27 March 2010

Sustainability as Transformation

Posted by jcloud under: Evolution; Forum; Future; Global; Haiti; History; Leadership; Organization; Permaculture; Resiliency; Sustainability .

It’s easy to recognize, at a macro scale, what is unsustainable about our present course. We are already living beyond our means, planetarily speaking; our population is still expanding, and the demand for economic prosperity is exploding even more rapidly. The fact is, we are capable of providing some level of economic wellbeing for everyone on the planet, but not the way we are currently trying to do it. We must learn to use Nature’s energy flows and harmonize our actions with nature’s economy to a much greater extent than we do today; and this in itself offers us an almost unlimited scope for entrepreneurial activity, the creation of jobs, and the improvement of our societies and our lifestyles.

The challenge is to start from where we are today — whether here or in Haiti, where we are seeking to focus the reconstruction efforts on building a foundation for sustainable development — and be effective in moving ourselves and our communities into a more sustainable future.

It is however helpful to imagine how we would organize ourselves if we were going to start from scratch, knowing what we know now. There’s little doubt, for example, that humans will one day inhabit what we now call “outer space,” most likely in self-contained ecosystems as large as a city, that can provide everything that life needs to sustain itself. And if you think about how the inhabitants of such a space vehicle would conduct themselves, given that everything has to be grown, produced, consumed, and returned to the ecosystem in a regenerative way, it would have to use renewable energy and generate zero “waste.” Come to think of it, isn’t this the situation we have on our own planet?

As Buckminster Fuller noted, it’s useful to think of ourselves as living on Spaceship Earth:

Our little Spaceship Earth is only eight thousand miles in diameter, which is almost a negligible dimension in the great vastness of space. Our nearest star—our energy-supplying mother-ship, the Sun—is ninety-two million miles away, and the nearest star is one hundred thousand times further away. It takes approximately four and one third years for light to get to us from the next nearest energy supply ship star. That is the kind of space-distanced pattern we are flying. Our little Spaceship Earth is right now travelling at sixty thousand miles an hour around the around the sun and is also spinning axially, which, at the latitude of Washington, D. C., adds approximately one thousand miles per hour to our motion. Each minute we both spin at one hundred miles and zip in orbit at one thousand miles. That is a whole lot of spin and zip. When we launch our rocketed space capsules at fifteen thousand miles an hour, that additional acceleration speed we give the rocket to attain its own orbit around our speeding Spaceship Earth is only one-fourth greater than the speed of our big planetary spaceship.

Spaceship Earth was so extraordinarily well invented and designed that to our knowledge humans have been on board it for two million years not even knowing that they were on board a ship. And our spaceship is so superbly designed as to be able to keep life regenerating on board despite the phenomenon, entropy, by which all local physical systems lose energy. So we have to obtain our biological life-regenerating energy from another spaceship — the sun.

The problems we face — whether in the U.S. or in Haiti — have essentially to do with how we manage our affairs in our part of the world (and in the case of the U.S., in our “sphere of influence”). If we in the U.S. are consuming resources at the rate of four-and-a-half planets; or, through our trade policies, undermining agricultural and economic self-sufficiency in Haiti (which we have been doing), we are effectively mismanaging both our own and others’ resources. Of course, Haiti itself needs new policies that will both foster local economic development and encourage both foreign and domestic investment; but most importantly it needs policies that increase its resilience, its self-sufficiency, and its long-term ecological sustainability. And we also need to work with them to help provide the external conditions they need to succeed.

Why we have not done so until now is perhaps a matter of debate; but that Haiti’s failure is is no one’s best interest should not be. On the contrary, a more prosperous Haiti is potentially a market for our most useful services, such as higher education, innovation, and sustainable development; and it is potentially a huge benefit to the Haitian people as long as this prosperity is based on sustainable practices and principles, including the strengthening of Haiti’s institutions and culture.

Yet in both cases it is obvious that we are not starting from scratch, and that our systems, dominant beliefs, and everyday practices are not optimized for long term viability. We are therefore looking for opportunities for transformation, which means causing breakthroughs in technology, behavior, and understanding within our present way of life that begin to alter the direction of the whole. We might call this “sustainable transformation,” or transformational sustainability.

In Dan and Chip Heath‘s new book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the authors argue that finding and replicating things that are working despite the adverse conditions is better than focusing on what may appear to be insoluble problems. Likewise, surgeon Atul Gawande argues that part of what we need in any complex system that appears to have reached its limits is a lot of experimentation, of trial-and-error, with a concerted effort to expand those things that are found to work. (See his discussion of the agricultural extension model in “Testing, Testing” in The New Yorker, December 2009.) This also means that we need new ways of thinking about things like economic development, business objectives, and sustainable growth models so that we can get others to look at what’s working and what’s failed.

One of the most inspiring recent expressions of this was provided recently by the Dodge Foundation’s CEO David Grant, speaking at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise breakfast on Friday, March 26 (reported in the Daily Record here). Another is Madeleine Lansky’s concept of “profound sustainability,” which starts from the premise that our present industrial society represents a form of mass insanity:

Industrialization has provided us with many gifts, including economic growth and useful technologies. It has also given us more democratic access to wealth, health care, modern innovation, and a much more sophisticated understanding of human psychology. However, industrialization has also yielded a legacy of environmental damage, resource depletion and social inequity, as well as disconnections between mind, body, physical environment, and community. Humanity’s ability to industrialize has outpaced our ability to see the invisible architecture of what we truly need to thrive, as well as the invisible architecture of the objects, innovations and societal systems that function poorly and negatively impact our health and that of the world around us.

