A Sustainable Society

What is sustainability? While this concept is at the core of my design and research, I can only offer a working definition. This is no accident: the working is as crucial as the definition. This is because the way we define sustainability determines our approach.

If we define sustainability as a resource problem (scarcity, overconsumption, pollution), our solutions tend to focus on resource use, emphasizing efficiency and technical fixes. But if we define sustainability as the longevity of human society, it becomes a question of structure and organization: how can society change adaptively over time within a changing natural world? Structural characteristics become paramount: resilience, diversity, self-organization, and issues of distribution and scale. In this case, sustainability is not only a matter of efficiency; it is a re-envisioning of some of the most fundamental aspects of our social order and economic system. It is nothing less than a shift in the way we live, in the very structure and pattern of our civilization.

Sustainability refers to the viability of a system over the long term — its ability to reduce unexpected, rapid changes when possible and whether them when they do occur. In human terms, sustainability refers to the long-term viability of the complex social-ecological system.

Is sustainability enough? Certainly not. It is mere viability — it says nothing of equity, freedom, or joy. But my hunch — my working hypothesis, if you will — is that the same conditions that make for a more resilient and sustainable society can also create a qualitatively better society. Conditions such as diversity, self-organization, and local self-determination have, I believe, positive social and ecological effects. But that is another story.

Note: I owe much of my understanding to Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theorists C.S. Holling and Lance Gunderson, and the many authors who have worked with them, as well as anthropologist Vernon Scarborough and physicist Amory Lovins.

copyright © 2013 by carl s. sterner, unless otherwise noted. more...