Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Moving Beyond Sustainability to Environmental Effectiveness
Colin Beavan, 28 Oct 08

The task at hand -- to create a new reality; a new way of living with fewer resources while providing a prosperous life for every member of our growing population -- is going to require more than even the best technology that money can buy. It's going to require imagination, open-mindedness, a willingness to live and to understand life differently. With that significant challenge ahead of us, is "sustainability" the best weapon we can bring to the fight?

To illustrate my point, let me ask: is sustainability an inspiring call to action? Do you dream of a life that's simply "sustainable?" Or do you hope for something better, say, a happy life? One that's full of meaning?

Who among us would be satisfied with living a life that can simply be sustained? And if that's not what we want for ourselves, then why is it the word we use to pitch this lifestyle to the still-unconvinced? Sustainability, the way many on the most recent wave of popularization have tended to think about it, is nothing more inspiring than business as usual -- adapted so that we can do it forever. As usual.

I am aiming a punch straight for our "green" solar plexus. I want to knock the wind out of our guts. I want us take a deep breath and think of something better.

What I'm saying is that there are a lot of products and processes out there that could be made in a way that's arguably sustainable when, in fact, they do no good for humankind at all. To my mind, even if resources are used "sustainably," if they are not being used to improve human life, they are still, essentially, being trashed.

A new means of evaluating products and services in terms of their improvement to human life will be a necessary step in the evolution of "sustainability" -- if we want to use that term -- as an enduring philosophy.

When our measure of sustainability asks only if a given activity is something we can get away with doing -- and fails to ask whether that activity is worth doing at all -- we fail to see the larger picture.

Imagine a soda can. Sure, it's better for the planet if the can is both recycled and recyclable; it's even better if the local recycling program ensures that the aluminum used to make the can continues to loop through the process of use and re-use. At that point, the process of packaging soda becomes arguably sustainable.

But when we view that product in the interconnected world in which it lives, we still end up with obese kids buying sugary sodas from machines in their schools. Another example: No matter how green a car we drive, unless the system changes we are still stuck with suburbs and highways and spending 13 percent of our incomes to service those cars.

Business. As usual.

"Sustainable" implies something can be done, but it says nothing about whether it should be done. It says nothing about whether our precious resources are being used for our betterment.

In order to change the paradigm, I believe that we need to begin to include "life enhancement" as a measure of a product's overall worth in the world.

Consider, first, that reduced resource use and ecological lifestyles, on both the cultural and the individual level, need not mean deprivation. Let's assume, in fact, that there are synergistic solutions that can help solve both our lifestyle and our environmental crises.

Indeed, let's assume that such solutions are better than what we call "sustainable" because they have the added benefit of enhancing human life. I'm going to call these solutions, for the purposes of this post, "environmentally effective."

Environmental because it is less harmful to the environment. Effective because resources are effectively used to enhance human life. In other words, we get joy or life, quality or health. Or something else good. That's better than boring old "sustainable," right?

One simple example of environmental effectiveness on the individual level: cycling. Studies show that bicycle commuters are happier than car and transit commuters.

Research also shows that, at the cultural level, people who live in pedestrian-friendly areas tend to have more friends.

In both cases, the scenario that uses fewer resources results (directly or indirectly) in better quality of life. The happiness of people, therefore, does not depend on energy and material use. It depends upon whether materials and energy are used effectively to improve well-being.

You can argue, therefore, that a transportation system based on biking is not just sustainable, but actually environmentally effective.

In this next-gen version of ecological thinking, I'd like to propose that the ecologically responsible designer of products and systems go beyond the question of identifying the lowest possible energy and materials input. The real question is whether use of those valuable ecological resources can be justified in terms of quality of life improvement.

In mathematical terms, the "environmental effectiveness" (E) of a product or system might be represented by an equation that looks something like:

E = life enhancement / ecological resource use.

The more life enhancement (pleasure, health, contentment, security, community, connectedness) delivered per unit of resource, the higher the environmental effectiveness, and the more ecological the product. In other words, even a conventionally-grown apple has a higher environmental effectiveness than organically-grown tobacco.