Hope emerges by viewing our current industrial systems much as we view a thought treatment approach to mental illness, where the “garbage” kept hidden in the mind and heart are transformed into the useful, visible architecture of a more sustainable and rewarding life… People need transformed inner lives, ones that they can care for in all kinds of situations, easy and not so easy, and ones that are resilient and sustainable. We need each other, our relationships, and our connections to the land. We need a deep sense of safety in knowing where our food comes from, that our air and water are clean, that our children are safe, and that people will get the help they need when problems arise. These are the building blocks of mental health. This is profound sustainability.

Our goal in the Sustainable Leadership Forum is to support this transformation in a number of ways, most importantly by supporting and demonstrating the kind of leadership that is needed in this age of transition. Whether we like it or not, humanity has to make a shift as profound as that of the agricultural and industrial revolutions in order to achieve a new equilibrium with nature, and in order to find a new paradigm within which to continue to evolve in search of its highest self-expression. In Paul Hawken‘s terms in Blessed Unrest, we are one of the more than two million organizations making up the largest movement in human history:

a movement that has no name, leader, or location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media. Like nature itself, it is organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture. and is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide…. Fundamentally, it is a description of humanity’s collective genius, and the unstoppable movement to reimagine our relationship to the environment and one another.

We’re manifesting this in a number of ways — in our monthly meetings, our work in support of Haiti, and increasingly in other projects into which we are being thrust more or less out of necessity, as more traditional institutions begin to encounter increasing difficulties in maintaining the old models of doing business. Whether it’s in organizing community outreach initiatives in Woodbridge, or putting together community energy aggregation systems that will make NJ counties and municipalities more sustainable, or redeveloping brownfields or commercializing new technologies, we are rapidly moving into the development of new social enterprise models that offer the opportunity for triple bottom-line profits.

This is what we’re about, and we invite to you join us in what is perhaps the most difficult but also the most exciting phase of our collective adventure. In particular, we are looking for a CFO, a grant writer, and a volunteer coordinator, who can work with us within a social enterprise model that can becoming self-sustaining, and support those who work in it to bring about a better world.

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Correction: We'll be hosting this year's holiday potluck — "Bringing Solar Power Home for the Holidays" — on Saturday, December 15, from 4 to 9 p.m. Click here for more details. RSVP to [email protected].
Saturday, November 17, 2012, 10 a.m. Eastern: Sustainable Neighborhood & Community Conversations (III).
Saturday, October 13, 2012, 10 a.m. Eastern: Transforming Neighborhoods and Communities II.
Saturday, September 8, 2012, 10 a.m. Eastern: Transforming Neighborhoods & Communities.
Saturday, June 16, 2012: SLF Potluck June 16: Sustainable Living Communities.
The Sustainable Haiti Conference took place April 23-25, 2012 in Miami.
"Inside Job" Movie Party. Saturday, February 11th, 6:00 PM, Liberty Ridge, The Hills, Bernards Twp, Basking Ridge, NJ 07920.
2nd 'Buy Haitian, Restore Haiti Conference', January 26, 2012, Karibe Convention Center, Petion Ville, Haiti
Dec 11 SLF Potluck: "Bringing Sustainability Home for the Holidays" Basking Ridge, NJ. RSVP to [email protected].
Saturday, July 9, 2011, 4 p.m. Open House Party & Potluck, Saturday, July 9, 4 p.m., Basking Ridge, NJ.
RSVP to [email protected]
Saturday, May 21, 1-4 p.m. EcoCenter Update. At the Morristown EcoCenter, 55 Bank Street, Morristown, NJ 07960.
Saturday, April 16, 1-4 p.m. "Haiti & Us: The Leading Edge of Sustainable Development." At the Morristown EcoCenter, 55 Bank Street, Morristown, NJ 07960. A copy of the update presentation has been posted here.
Saturday, March 19, 1-4 p.m. "Creating the Morristown EcoCenter." Held at 55 Bank Street, Morristown, the site of the proposed EcoCenter.
Saturday, February 19, 1-4 p.m. Monthly meeting, ""A Profound Transformation in Consciousness," Morris County Library, Whippany, NJ. Click here for details.
Saturday, January 15, 1-4 p.m. Putting Idealism into Practice: Tour of Half Moon House. Click here for details.
Saturday, December 18, 1-4 p.m. Challenge & Strategy Session: "Reinventing Wealth," followed by our annual "Potluck for the Planet" from 4 to 8. Click here for details.
Saturday, November 20, 1-4 p.m. Challenge & Strategy Session: "How Do We Measure Sustainable Value?". Click here for details.
Saturday, October 16, 1-4 p.m. Challenge and Strategy Session: "Toward a Sustainable Growth Strategy for New Jersey".
Download the slide presentation here, and the discussion paper here.

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Leadership Quotes

"Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged."
(Thomas A. Edison—thanks to Regan Caton)

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” (G.B. Shaw)

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"Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed." (Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya - thanks to Christine Comaford, Rules for Renegades)