Friday, January 23, 2009

Some Thoughts On Sustainability

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I keep coming back to the phenomenal ground of photography as an image-viewer interaction, rather than a viewer-subject interaction, the distinction being that it the image, not the subject, that the viewer actually encounters. I think this is incredibly important for the general audience to explore as we consume more and more pictures.

With that in mind, I want to draw your attention to Volume #18 which tackles the issue of sustainability, examining its philosophical and linguistic grounds with a mind to ask some hard questions about the difference between the green movement as a fantasy and the green movement as a pragmatic political reality. It is in the fantasy of the future that the concept achieves its own phenomenal ground.

Sustainability is the catch word of the year, even getting indirectly worked into President Obama's inaugural address. Climate change and environmental issues are being framed as the the next great challenge for humankind. And they are. According to Obama, we will be mobilizing our economy in a way that will tackle these issues head on, as a country and perhaps modeled after a war effort. But...
From After Zero, by Arjen Oosterman

Indeed, a clear differentiation between making a future and the possible making of the future is important. Architecture is called to arms to rescue the world from extinction, or rather humankind from perdition. Architecture is expected to vanquish a giant with many names, to free the way to the 'future.' What this future should be is rarely discussed. Nor has the true nature of this opponent been recognized. and this is remarkable since every soldier knows it is essential to know your enemy.

What kind of future are we wanting to create? It would be possible right now to reduce an incredible amount of carbon and waste production by merely reducing individual consumption. But the economy is consumer driven and reduced consumption would add additional pressure on the already depressed economy.

Expect that whatever environmental solution the government proposes, it will be a consumer compatible movement, modifying consumption to reduce its impact while keeping it profitable. What profit is there in buying and consuming less? We need a global vision of where we are headed, and when that is not provided by the government, we need to ask the long term questions of what new policies will create over time.

From Beyond Zero, by John E. Fernandez

If civilization is to progress a growth culture will have to change into a culture of descent [...]

The idea of sustainable economic growth clashes with the second law of thermodynamics [...] Our approach thus far continues to be incremental improvement because any change more significant than 'incremental' is not currently valued. Yet even accepting these hefty assumptions, there is a growing awareness that all is not well with the concept of beyond zero, not to mention the idea of reaching zero itself.

First there is physics. Anyone familiar with the primary arguments against the idea of sustainable economic growth has already been reminded of the second law of thermodynamics. While it is obvious that society itself constitutes the counter-entropy ordered assembly of energy and materials, our financial value system has failed to account for the real costs of this push against the second law. Ecological Economics has grown in stature and established the framework for an economics that acknowledges and internalizes the second law--thus accounting for effects that used to be known as externalities. However, we are very far away from a governmental and economic framework that even begins to acknowledge, much less work on the principles of the second law.

To put it bluntly, we have discovered that continued growth in consumption cannot be sustained on this planet. It will eventually kill us all. We are now discovering that continued economic growth might not also be possible, since our current economic models require an increased consumption to fuel the economic expansion. The laws of physics trump economic theory. And if we cannot plan on increased economic growth, then what do we plan on?

What future do we envision if we cannot see more riches for ourselves and our children? And how do we meet the current economic crises knowing that the past solutions which ultimately resulted in restoring rising levels of consumption to fuel the economy might now no longer be physically viable?

In the same way that shareholders' demand increasing returns on their investments, do we continue to hold out for a return to economic growth as we have through every downturn since the Great Depression? Or do we recognize the need to contract, both physically and economically, beginning a generation of descent, of modesty and localization -- a conscious retraction from the excesses of the past centuries? There will be real economic consequences to any long term solution. Perhaps this will be part of the price of responsibility.

Any solution that does not address at its core the dependence of the world economy on rising levels of consumption will fail to address the environmental problems that come with it. We cannot simultaneously grow economically and consume less. So the logic would be to make consumption cleaner, thereby keeping the profitability of the system intact. Given the exponential population growth that we expect over the next century, this is only a very short term solution that will result in serious long term problems.


Tom White said...

There is indeed a need for an economic practice that at it's core rejects the rampant consumerism that drives the capitalist system. Free markets are all well and good for the short term gains enjoyed by those at the top of the pyramid, but when the base collapses (as it has done recently) there are major problems.

One theory of what can replace capitalism is participatory economics. For more info on that look here

Aric Mayer said...


Thanks for your comment and for the link. I'm particularly interested in ideas like Parecon as utopian ideals... internally consistent and very compelling, even desirable. But none the less requiring a kind of modification of history and human behavior in order to implement.

Wealth and class have always been aligned with a kind of military power and the willingness to use force. In order for Parecon or any other new model to be implemented, some kind of significant external pressure must be exerted on the capitalist system in order to either persuade those that have the power to relinquish it or to take it away from them by force. There are too many people who enjoy subjugating other humans, whether consciously or unconsciously, for the system to go willingly.

The expansion of wealth in the west has been so significant over the past centuries that most westerners have no idea just how far there is to fall. I fear that whatever form that pressure comes in, and I believe it will come in the form of environmental collapse, the ride down will be too chaotic for macro systems to be implemented.

And this is just where Africa may teach the west how to survive, for African have been developing micro economies and communities for a long time. Perhaps those social and economic structures, combined with our science can bring a new model to bear.