And if you think about it, products like sugary sodas wouldn't score so well either. Carrot juice, even in the same throwaway container, would score better.

Here's another example: a coal-fired power plant. If we were to build one here in New York, say, where I live, we might be able to turn our air conditioners up and keep our buildings a degree cooler. But if we built the same power plant, say, in India, we could deliver electric light to villages so kids could learn to read at night.

The same power station is more environmentally effective in one case than the other. Though both examples have the same ecological resource use, the Indian case delivers more life enhancement.

We have become so short on environmental resources that we can no longer afford to be wasting them on things that don't even improve our lives.

Environmental effectiveness goes beyond sustainability and challenges us to ask whether or not we're using our resources to enhance life; because if we're not, isn't that the true definition of waste?

It challenges us to look deep into the environmental crisis not only for opportunities to use less, but also for ways to use better. It challenges us not to squander our limited resources on things that harm us or others but to value our resources enough to insist that they are used for our good.

That's vision. That's opportunity. That's a chance to get better lives as well as solving the environmental crisis.

Colin Beavan writes and administers, a meeting point for discussion of environmental issues, lifestyle redesign, political engagement and citizen responses to our planetary emergency from a "deep green" perspective. Beavan's experiment in lifestyle redesign is the subject of his book (scheduled for publication in September 2009 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and a documentary by independent filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Eden Wurmfeld.

Bookmark and Share


Thanks Colin.

Nice piece.

It sounds like you've already seen the article that Michael Braungart released last spring, but in case others want to have a look, point your browsers at:

and enjoy!

As both of you write, sustainability is boring. As both of you imply, being a little less damaging is not a good motivator.

The idea of effectiveness as a measure is something we need to be better at promoting, and it needs to replace the discussion of "efficiency" as an end in itself. As Michael Porter has written, "efficiency is not a strategy." To be meaningful, it must be used in service of some end objective. Otherwise, we may just be better at the wrong thing.

Posted by: j david on 28 Oct 08

Nice one Colin. I worked as a green campaigner/do-er for years and that word - Sustainable - is a real problem. I don't think you've found the solution but it's a fine effort and the thinking is spot on.

It's also glaringly obvious - we need our political leaders to embrace this thinking. Urgently!

Posted by: Simon Lee on 29 Oct 08

I find your comments refreshing. I will sometimes tell people I think recycling is as effective as filtered cigarettes.

The filter makes people feel better about doing something bad for them, people around them and the environment - but does little actual good.

Residential Recycling puts the most polluting vehicles on the road (Garbage Truck) in double the volume.
Then heavy use of resources is required to create a product that is often of lower quality than the original and more expensive.
The end result is arguably more damaging than just throwing the recycling away.
However, like filtered cigarettes, recycling is making people think about what they are up to and is an important step toward changing behavior.

Consider bottled water. What if water filtration was installed at the point of sale and people carried around reusable water bottles.
Water could be sold, refrigerated and filtered. This would eliminate packaging, transportation and recycling impact. This would be a change that is inline with the type of basic behavioral change you are suggesting.

Posted by: Matt Pretka on 29 Oct 08

I like Roger Von Oech's term for a surprise that releases creativity: A whack on the side of the head.

I think you're right -- we need an entire paradigm shift. I think Sustainability is a proto-shift. I like the fact that consumers are asking the companies they're buying from if they can get this product in a less toxic way--but it's not the whole thing.

The scary thing about a paradigm shift is that we don't know what it will look like until it happens. We can project from the known all we want, but we won't know we're there until we get there. That means we have to hold that zen place of doing the best job we know how to do and letting new technologies bloom (in spite of the resources they take) so that we can be surprised.

But here's the hopeful evidence that we're heading in the right direction: We went from records to CDs to electronic downloads. We went from having to string wire to connect every house by telephone to putting a single tower in the vicinity of a group of homes. We went from printing a boatload of paper--including the ads to pay for it--daily to communicate to sending bits and bytes. The coolest things these days are not the products you're wearing, but where you communicate online. We have an incredible amount of intertia to disconnect the things we value (social status, entertainment, connection) from products.

