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"The fundamental ideas at work here—conserving resources, designing with nature, making people responsible for their own shit (literally)—undoubtedly deserve consideration."
Sustainability and Design
Two Views of Sustainability
The word sustainability has become a kind of mantra for the 1990s, offering the possibility of balance and permanence in a world where we experience precisely the opposite. Today, our rapid exploitation of fossil fuels is already changing climate patterns so catastrophically that many insurance companies will no longer insure against extreme weather events. One hundred square miles of rainforest are being lost each day. Species are going extinct at the unprecedented rate of three per hour. Chemicals once thought relatively harmless to humans are turning out to affect immune and endocrine systems. The list of environmental damage is endless, from the depleted soils of the cornbelt to the vast industrial disaster zones of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In search of comfort, convenience, and material wealth, we have begun to sacrifice not only our own health, but also the health of all species. We are starting to exhaust the capacity of the very systems that sustain us, and now we must deal with the consequences.
In this context, the emergence of the sustainability movement is deeply inspiring, for it potentially offers a holistic response to the environmental crisis that makes much- needed connections between nature, culture, values, power relationships, and technology. In the face of overwhelming change, sustainability is an idea that absorbs our genuine hope to create cultures and places with enough integrity to persist for our grandchildren and beyond.
A huge literature on sustainability has developed over the past ten years, offering analysis after analysis of the lack of sustainability in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Various underlying causes are invoked, including capitalism, Christianity, colonialism, development, the population explosion, science and technology, and patriarchal culture. These diagnoses are valuable, and all have considerable merit, yet they largely fail to deliver the particulars involved in making the transition to a more sustainable world. Instead, we are left with hopeful, but vague, policy statements.
Sustainability is not a single movement or approach. It is as varied as the communities and interests currently grappling with the issues it raises. The shape that it will take is being contested now, and the stakes are high. On the one hand, sustainability is the province of global policymakers and environmental experts flying at thirty-five thousand feet from conference to conference. On the other hand, sustainability is also the domain of grassroots environmental and social groups, indigenous peoples preserving traditional practices, and people committed to changing their own communities.
The environmental educator David W. Orr calls these two approaches technological sustainability and ecological sustainability. While both are coherent responses to the environmental crisis, they are far apart in their specifics. Technological sustainability, which seems to get most of the airtime, may be characterized this way: "Every problem has either a technological answer or a market solution. There are no dilemmas to be avoided, no domains where angels fear to tread." It is about expert interventions in which the planet's medical symptoms are carefully stabilized through high-profile international agreements and sophisticated management techniques. Ecological sustainability, in contrast, "is the task of finding alternatives to the practices that got us into trouble in the first place; it is necessary to rethink agriculture, shelter, energy use, urban design, transportation, economics, community patterns, resource use, forestry, the importance of wilderness, and our central values." While the two approaches have important points of contact, including a shared awareness of the extent of the global environmental crisis, they embody two very different visions of a sustainable society.
The proponents of technological sustainability assert that a fundamental change in direction is not necessary. For an example of this approach we need look no further than the highly influential 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future. According to the report, "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition is bland but superficially appealing, for it at least makes reference to the future inhabitants of the planet. It is deliberately phrased as unobtrusively as possible. Unfortunately, it begs a number of critical questions: What constitutes a need? Given our uncertainties about living systems, can we guarantee that this generation's actions will still leave viable ecosystems for future generations?
On reading Our Common Future more carefully, we find that sustainability is to be attained by "more rapid economic growth in both industrial and developing countries, freer market access for the products of developing countries, lower interest rates, greater technology transfer, and significantly larger capital flows." This prescription implies a highly technical approach based on more and better management and technology.
A generation ago, many of society's most powerful voices denied any alternative to a cornucopian spiral of material, technological, and economic expansion. Now these same voices seem to be embracing sustainability and sustainable development—terms that suggest the acceptance of limits and the recognition that our material wealth and physical well-being depend on nature's own health. Has the underlying assumption that everything can be measured and controlled changed, or has our hubris simply expanded to include the notion that we can manage all of nature in a way that is "more sustainable"? Is technological sustainability simply a kinder, gentler form of reductionism in which we do a more efficient job of using up, accounting for, and managing nature?
