Friday, August 04, 2006

McDonough virtually on Maui

From Monday 31 July through Wednesday 2 August, with two colleagues from HRCFS, I attended a conference entitled "Islands of the World", held by the International Small Islands Studies Association at Maui Community College, part of the University of Hawaii. The general theme was Sustainable Islands — Sustainable Strategies, with an emphasis on the interconnected topics of ho'ohanohano (social equity and heritage), po'okela (economy), and malama 'aina (ecology). These represent the three strands of the increasingly popular integrated "triple bottom line" (elements also known respectively as people, profits and planet).

Very well intentioned, and also well attended (35 countries were reportedly represented among the delegates), the bottom line of this event, from my point of view, was to remind me of why I believe that the concept of sustainability is simply not equal to the enormous task of inspiring genuinely progressive, practicable solutions to the great ecological and social challenges that it is increasingly being called upon to address.

The broader reason is that "sustainability" is not a sufficiently exciting motivator to power the profound changes it seems we're likely to need. In essence, it's simply the absence of systemically self destructive behaviour. The ubiquitous Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Necessary, of course. Sufficient? I think not. Architect Bill McDonough (recently referred to in this posting as an exemplary advocate of design thinking in fixing current industrial practice) has written about how weak an idea it really is. Paraphrasing McDonough, if you asked someone how her marriage is, and the reply was "sustainable", you'd have to feel sorry for her. Sustainability is an earnest, but somehow heavy-hearted idea, too limp to bear its own pompous weight. If the planet is in as much trouble as the greatest exponents of sustainability evidently believe, I doubt there's enough passion in the idea of becoming "non-self-destructing" to turn things around.

A more specific reason is that sustainability appears to invite a backward-looking (excessively past oriented) ethos. Many of the speakers in plenary sessions referred directly or by implication to what they perceived as a need to "go back to go forward", and there was more than a smattering of romanticisation of the past, as if the answers to all questions that matter in this area could be found simply by somehow resurrecting ancient cultural practices. A plausible account of exactly how those practices revived from a premodern era could practically be accommodated in the overdeveloped urban landscape of Honolulu (for example), I eagerly await. In fact I'm highly sympathetic to the efforts of native Hawaiians and other groups to renew and reinvigorate a relationship with the land, and the cosmos, that has been weakened and damaged by the interventions of history, i.e. by European settlement, and the dispossession and dislocation that came with it. The Australian Aboriginal predicament bears some comparison here -- there too, extremely long-standing, traditional patterns of relating to, and living off, the fruits of land and sea (quintessentially sustainable patterns, you might say) were massively disrupted in a matter of years, beginning what appears to many from our current historical vantage point to have been a downward spiral of exploitation and disconnection; a litany of social and ecological results probably too catastrophic for words to bear. It is not just native or indigenous peoples that have experienced loss here. Indeed, the fact that the missing links between humanity and landscape are so readily identified by them in those terms highlights the relatively greater and older alienation of Western cultures from their own, non-exploitative, direct knowledge of ecology -- once upon a time.

And yet. I remain far from convinced that the key to the future is merely to imagine ourselves breathing new life into a dimly remembered, idealised past. There's no question that the recovery of a respectful understanding of how things used to work is a necessary step to moving forward successfully (which for my purposes here subsumes "sustainably"), but it seems to me to be an incomplete prescription at best. The wholly justifiable case for rediscovering and reasserting traditional identities and values in the political arena ought not to be mistaken for a comprehensive solution to massively complex problems, which will almost certainly have to be resolved cooperatively if they are to be resolved at all. Overlaying "the past" upon "the present" is, I'd wager, surely more complex than simply plonking down a layer of old-time farming or fishing on the modern substrate of habits, tastes and dependencies. Arguably, in fact, it's a deeply disingenuous argument that calls for a rediscovery of ostensibly simpler times gone by, because the shift of historical momentum required to "go back" could well be more tumultuous than the curve of accelerating change that describes how we got here to begin with.

I would be really interested to hear from people who have addressed some of the subtleties in this area of social change, but so far, arguments I've encountered to the effect that the key to a sustainable future lies in history have seemed largely empty to me.

So, on Tuesday, McDonough presented at this conference. However, he did so virtually, using a souped-up videophone called Teleportec, which lets audience members see the image of the presenter (who does their thing remotely) and enjoying the texture of the curtains on the stage behind their projected, ghostly image. McDonough did an absolutely excellent rendition of his standard address on Cradle to Cradle design principles, which notably did not include his doubts about "sustainability" oriented discourse. (Here's someone astute enough to know not to bite the hand that feeds him; or perhaps simply gives good intentions their due.)

He generously allowed time to answer questions (from unamplified audience members, whose inquiries were relayed to the speaker by an on-stage MC, in an abridged and garbled form -- not the best Q&A system I've ever seen). I was fortunate to have the chance to inquire about whether McDonough knew of anyone who was pursuing design thinking in relation to political design. Being a former Dean of the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, who used to live in Thomas Jefferson's house Monticello, he frequently refers to Jefferson's achievements as an accomplished designer of both buildings and society. Maybe there was something lost in the valiant MC's translation of my question, but McDonough's reply surprised me. He didn't answer "no" directly (though that was the upshot of his response), but rambled a bit about staying as far away from politics as possible. To be fair, there was more to the answer than that, but it struck out on a tangent and never came back.

Now, if politics is so contagiously distasteful an occupation as all that -- and I'd heartily agree that presently, in virtually all places I know about, it probably is -- we might usefully understand its vagaries as an invitation to design a better system, not to avoid it. (For a sample of the view of the political process as beyond redemption, even in a country generally considered relatively prosperous and democratic, try the devastating article "Ten reasons you shouldn't go into politics", by Mark Latham, former leader of the Australian Labor Party.)

Why is it, I wonder, that people who can readily perceive the systemic flaws of political practice seem so reluctant, or are unable, to bring themselves to address those flaws with constructive conversation about possible solutions? I had a similar feeling after the distinguished futurist consultant Joe Coates presented a devastatingly comprehensive critique of the United States Constitution at the World Future Society conference in Chicago in 02005, but he declined to offer any outline for possible solutions, suggesting that to do so would only invite kneejerk critique. (He also asserted that to deign to vote only encourages politicians; not an uncommon view, I guess, but one I see as rather glib and unsatisfactory, feeding as it does the vicious circle of political disengagement.)

A young man approached me after McDonough's presentation (which, I hasten to reiterate, was in all other respects sterling) and provided two references he felt related to my question on political design, but I have not yet had time to pursue them. They were:
- Steven Shalom on ParPolity
- Glenn Paige on Global Nonviolence

As always, I'd be interested to hear from readers with something to add on this topic. Meanwhile, I ponder the untouchability of politics, and the growing need to get to work on rethinking it all from the ground up -- inventing and designing a politics to inspire engagement, whose success we can measure (to appropriate another McDonough line) by the number of children's eyes that light up; rather than one that pushes away, as if by magnetic repulsion, the best people, and contaminates anyone who gets too close.

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