We also have an incredible opportunity to change our economic model so that it creates the things we want (affordable solar and wind power, local production of food and goods, walkable and bikeable infrastructures, mortgages in line with jobs available locally).

I don't know what the new paradigm will be, but I get more excited every day that it's on its way.

Posted by: Anne on 29 Oct 08

matt, i like your filtered cigarette comparison. i refer to recycling as a gateway drug. it isn't much by itself, but if your friends are doing it, you may try it, get hooked, and move on to something more serious.

Posted by: emmer on 29 Oct 08

If Colin has read Braungart then he seems somewhat confused as, with the sort of closed loop, biomimetic economy Braungart proposes, we can thankfully leave to one side (for a round of the usual politics) the rather more difficult questions Colin raises around life enhancement. There is very little which annoys the average Joe and Zhenya so quickly as this habit of judgement which many environmentalists carry around, even if it seems to be for the best of reasons. If waste = food and social and natural capital are increasing then there is plenty of scope still: to be frivolous, selfish, generous, rich or poor and to indulge those things humans assume are part of marking the passage of time - from big weddings to Olympic games. We can leave behind the mediocrity of 'sustainable' but I always watch out for and resist the puritanical tendency so often cloaked behind otherwise sensible suggestions about how 'less' can be 'better'. It can be but I'd be happier to let people find thir way to that point when the wish or can. A living systems inspired economy is the necessary and primary challenge.

Posted by: Ken Webster on 29 Oct 08

I know from my own educational experience and career that engineers, in particular, have been systematically encouraged to "leave to one side the rather more difficult questions... about life enhancement." Indeed, business people and many others are encouraged to do the same.

Leave those questions for the "usual politics," as you say. Or put another way, if it's legal, it's okay.

Will you excuse me for saying that that, in itself, is a boring and uninspired view? The idea that engineers, designers, and business people should not be asking about the social value or costs of their products has helped to get us where we are.

Don't we need to be asking these questions at every level? Shouldn't every person in every job be asking whether what they are doing helps their community? Or do you not trust the people?

A living systems inspired economy may be part of the path, but eco-dogmas have the tendency to inspire and be afforded by only the elite.

How can we get people to change if we cannot promise that what we're offering them is going to be better, an improvement on what they have?

Also, you are confusing the use of fewer material and energy resources with "less." Because what I am arguing for here is MORE. Way more. If you follow my argument in the post, you'll see that it makes sense to use more resources--if it delivers improvement in life.

This is not an argument for using less. It's an argument for using better.

I'd like to see a sort of design based on whether the system or product will actually improve people's lives (rather than whether or not we can manipulate them into buying the product in question). I'm arguing that we turn away from simple sustainability and ask if we can't hitch that cart to the more powerful horses that traditionally pull us forward--the things people are actually interested in pursuing--joy, happiness, health, security, etc.

These are things that can inspire people. Certainly they inspire me.

And it moves away from elitism. It captures some of what Van Jones talks about. The idea that meeting our environmental challenge should not save just the planet, but also the people. Do you hear much at the unemployment office about "a living systems inspired economy?"

I mean, I like the idea, I just don't think it's going to win us many converts.

With love,

Colin aka No Impact Man

Posted by: Colin Beavan on 29 Oct 08

Perhaps we should remember that the recent emergence of sustainability was never a radical concept - it was really Brutland that came up with this recent idea of having our "environment" while eating (devouring) it. We can't have it both ways.

Colin, I am not sure that "effectiveness" is a great marketing idea either! Who would want an effective marriage? I want a flourishing, abundant marriage. Can we come up with terms that really are appealing to mass numbers of people?

Everything we do has an impact on the planet, no matter what we consume or do. It is whether that action taken or thing consumed feeds back into the world in synergestic and beneficial ways, ie I can eat lots of stuff, but if I use the waste in beneficial ways (I use a compost toilet) then "nature" and my local environment benefits.

And I see no benefit in drinking soda! Humans evolved pretty well with water!

Posted by: Peter Brandis on 29 Oct 08

"The idea that engineers, designers, and business people should not be asking about the social value or costs of their products has helped to get us where we are."

