the pump price), enable the market to send accurate price signals, and behavior changes in a heartbeat.

(I'll be talking about this, among other things, as the Commonwealth Club, in San Francisco, April 6.)


Posted by: Gil Friend on 19 Mar 05

Hmmm, that second paragraph (No way to overcome...) should have been italicized as Joe's as well.


Posted by: Gil Friend on 19 Mar 05



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