When I came across the book Sustainability Unpacked at my local library, I was thrilled by the book’s sexy title. I was personally hoping to discover the global sustainability discourse critically unpacked… but instead, this book does little to unpack claims of “sustainability.” It is fairly traditional in its interpretation of “sustainability”–that “sustainability” means figuring out how many humans, and in what configurations, can we fit on planet Earth, indefinitely. What it “unpacks” is a whole lot of aggregated data about the planet and humans. The word “unpacked” seem misleading to me… the title suggests a bold claim of critical inquiry, but it delivers authoritative scientific information within a mainstream “sustainability” framework, as though “sustainability” needed no unpacking at all, apart from being defined by four interlocking ecological necessities (for human survival): water, forests, food, and energy.
In my last post, I “unpacked” some of the implicit assumptions buried in the authors’ problem statement around which their book orbits. Here, I am going to delve further into the book’s preface, in which they set up their interpretation of the sustainability “problem,” which the data in their book will address.
Still from Preface:
“These unavoidable constraints control the globe’s productive capacity and set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed.”
That the fairly static, material quantities of organic molecules, water, soil, and sun, control the planet’s capacity to produce material goods–this seems like an intuitively solid claim.
… but that they also “set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed”?
What on Earth do they mean by “human capital”? Well, I sure hope they don’t actually mean how much cash money humans can generate in the world–which seems like it could be implied, by a scheme to account for all the world’s resources and convert them all into commodities for our human economic marketplaces–but which would be a laughably absurd measure for the book’s grand claims of universal significance. Does “human capital,” then, mean the number of existing human living bodies? In that sense, yes, increasing the number of living human bodies does require soil, water, sun and other inputs, and thus does have a “material constraints” component. But why not say “number of humans,” then, than “human capital”? Continue reading
“The question must be raised: how many humans can the Earth sustain under the unavoidable constraints of climates and soils?” –Preface to Sustainability Unpacked
When researching formal literature on sustainability, I often encounter questions and statements like this one. From this mainstream framing, “sustainability” is viewed as being an issue of finding a way to manageably “fit” together the puzzle pieces of the natural environment and our human aspirations. It is no wonder to me that my original design for the Sust Enable episode series in 2008 consisted of seeking a universal “one-size-fits-all” system for balancing that finicky ratio of existing humans to natural resources. I bought the premise that we humans have managed to transgress our niches in the global self-regulating ecosystem, and thus we desperately need to speed up our efforts–whether through advanced technology or massive consensual behavior change–to “fit” on planet Earth. This attitude is, to put it mildly, twisted.
Within this question, posed so early on in Sustainability Unpacked, there are several premises I’d like to, myself, unpack.
1. Your question is too narrow. Here’s my suggestion for a better question:
“Given almost 7 billion humans at the time of writing, and one planet Earth, what kinds of people would be able to sustain themselves here? What kinds of systems would allow for the maximization of life potential (recognizing that human potential is usually enhanced through enhancing overall living systems)?”
2. “How many humans” is lazy wording. It’s how we choose to live, not how many we are. Continue reading
It’s so wonderful to me, as the director of Sust Enable: The Metamentary and The Sust Enable Project, to see a surge in new independent documentaries taking a reflexive and/or allegorical approach to the stories they are telling. This film in particular seems to suggest that in the story of a building, one can see the shapes of a story about how humans can create a sustainable future. In my experience, asking questions about what makes something–like the Tuhoe Building–sustainable necessarily requires deeper reflection and this kind of holistic, systems-thinking storytelling that seems to be telling more-than-one stories, integrating multiple scales and angles, into one whole. I look forward to seeing the full film!
Sustainability Unpacked: Food, Energy, and Water for Resilient Environments and Societies, by Kristiina A. Vogt plus a conglomerate of authors, is a somewhat technical book that analyzes recent global data about the planet and its human population, and attempts to draw links between human activities and our planet’s stock of finite material resources to see if some populations can, will, or do attain “sustainability.”
This book delves into the sustainability data by national borders: in a given nation, how are they doing, proportionally, with regard to human population, forest area, agricultural land, fresh water availability and treatment, and energy resources? While there are problems with examining global sustainability by the politically-consensed-upon boxes of national borders (when, in reality, the Earth and her overlapping ecosystems have no such borders), one reason to do so is to examine how the political conditions of particular nations (especially, in comparing decision-making processes and histories of “developed” countries with “developing” nations) impact their consumption of natural resources.
“Natural resources…” I feel compelled to say that this term gives me the willies. I should note here, that my overall discomfort with this book (and others like it) is its assertions that continued heavy manipulation by humans of their natural ecosystems is the only methodology for achieving global sustainability; simply–and simplistically, in my opinion–because humans have heavily manipulated their landscapes up to this point in history, so we are just going to keep doing so. Thus we need to use science and governments respectively to develop formulas for global equilibrium (aka “sustainability”) and implement those formulas effectively. Since surviving my arrogant one-size-fits-all attempt to develop a universal method for 100% sustainable living in 2008, this attitude agitates and disturbs me, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere. However, I recognize how widespread is our society’s faith in science and government (over other methods of knowing), so I respect the weight of such publications in shaping future activity around sustainability. I also respect the authors’ expertises in their areas of study, and their urge to share what they know in the ways they know it.
Of the many socio-environmental-economic vertices studied, when comparing a country’s measure of sustainability to other factors affecting the country, the data proclaims one thing clearly: the two most pronounced trends globally, is that sustainability is contraindicated when a country suffers from (1) hunger issues, and (2) lack of education.
Sust Enable has adopted many forms throughout its development from a seed film idea two years ago, derived out of filmmaker/author Caroline Savery’s remarkable struggles with the Sust Enable episode series in 2008.
Caroline wanted to share how her life had been radically altered–for the better–through practically testing her naive, culturally-influenced attitudes about what sustainability means in a three-month “sustainable living” experiment. With a ten-year background in filmmaking, she wanted to tell this story through the film medium–namely, with a documentary that would illustrate her trials, tribulations, and her maturing philosophy that this one little word, “sustainability,” could encode a massive shift in culture, consciousness and conduct. And from the tough-earned insights she learned about sustainability, it was important to her to approach the production of the documentary film in an authentically sustainable, holistic way.
This seed developed into an ambitious vision. What if the entire film production process was built upon an adapting, evolving list of sustainability principles? The world is currently working out definitions of sustainability in a variety of settings, fields, and lives–are there any emergent, common themes to this movement that the film could use as guidelines and models? What if the film’s entire process embodied these values–would the final product not only be about what sustainability means, but actually look, feel, and be a more sustainable film? How would this effort contribute to global sustainability? Continue reading
The protagonist of “Cool It,” Bjorn Lomborg, is vilified perhaps because this is his premise. Through actually engaging with our complicated state of things, which he feels might creatively combine high-tech and ancient, simple methods of counteracting climate change, and treating seemingly unconnected issues like poverty in order to have an effect on environmental sustainability… this kind of passionately engaged, horizontal, critical and independent thinking is what seems to agitate his opponents the most. He seems to be saying: What we need to do is engage right now, not continue to play superficial political and economic games that have little relevance to the actual condition of our sustaining ecosystems. On this, with Bjorn, I agree.
To live fully, to feel, to engage in discourse, intercourse, to reflect and respond, to analyse and alter–to engage. These are the actions and reactions of life. Yet why do these things feel so socially subversive… and yet, strangely, so internally accessible and invigorating? If our world is defined by the irreducible sum of interactions and engagements… Dive in. Continue reading