Sure, but that's not my point. One of the lessons of a living systems approach is that feedback is crucial and in a market dominated economy that is mostly organised through prices. Its the internalising of hitherto external costs which provides a major lever for change. I think we all know this by now. If Alex Steffen is right with his analysis in Winning the Great Wager there won't be a spontaneous change of heart to help us emerge at scale on the other side and enable 'a bright green future' it will be because of some judicious rule changing and some coherent sense of what 'abundance by design' (as Lovins has it) means. It has to play well in the world of economics and business. It does. This is the key to my argument and provides credentials which everyone from Van Jones to Nike, GE and InterfaceFlor have already found, well.. inspiring. More jobs, eliminate the concept of waste, more prosperity. Its the Natural Capitalism argument. In fact they do feel very comfortable with moving towards a closed loop system (if the rules of the game are adjusted) and the likes of InterfaceFlor already champion it. Its far from elitist (where is that notion coming from?) Sure if you aspire to advance the cause of the LOHAS or that strand of New Realism which has the search for the authentic as its touchstone, that's what I call 'a round of politics', and all well and good. Closed loop models are not an 'eco dogma' of course just a logical response to a mismatch between how humans have tended to work and how living systems work and they can be confidently predicted to form the intellectual base of any successful sustainable economy. Until the next model emerges! When it comes to articulating a world beyond mere sustainability I'd say we have already a lot of good work and a coherent model out there being tested.
William Stahel got under way with it in the 1970s and its coming along, as these things do in a sort of generational timescale. I think what may be uncomfortable is the way it is attractive to the most powerful interest groups in society, once its clear that peak oil and climate change and other crises are mandating change, yet as Paul Hawken argues these interest groups are the only ones with the power to effect rapid change. Politics of the sort Colin is involved in can be easier if there is bright greenfuture rather than the end of days

Posted by: Ken Webster on 29 Oct 08

interesting ideas. we HAD to buy a new floor for our condo--the old one had been refinished before, now dangerous to feet.
We discovered bamboo, ecologically better, and it looks lovely. It's been down for 3 weeks and so far we're happy with it. Good to spend money on something you can live with, that makes you happy, and feel like you haven't hurt the world. Good for the bare feet of this diabetic, too.

Posted by: Marthajoy Aft on 29 Oct 08

Read this just after seeing
The contrast was amusing but it also brings up a serious point: the human impulse to show off will not be going away any time soon. One of our tasks in this paradigm shift process will be finding and publicizing and, if our talents lean that way, creating sustainable ways to impress. With that in mind, I offer

Posted by: Joan on 30 Oct 08

Bill McDonough also addresses this (from an interview in YES! magazine, Fall'99, issue 11):

"I'm not that interested in sustainability, because if sustainability is just the edge between destruction and regeneration then it's a kind of maintenance -- it's a demeaned agenda.

I'm interested in fecundity -- regenerative, powerful stuff. Nature's not efficient, it's *effective*! You don't look at the cherry tree in the spring and say, "Look how many blossoms it takes!" It's not efficient. It's *effective*, and it's safe. There's nothing dangerous about the blossoms--they return to the Earth.

Look at me. I just had a baby girl a week and a half ago. We also have a little boy, four and a half. I have a 100 million sperm in case two get lucky -- not very efficient. But effective and fun! So let's celebrate and delight in abundance."

Posted by: Colin Leath on 30 Oct 08

I don't disagree with any of the ideas that you raise in your piece, except that the sustainability movement doesn't already embrace them. The Brundtland definition of sustainability is easy to quote, but it is a political statement, negotiated and compromised. Triple-bottom-line, people-planet-profit, ecology-economics-equity, three-legged stool, however you want to state it or diagram it, sustainability has always been about the persistence through time of human societies and our relationship to each other, our ecosystem, and our economics.

We can argue whether one term is better or worse. "Sustainability" may not be an inspiring or evocative term, but neither is "environmental effectiveness." It is also steeped in the frame of "environmentalism," which is not generally perceived to give much attention to social justice issues or economic issues.

