Sustainability: Where Do I Start?
Aug 16, 2010
5 minutes read

I watched the movie HOME last year… a wonderful ode to our planet Earth.

If you enjoy reading magazines such National Geographic, you would surely like this documentary by Yann-Arthus Betrand, a specialist in aerial photography. The documentary was released worldwide on June 5th 2009 across a wide range of media channels – DVD, Movie Theatres, BitTorrent, and on YouTube.

It’s roughly divided into four parts: (1) formation of spaceship Earth including buildup of natural resources and Life (2) homo sapiens and initial developments in agriculture (3) industrialization and rapid increase of natural resource utilization to feed a population of 7+ billion people and (4) a final note of hope we can still save what’s left. I recommend it alone for the stunning photography. Like other such documentaries though, it had left me with a desire to better understand the topic of sustainability but… where to start?

What’s the definition of sustainability? Is the 1987 Brundtland definition “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” the de facto definition? Is it the same as Sustainable Development? What are “The Natural Step”, “Natural Capitalism”, “Industrial Ecology”, “Permaculture” or “Five Point Framework” to name a few?
What gets measured gets managed and what gets managed gets done, they say – so what about metrics in sustainability? I found here several sources offering a possible reporting framework: Saatchi S, Worldwatch Institute, or Global Reporting Initiative for example.
A number of public and private norms exist to certify compliance to sustainability standards, e.g. ISO 14040, ISO 26000, USGBC Leed, RoHS.
Mapping Issues
How do I know which is the most important issue to me as individual, corporation or region? Water? Overpopulation? Greenhouse gases?

All this lead me to a number of websites and resources I tracked (and keep tracking) on pinboard account but this clearly went into many different directions, of which Norms was the most depressing as highly opaque to uninitiated folks like myself. I will be sharing my finds in future posts.

I am not an environmentalist nor am I trained in industrial ecology, agro-engineering or sustainable development. I’m not even a thorough practitioner of eco-habits. I am just a systems integrator. My job consists of designing Internet solutions for businesses such as e-commerce sites for selling goods and services, e-government messaging for the public administration or live media streaming for broadcasting content. As such, I am familiar with solution architecture – the art of thinking in systems and understand the parts that make up the whole, their context in and how the parts and the context relate to each other. The complex interdependence of the phenomena covered in HOME and my initial Google sessions made me realize sustainability is a subject demanding a systems thinking approach.

Systems thinking stands in contrast to reductionism which has been the dominating paradigm to crack complexity since Aristotle’s formulation of the principles of non-contradiction and syllogism, all the way to Descartes and his publication “Discourse on the Method”. By stating the principles of syllogism and non-contradiction – that something is either A or not A but not both simultaneously – Aristotle laid the foundation of how we structure ideas and build arguments. Knowledge and Universities adopted clearly distinct disciplines setting the example of siloed innovation in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology for hundreds of years. Not much different than an orgchart at most companies today actually… During the 17th century Descartes bolstered reductionism by publishing his Discourse on the Method which details four precepts which influenced science for years to come:

  • Accept only that which you are certain of
  • Divide topic into as small parts as possible
  • Solve simplest parts first
  • Make as complete lists as possible

While this method was applied successfully to problems such as explaining why apples fall from trees, it brakes down in partial-knowledge environments or where the dependencies among constituents is overwhelming.

Systems thinking represents a paradigm-shift shifting the emphasis from parts to the study on the whole. One of the precursors was von Bertalanffy in the early thirties which was part of the precursory movement (1916-1940) who promoted interdisciplinary thinking and laid down initial theoretical elements. The second phase followed during second World War with practical advances lead by Operations Research folks including Patrick Blackett and later George Dantzig. The next phase saw the emergence of “Hard Systems” thinking until late sixties which refined the methodology and saw contributions by cybernetics and theory of communication introducing a formal definition of the term informationi. This period also corresponds to the creation of General Systems Theory. Between the early seventies and early nineties, “Soft Systems” thinking indicates an expansion of systems thinking to social systems such as urban development. Decleris argued in “Systemic Theory” (1986) that we find ourselves in a fifth phase of systems thinking with the development of sustainability science as systems thinking applied to global change and the ecological crisis.

Systems thinking can be applied at various levels in society: a family, a company, a nation. Recently, the french philosopher Michel Puech published a book called « Développement durable: un avenir à faire soi-même » loosely translated by “Sustainable development: a future shaped by our own actions” in which he warns against alarmism and argues that most national and corporate initiatives will be less efficient than a bottom-up citizen-lead change in ethics.

Our generation is experiencing the emergence of collaboration at scales never witnessed before. Call this Web 2.0, Government 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 – it’s a cultural shift in how we work together. Citizens are simultaneously becoming more aware of the need to change from the linear thinking of the industrial age to a more sustainable cyclical way of living as shown in Anne Leonard’s Story of Stuff.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be sharing my understanding of some of the sustainability concepts mentioned above and eventually focus on citizen-centric solutions as my contribution to the Cognitive Surplus – spare brainpower which should be beamed at the problems highlighted in HOME…

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