25 May 2009
The Wonderful World of David Fleming
At the Transition Network conference, I was unable to resist going to David Fleming’s workshop, “Wild Economics: Wolves, Resilience and Spirit”. I am an enormous admirer of the great man, who was the first person to explain the concept of resilience to me, and to whom I owe a great debt in terms of ideas and inspiration. His talk was fascinating, but the notes I present here aren’t notes of the actual talk. There will be notes from most of the sessions published soon, although huge sympathies must be extended to the poor lady in front of me who was scribing the talk, which, in spite of regular requests to slow down a bit, was delivered at breathtaking speed. Safe in the knowledge that noting down the actual contents was in safe hands, I focused on the bits that were pure Fleming funny bits….
“It’s a good thing to avoid definitions, they only confuse things…”
“Cathedrals are icons to the practice of disposing of waste”…
“I’d be amazed if I can explain this in a way that I can understand”…
“… his idea of a forest was something resembling Hyde Park”…
At the end I asked him if he could explain why he sees resilience as being a better concept than sustainability. Sustainability, he said, is like the idea of an unsinkable ship, a nice idea, but completely unachievable, like, he added, a spouse that would always be completely faithful. The market economy depends on growth, and sustainability argues that we can grown AND sustain our ecology. The concept of sustainability allows us to grow economically and polish our haloes at the same time, to have our cake and eat it.
26 May 6:14am
There are different definitions of sustainability. Yes, some do argue that it’s about growing “sustainably”, but the other approach is that sustainable development is the way to improve the quality of life, while preserving social equity, biodiversity and wealth of natural resources. When I think about sustainability I see Bushmen from South Africa, farmers from Ladakh and Bhutan and Yanomami Indians 🙂
26 May 1:01pm
I recently went to a few lectures of a course the Bermuda Aquarium is hosting on the local ecology, sustainability and human economics.
In most cases the use of the term “sustainable development” seemed to be about finding a way to maintain an unsustainable level of development in a sustainable way. If this seems like an oxymoron to you, it did to me as well.
Bermuda is a high density, isolated little island that lives an extremely high energy, as in fossil fuels, lifestyle. While driving small cars at mostly low speeds, practicing rainwater harvesting island wide and in some cases relying on the wisdom of their ancestors passive solar design knowledge, they are completely reliant on imports for almost everything. They generate electricity with imported oil, they exist on imported food and consumer goods (they do have some marvelous organic farms and a wonderful farmers market however), and they, much like Americans, are addicted to electronics, shopping, and high living. There is precious little open space, agricultural land is disappearing under condo developments, and what is left for growing food is often unused. They do have an effective, well thought out, reliable and inexpensive mass transit system consisting of buses and ferries. It has reduced automobile traffic and increased opportunity for the poorer citizens of the country to save money on auto related expenses. This system is an example of “sustainable development”, one of the few on the island.
So in this context, I pondered “sustainable development”. In one case the term was used by a planning officer who moments before admitted that the islands’ lifestyle was already unsustainable.
There is a great deal of difference between “sustainable development” and developing sustainability. I believe the first, more often than not is impossible and represents a type of greenwash. A way to get projects approved as “sustainable” when the development can no longer come anywhere close to improving sustainability.
One could apply this thinking to any development; building 100’s of thousands of “zero carbon” homes while millions of existing homes are allowed to hemmorhage energy to the garden. For that matter, does it make sense to plow up arable land for any kind of home these days? Which use increases sustainability?
26 May 2:27pm
“I gave up on sustainability years ago” was another line I liked, with reference to resilience instead. A dazzling mind, no doubt about it.
28 May 2:39am
It is true that the word ‘sustainability’ has been corrupted by use – particularly by business advocates. But once a word is coined it is beyond all control, so we just have to accept that and do what we can to correct false impressions. The natural meaning of the word ‘sustainable’ simply does not allow for endless growth (in economies, resource use, etc). The underlying challenge is to demonstrate how a society can live without economic growth. To carry the business/political mainstream, this would need to be done with a degree of rigour I haven’t yet found in any literature. Someone’s PhD, or rather, life’s work.
2 Jun 1:35pm
Sustainability just means not exceeding carrying capacity in the long term. It’s perfectly feasible.
2 Jun 1:42pm
… and BTW, if Fleming ‘gave up on sustainability years ago,’ what’s an article cp-authored by him called, ‘The Transition to Sustainable Resilience’, from 2007, doing on this very site? But then, some always prefer dramatic statements.
3 Jun 4:01am
I attended a conference once in Berlin, of all places, and heard a speaker (name??) say (tongue in cheek of course): “We don’t want to live sustainably; we want to live unsustainably forever!”. Pretty right, I’m afraid. He pointed out that the whole world now either enjoys, or else aspires to enjoy, a lifestyle reserved for a handful of royalty over the last several thousand years. Clearly this aspiration is unsustainable (as was royalty, from a social perspective), but it is hard to counter the point made loud and often by the G77, that developing countries have a right to develop, and they are not wildly enthuastic when the richest people on Earth tell them they have to reduce their emissions.
I think there are only two plausible sustainable paths: one is a techno-fix – which we know from the Factor 10 and energy efficiency literature, etc, has huge potential – but it does assume (to varying degrees) the continuation of capitalism and economic growth broadly as we know it – albeit potential with declining energy and materials use, etc. It also assumes a replacement of peak oil, etc.
Despite the shortcomings, this path shouldn’t be dismissed too lightly, given the development aspirations of 9 billion people, or whatever we will be in 2050. We also shouldn’t dismiss it until we’ve tried it – in the name of sustainability that is, rather than just economic growth. That’s what the whole ‘market transformation’ literature is about. It also recognises that humans are tool-makers – it’s our only trick. It’s just that we can use tools for good or (more generally) destructive purposes, and therefore need to evolve political and social structures that enable us to discriminate. I’m suspicious of any path that denies what we are.
The other semi-imaginable path is a more radical, values-based transformation, or ‘power-down’ in the transition/permaculture literature. While we can identify elements of this that are feasible, and indeed that are happening as we speak and that we should encourage, there is a very long way to go to demonstrate that this is a path that the world as a whole can follow. Also, these two paths are not necessarily mutually exclusive, although they are often painted that way.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a passionate advocate of transition and resilience – but we also have to be honest enough to call these a work-in-progress – even at the conceptual level – and we also need to think beyond the interests of the (diminishing) first world. I think some sort of reconciliation of these world views is what we need – some sort of middle way – ideas?