Some very disturbing assumptions lurk behind the utopian vision of sustainability via global ecological management. We need to question both our choice of managers and the knowledge informing the managers' decisions. The development critic Wolfgang Sachs observes that the satellite images so critical to global environmental management construct
a reality that contains mountains of data, but no people. The data do not explain why the Tuaregs are driven to exhaust their water-holes, or what makes Germans so obsessed with high speed on freeways; they do not point out who owns the timber shipped from the Amazon or which industry flourishes because of a polluted Mediterranean sea; and they are mute about the significance of forest trees for Indian tribals or what water means to an Arab country. In short, they provide a knowledge which is faceless and placeless; an abstraction that carries a considerable cost: it consigns the realities of culture, power and virtue to oblivion.
One reason technological sustainability is compelling is that it seems to fit well into existing structures of power. "Sustainable development" is already being used to justify a wide variety of conventional large-scale development schemes. In the case of the Narmada Dam project in India, this language has been invoked to justify the forced dislocation of tens of thousands of traditional villagers so that electricity may become marginally cheaper for urban dwellers and huge industrial customers. According to a recent article in The Ecologist, "Both those resisting and those defending the Narmada Valley Project use the language of social justice and sustainable development, and both lobbies have justified their stance with cost-benefit analyses and grassroots mobilization." Technological sustainability looks to a new group of experts to fine-tune the global interface between people and the biosphere, and in the process, it often neglects the details of culture and community while displaying a rather naive optimism concerning our ability to manage planetary systems.
Ecological sustainability, in contrast, embraces assumptions very different from the thinly veiled business-as-usual optimism of Our Common Future. It requires limits to technology, limits to material wants, limits to the stress placed on the biosphere, and limits to hubris.
Four of David W. Orr's characteristics of ecological sustainability are worth summarizing here. First, people are finite and fallible. The human ability to comprehend and manage scale and complexity has limits. Thinking too big can make our human limitations a liability rather than an asset. Second, a sustainable world can be redesigned and rebuilt only from the bottom up. Locally self-reliant and self-organized communities are the building blocks for change. Third, traditional knowledge that coevolves out of culture and place is a critical asset. It needs to be preserved, restored, and used. Fourth, the true harvest of evolution is encoded in nature's design. Nature is more than a bank of resources to draw on: it is the best model we have for all the design problems we face.
These characteristics imply that the only long-term approach to building a sustainable world is to redesign the details of the products, buildings, and landscapes around us. Such redesign—attending carefully to scale, community self-reliance, traditional knowledge, and the wisdom of nature's own designs—requires patience and humility. It is a search for the nitty-gritty design details of a sustainable culture, one grounded in the texture of our everyday lives.
The Design Connection
The most significant change in architecture over the last century has been the growing dependence of homes on centralized technological infrastructures for the provision of food, fuel, water, and building materials.... One BTU in twelve of world energy production is used to heat and cool the U.S. building stock.... On average it takes as much energy to heat and cool the U.S. building stock for three years as it took to build it in the first place. Home furnaces are the largest source of air pollution after automobiles.... An average house uses between 150 and 200 gallons of water per inhabitant per day.... All water used in buildings, no matter for what purpose, exits as sewage. Our water and sewage systems are coupled in series. We quite literally defecate in our water systems in the name of personal hygiene.... The average home produces 4.5 pounds of garbage per person per day, or anywhere from 2.5 to 5 tons per year. Fibers, plastics, paper, wood, glass, metal and food scraps are usually all thrown in the same trash bin. A lot of highly organized materials in the input channels are combined in one "noisy" exit channel and dumped; disorder or entropy is maximized.
