what Hawai`i deciders need to know about sustainability

sus juggle

We're seeing lots of programs and designs these days that boast "innovative sustainability features".

Pinch me! A few short years ago, the "S" word was still too "hot" for polite company.

Now, much of our conversation about sustainability leaves me cold. Why? Because we don't know what we're talking about.

Here are some quick tips for what we should be talking about: Sustainability is about wholes, not parts. It's about limits, not increments. It's about relationships, not things. It's about all three spheres. It's not what we think, it's how.

How? Islanders need look no further than HI2050’s Goal#1 (Strategic_Action_#1):

“Develop a widely-held sustainability ethic…Live in a sustainable way.”

To get there, we’re gonna need the best thinking available today on the most complex challenges we face. Why? Because, as Amory Lovins points out:

“Too often, the cause of our problems is our solutions…We cannot resolve any one of these threats without finding resolutions for all of them together.”

Focused as we are on Hawaii's "Clean Energy Initiative", let's bear in mind that energy ain't the half of it. We cannot resolve our energy challenge separately from our food challenge, or our transport challenge, or our building challenge...etc.

Policy-makers (as well as community leaders and business executives) will need help in forging a new way of thinking so that our solutions will actually solve something.

For example, the top thinkers tell us that sustainability is a place-based science.

This means, as Wendy Sarkissian points out (in her brilliant new book, Kitchen Table Sustainability), that if sustainability is the overall goal, then "communities are the means to achieving that goal."

Most important, this means that “community engagement is the ongoing, underlying process that enables the journey to continue.”

So, in order to achieve sustainability, we’re gonna need much more than policies and incentives; we need enabling.

My current work is pretty much focused on this ‘enabling’ bit right here on my island of Kauai, and I’ll post more on this in the days ahead...

For now, in case it helps, here’s an excerpt from my “Sustainability Thinking” presentation:

“Sustainability is about wholeness…about the ongoing, inter-looped processes of a whole system. Sustainability is not about permanence…or holding onto something. It’s not about something fixed and controllable…going on as it always has in a linear fashion.

It’s about something complex and dynamic and non-linear and reciprocal. It’s about a new way of thinking that requires us to hold lots of different things in our heads at the same time, and focus more on the relationships between things rather than the things themselves. It’s about “whole systems thinking.” It’s not what we think…it’s how.

Go ahead and roll your eyes…yet I assure you…this is not brain surgery. Neither is it child’s play.

It is simply essential to shift the way we think so that we can begin to comprehend how humans fit in the whole earth system.

Notice I said comprehend…NOT control. This, too, is a key feature of our new way of thinking.

The good news is: We can “dance” with systems. This is how my heroine Donella Meadows describes our challenge to find and move with the rhythm of the system in which our lives are embedded.

“We can't control systems…But we can dance with them!”

We cannot choose the beat, yet we can influence the dance by how we move with it.

Sometimes, I like to think of this as the true meaning of the prayer, “Thy will be done.” In this case, “Thy will” is the music of the universe, and our “Free will” is the choice of how to dance.

So, what is this music of the universe in which we’re dancing?

Well, now that we’ve agreed that sustainability is not lots of different things to lots of different people…now that we see system sustainability is about one thing…the wholeness of the human support system…

The first thing we’re gonna need is a new “mental map” for how this system works. And, when we start to draw up such a “mental map”, the first thing we notice is that this one system is actually a set of three inter-related spheres…a blue one, a yellow one, and a green one…each with their own dynamics. And, the wholeness, the sustainability, of this system is driven by the relationships among these three spheres.

So, fundamentally, sustainability thinking is about considering all three spheres… simultaneously.

We know this is crucial because our “modern” method of thinking about parts is what has gotten us into trouble in the first place.

Sustainability is the sum of the spheres, and we need to think about Economy AND Community AND Ecology all together.

Nor is this an abstract conceptual challenge. This is where we are learning about a new form of Governance where we human’s are beginning to come together to simultaneously manage all three spheres.

It’s about integration. It’s not about choosing which sphere will dominate…because that’s not a choice we can make. It’s not a balancing act, as we are so often told. It’s not about the tradeoffs of one versus the other.

It’s about integrating our best understanding of the interrelationships between all three spheres all the time.

In this sense, it’s more like juggling with all three aspects of our earth’s human support system…with three balls in the air at all times.

Our challenge is to integrate all of our human behavior and practice so that it becomes a positive feedback loop for system sustainability.

Having come to this realization, we are staggered by the implications: If we need to be simultaneously managing our financial, social and natural capital for system sustainability, then it turns out that most of what we have been doing for the past several hundred years is precisely the wrong approach.

By granting primacy to the Economy sphere, we have pretty much shot ourselves in the foot.

We have done this, mind you, not because we are stupid, but because we were ignorant. We did not know—or at least we pretended not to know—that everything is connected.

The new commonsense is that long-term prosperity and ecological health not only go together, they depend on one another.

Thanks to our new “mental map”, we see much more clearly now that just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it’s incomprehensible.

Much of the way we used to do things becomes simply unthinkable. It doesn’t fit on our new “mental map.”

'K den, that's the gist of it.

Yet the crucial point is that we're learning more every day from sustainability science, and we are increasingly challenged to integrate this new thinking in our daily practice.

We surely wouldn't want to go on fashioning fixes that fail...

Note: This post was first published 27 Jan 09

Published by Ken on March 19th, 2010 tagged Island Ecosystems

One Response to “what Hawai`i deciders need to know about sustainability”

  1. alohatony Says:

    my power bill went from $600+ last year down to $80 this past month. How? I installed 18 PV panels and 2 solar water panels on my house, and then got a Net power Meter from Heco at no charge. This past month, I sent 208kWh back into the system!

    Would you be interested in doing a blog post about this? I can provide pics and a scan of my power bill. I want to get the word out that people should be using more solar on their Hawaii homes!