I am (like you, I assume) pretty disgusted with green consumerism. But I think that Westerners and especially Americans give it credence because we have metrics that pretty accurately measure the environmental impacts of things. It's called life-cycle assessment. We don't really have similar metrics or methodologies for social justice impacts that can be used at the design stage. Of course we can analyze economic impacts ten ways to Sunday (most of them are self-fulfilling prophesies and soothsaying, but that's another rant).

I'm also not saying that I haven't done the kind of calculation that you describe in my head a million times. "How may villages in Africa could have clean water for the price of one Tesla Roadster?" "How many kids could go to college for what we spend on one cruise missile?" You get the idea...

I like Amory Lovins' idea of "Abundance by Design." I think the word "abundance" evokes the feelings that everyone would like to have about our own lives as well as humanity as a whole. Who could argue with abundant ecosystems, abundant economics, and abundant social justice? I feel that "Abundant" is on the development side of the "development/growth" spectrum (ie growth=bigger, development=better) and alludes to nature's fecundity.

My point is, we can argue terminology, but don't ignore the ideas that have evolved within the sustainability movement. Build from them.

Posted by: Brent on 30 Oct 08

Excllent approach. Way back when, Aristotle called for "a flourishing life." I think that's what we're looking for. In my mind a flourishing life is simple, successful (effective!), and sustainable. Products and services that support a flourishing life would also support flourishing families, neighborhoods, communities . . . and a flourishing planet. That's what to shoot for. I like your take on reframing sustainable. Flourishing! Sufficient! Exuberant! . . .

Posted by: Bruce Elkin on 31 Oct 08

Hi Colin and other Worldchangers:

just to point out, there's been quite a lot of thinking about re-framing our economic systems around promoting well-being with minimal resource consumption. One group active here is the New Economic Foundation:

You can even survey your own happinessenviro effectiveness with their "Happy Planet Index":

Creating a happy planet is a concept that might re-invigorate the debate in the way you're asking for.


Posted by: Pat Sunter on 31 Oct 08

Hi Colin - great piece!
I work in urban and resort planning, and do design from human-behavior standpoint. Meaning - my work is very sociological - we begin by looking at how we want people to feel and act in our communities, and design the surrounding spaces to support that.

I'm particularly interested in two points you mention, and wonder if you can provide the background research/data/sources for them:

"Studies show that bicycle commuters are happier than car and transit commuters."
"Research also shows that, at the cultural level, people who live in pedestrian-friendly areas tend to have more friends."

Thanks a lot!
Good luck with your book!

Posted by: Andrea Wilde on 2 Nov 08

Your environmental effectiveness index is very similar to the economic concept of opportunity cost – with an ethical co-efficient. Free marketer Warren Buffet, I believe, is a big promoter of the importance of opportunity cost.

As someone who has seen very status-quo oriented architects (that's most despite their passions for edgy form-making) go all sustainable in the last decade, I'm equally impressed with how cynically 'sustainability' is thrown around as a means to play the same old games. You can spend millions of dollars on cantilevered steel for architectural spectacle and call it sustainable if you double the insulation.

Let's face it, there's going to be few who want radical change on this front until things get very, very dire. In my country, Australia, our major river system (for most food production) is in decline possibly terminal – may be then, maybe.

Posted by: Alastair on 3 Nov 08

I'm an Episcopal priest, so I'm becoming accustomed to talking about environmental issues using the language of faith - and what you're talking about in this article, Colin, is right on. What's needed is not "sustainability" language - business as usual - but transformation. Most religions have some concept of conversion: a dramatic experience, maybe, or simply a slow process of enlightenment, but the end result is a way of living that is radically different from the "old ways." That's transformation; it's what religion needs to be about, and its what the climate crisis is going to require from us on a global and individual level. Business as usual - sustainability - is just not going to cut it.

Posted by: nathan on 4 Nov 08

colin - agree with your thesis. I think you should change your web url to positiveimpactman - ;-) I subscribe to the Braungartian C2C approach to excess and positivity.

all best#
alex scott

Posted by: al scott on 9 Nov 08



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg