Sustainability and Silver Bullets


King Midas turns his daughter to gold, from A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls by Nathaniel Hawthorn, 1893

by Leslie Paul Thiele

Sustainability is quickly becoming the lingua franca of public discourse. It is endorsed by government agencies around the globe, championed by increasing numbers of international non-governmental organizations, and put into daily practice by residents and consumers. Existing academic programs are incorporating it into their curricula, and wholly new programs, like the B.A. in Sustainability Studies that I currently direct at the University of Florida, are being created. Sustainability is found in the mission statements of Fortune 500 companies, and shapes the practices, and community affairs, of local businesses. At times, these endorsements appear more like good public relations, or a me-too faddishness, than a bona fide commitment. To be sure, sustainability is trendy and “greenwashing” is rampant. Still, sustainability is much in the news, in our homes and offices, on the streets, and as it would appear, in our hearts and minds.

Sustainability is commonly defined as the effort to meet social, environmental and economic needs without undermining the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs. It addresses the question of how we might pursue the good life without this pursuit burdening progeny, or contemporaries living on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the globe, with debt and devastation. As most of us live in nations currently drowning in debt, and as all of us live under skies thickening with greenhouse gases, the prospects for future generations appear rather glum. So if sustainability is simply the flavor of the day, a trendy but inconsequential social movement, then we can rest assured, given the breadth and depth of the crises we face and the politically paltry efforts to address them thus far, that it will be a very long, hot day.

For all the time and effort spent addressing why we are in such dire straits, there has been little in the way of reflection on the sort of world that makes sustainability a central value. There are, I would argue, two fundamental reasons why sustainability is becoming the core commitment of government, civil society, householders and business. First, our lives are increasingly defined by relationships of interdependence. Never before have so many individuals, organizations, institutions and fields of activity been so deeply connected socially, politically, economically and technologically. Second, and as a consequence of these expanding and deepening webs that connect us, the “law of unintended consequences” has gained an unprecedented importance and jurisdiction. Today, this law reigns across the full expanse of our lives, and presents the gravest of threats.

Everyone living today is a witness to an unprecedented event: humankind is fundamentally transforming the earth. We are in the midst of an extinction crisis that rivals any in the last 65 million years. And we are altering the planet’s climate. But as we begin to accept the burden of responsibility for our actions, we are also reinforcing a false image of our species.  We view ourselves as the most potent force on the planet. To be sure, humankind has produced greater transformation to the atmospheric conditions and biotic composition of the earth than any other species, and perhaps any other single force for tens of millions of years. Yet this Promethean image grossly misrepresents the nature of our power.

Yes, homo sapiens is a potent planetary force, but climate change has been the unintended consequence of our actions. We did not intend to cook our planet under a blanket of greenhouse gases. It is the side effect of our burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests. Likewise the other environmental burdens of our age; loss of biodiversity, overpopulation, stratospheric ozone depletion, resource shortages and toxic pollution, are also unintended consequences. The most menacing and pressing problems we face today are side effects.

Our world is not going to become any less interdependent in the foreseeable future. Quite the opposite, and as the social, economic, political and technological ties that connect us increase in number and strength, our actions will produce more, and more powerful, unintended consequences. If we are to avoid further catastrophes of planetary scale, and begin to solve our current ones, we are going to have to change our patterns of thought and habits of behavior. We like to think of ourselves as problem solvers, but the most formidable problems we face today are the side effects of earlier solutions.

The widespread, industrial manufacturing and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), for example, was proposed as the solution the problem of our need for cheap, efficient refrigerants and propellants. CFCs solved those problems winningly. But stratospheric ozone depletion was the unanticipated result, producing decades of suffering: higher rates of skin cancer, eye cataracts and disruption of aquatic life, with decades still to come. So the greatest challenge we face as a species living in an increasingly interdependent world is to learn to live by the “first law of human ecology.” This law simply states that you can never do merely one thing. Every action has side effects, and the larger the scope of the action, and the more interdependent the environment in which it occurs, the more momentous its unintended consequences.

Our challenges today are massive and pressing—civilization itself may be undone by climate change. But there are no solutions commensurate in size to the magnitude of our problems.  That is because massive solutions will produce massively disruptive unintended consequences. Kicking the can down the road is not a recipe for clean streets, especially if the can, as often as not, grows in size with each kick.

“Great problems,” the agrarian poet Wendell Berry said, “call for many small solutions.”  Small solutions are not immune to the first law of human ecology. But if they are numerous and small enough, their synergies may be positive and their unpredictable side effects can become part of an adaptive, experimental approach to crafting ever more sustainable lifestyles and businesses. Sustainability is a path not a destination. Indeed, it is a winding path. Small trails will be blazed only to find them to be dead-ends. That cannot be avoided. Knowledge, it has been said, arises not from ignorance but from error. So the task at hand is to make lots of small mistakes, and to learn.

Under the false impression that big is always better, we often throw all our eggs in a few very big baskets, initiate mega-projects, build expensive bridges to nowhere, and break the bank in our efforts. We live in an era of too-big-to-fail corporations. The devastating consequences are patent. Massive bail outs of too-big-to-fail technologies will be equally costly and ineffective, and some things that get broken cannot be fixed, regardless of how much money we throw at it. The extinction of a species, for example, is forever. So the alternative is to engage in small-scale adaptation and safe-to-fail experimentation.

King Midas had a magic touch: everything he laid his hands on turned to gold. The unanticipated consequence of these magical powers was certain starvation, as every morsel the king put to his lips became indigestible metal. We are modern day Midases. Technology has given us magical powers, but climate change, the loss of biodiversity and global resource depletion now place us at a crossroads. One “solution” is to try to engineer ourselves out of these dire straits through mega-projects and technological silver bullets. Such engineering, metaphorically speaking, would be like the effort genetically to redesign our bodies so we might digest gold. But we can never do just one thing. So while we were munching metal much satisfied with our “solution,” we would undoubtedly find ourselves in a brave new world of ever more devastating problems. Silver bullets are no different than their base cousins in one key respect: they tend to ricochet.

What is the alternative? As modern day Midases who have witnessed the devastating planetary effects of our solutions, two things come to mind. We must be more careful about what we wish for, and not lay our hands on everything within our reach. Restraint is in order. My recent book, Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch sketches out this path. It also speaks to the political and psychological benefits of a world of side effects. Unintended consequences need not be bad things. Indeed, our political freedom and psychological health, rests on our capacity to embrace the first law of human ecology. We are denizens of Indra’s net—the mythical web of the Vedic deity whose intersecting strands stretched to infinity in all directions. As such, we can learn to appreciate, and fully live, our ecological connectedness and co-evolutionary possibilities. Interdependence can be a blessing. It only becomes as a burden to the unprepared.

The future will be full of unintended consequences, of that we can be sure. Some will be positive, but many of the by-products of our craft will threaten human welfare, and undermine the resilience of the biosphere. As we begin the adventure of combating disease with nanotechnology, genetically modifying domesticated species, including our own, to increase their productivity, and geo-engineering the atmosphere to offset global warming, we should know that we are inadvertently creating tomorrow’s most pressing problems. And there are no guarantees that human ingenuity will even be up to the task of kicking the can around the next corner.

About the Author:

Leslie Paul Thiele teaches political theory and serves as Director of Sustainability Studies at the University of Florida. His interdisciplinary research focuses on sustainability issues and the intersection of political philosophy and the natural sciences. Of central concern are the responsibilities of citizenship and the opportunities for leadership in a world of rapid technological, social, and ecological change. Recent books include The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Narrative, and Neuroscience (Cambridge 2006), Working Toward Sustainability: Ethical Decision Making in a Technological World (co-authored, Wiley, 2011) and Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World. He is currently developing practical principles inspired by nature that might guide individual lifestyles and organizational practices. The work is tentatively entitled Nature’s Compass.