SEAN WELLESLEY-MILLER, "Towards a Symbiotic Architecture"
For our purposes, let us define design as the intentional shaping of matter, energy, and process to meet a perceived need or desire. Design is a hinge that inevitably connects culture and nature through exchanges of materials, flows of energy, and choices of land use. By this definition, architects, landscape architects, and city planners are clearly designers, but so are farmers, chemical engineers, industrial designers, interior decorators, and many others. All are involved in shaping the physical details of our daily experience.
The everyday world of buildings, artifacts, and domesticated landscapes is a designed world, one shaped by human purpose. The physical form of this world is a direct manifestation of what is most valued in our culture. According to this criterion, the complex array of information needed to build a skyscraper counts as valid knowledge while the equally sophisticated information needed to grow food without pesticides may not. Philosophers call a filter that determines what counts as knowledge an epistemology. Tomatoes, flush toilets, cars, nuclear-power plants, culverts, and suburbs each embody an epistemology in which environmental concerns may or may not play an explicit role. By eating a tomato, flushing the toilet, driving a car, or turning on a light we are drawn into the corresponding epistemology.
In many ways, the environmental crisis is a design crisis. It is a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used. Design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on the foundation of what we believe to be true about the world. Our present forms of agriculture, architecture, engineering, and industry are derived from design epistemologies incompatible with nature's own. It is clear that we have not given design a rich enough context. We have used design cleverly in the service of narrowly defined human interests but have neglected its relationship with our fellow creatures. Such myopic design cannot fail to degrade the living world, and, by extension, our own health.
If we believe we can sever our design decisions from their ecological consequences, we will design accordingly. We will consistently find, in the words of Wendell Berry, a "solution that causes a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution." Thus, while pesticides may partially curb the immediate problem—an abundance of pests—they often create a chain of new problems left unconsidered by those who design pesticides. These problems are large and diffuse, including the exposure of farmworkers to carcinogens, polluted groundwater, and impacts on the beneficial birds and insects that might have kept the pests in check in the first place.
Over the past fifty years, we have reduced a complex and diverse landscape into an asphalt network stitched together from coast to coast out of a dozen or so crude design "templates." The poverty of the industrial imagination is manifested in the limited number of templates used to meet every imaginable need. There are strip malls, mini-malls, regional malls, industrial parks, edge cities, detached single-family homes, townhouses, and sealed highrises, all hooked up with an environmentally devastating infrastructure of roads, highways, storm and sanitary sewers, power lines, and the rest. The pattern of these templates has become the pattern of our everyday experience, insinuating itself into our own awareness of place and nature.
City planners, engineers, and other design professionals have gotten trapped in standardized solutions that require enormous expenditures of energy and resources to implement. These standard templates, available as off-the-shelf recipes, are unconsciously adopted and replicated on a vast scale. The result might be called dumb design: design that fails to consider the health of human communities or of ecosystems, let alone the prerequisites of creating an actual place.
Dumb design is wasteful of energy and resources. It is polluting, extravagant, and profoundly dangerous. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by it. We have let dumb design come to dominate the scene because we lacked the words and awareness to fight it. We have been late to acknowledge that the environmental crisis is also a crisis of design, and slow to generate forms of knowledge and policies that might favor more sensible kinds of design. We have created sterile places because we have not honored the small, constant acts of compassion required to care for the living world.
On the other hand, if we build a rich enough set of ecological concerns into the very epistemology of design, we may create a coherent response to the environmental crisis. In Germany, manufacturers are now required by law to either take back and recycle old packaging or pay a steep tax. This has transformed the epistemology of the German packaging industry. Now new questions occur in the packaging design process: How can durability and reuse be designed into the packaging? How can easy disassembly of packaging components to facilitate recycling be designed into the packaging? These questions have triggered extraordinary innovations in reusable or recyclable packaging with corresponding environmental benefits including decreased waste and use of virgin materials. In contrast, dumb design doesn't ask the right questions. It blindly optimizes with respect to cost or convenience while neglecting environmental considerations.
Excerpted from Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn, Stuart Cowan. Copyright © 1996 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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