Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sustainism as a cultural direction

Thinking about sustainability can take many different forms. I mostly approach it as a purely scientific or technological exercise and try to find ways how existing processes can be transitioned into a more efficient and sustainable state. We can also view this as a moral or philosophical, even spiritual topic to ponder.  In a recent post I pointed out Rifkin's thoughts towards an empathic society.

But another angle is the how sustainability is represented in arts and our cultural interactions. In an interesting art publication Schwarz and Elffers have coined the term Sustainism as a sequitur to modernism in order to bring together the various elements. Sustainism is both global and local. It is also digital, connected, networked. It is community minded, transparent, equitable and diverse. It is both high tech and low tech. It realizes that things are interconnected and interdependent.  It is cyclical, seasonal, low-energy, minimal-resource, long-term. Do more with less, as Bucky Fuller would say. Sustainism transcends and includes modernism. Sustainist are participants in all aspects of sustainism.

While we can argue about the immediate value of such an approach of cultural framing, I often feel the context of Sustain-"ability" is to narrow in a sense that it mainly aims to minimize the consequences of today's economic models. It is also not forward looking enough. We need a new cultural paradigm, not just a small infusion of adjusted values into the existing modernist machine. Sustainism tries to establish that new paradigm. I would consider myself a sustainist for sure.

Music also tackles sustainability. Often in a less positive, yet not unsubstantiated way. Take a look at Muse's "The 2nd Law: Unsustainable". Awesome!

"The 2nd Law: Unsustainable"

All natural and technological
Processes proceed in such
a way that the availability of the
remaining energy decreases

In all energy exchanges, if no energy
enters or leaves an isolated system
the entropy of that system increases

Energy continuously flows from being
concentrated to becoming dispersed
spread out, wasted and useless

New energy cannot be
created and high-grade
energy is being destroyed

An economy based on endless
growth is unsustainable


The fundamental laws of
thermodynamics will place fixed
limits on technological innovation
and human advancement

In an isolated system, the entropy
can only increase
A species set on endless
growth is unsustainable


Logo taken from Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers, Sustainism Is the New Modernism, 2010 /

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It takes a village to prosper

As I am immersing myself more into the concepts of a Collaborative Economy, I come across various attempts at defining and measuring how acting together rather than against each other increases our happiness and is more in tune with who we are as a species (or thrive towards at least).

Today we mainly measure prosperity in terms of GDP, in terms of  'more stuff'. Economic productivity is already widely and rightfully criticized as a measure of prosperity and I highly recommend reading Tim Jackson's excellent book 'Prosperity without growth' on the topic (you can start with the PDF, I ended up ordering it anyways). But there are also frequent references to the quality of social interaction and lived morals in a society to determine true prosperity. More stuff doesn't create better lives, but more meaningful engagement with fellow humans does, it seems.

I recently had a few first hand experiences that drove home the point for me. A few weeks back, I was in a department store in Ireland with my 4 year old son. As he had a particularly reasonable and grown-up morning that day, I considered his request to browse the nearby toy section by himself while I looked at kitchen supplies. He was going to check back with me and I would wander over within five minutes anyways. As it happened, he got excited about a toy and could not wait to carry it to the car. So he looked for me briefly and then simply ran out of the store into the car park to secure his new priced possession in our trunk like a natural born consumer. Luckily a shop clerk saw it, chased him down and brought him back to me safely. The staff were concerned about his well being, not the toy. I needed their help in looking out for my son, I needed the collaborative effort of society.

Today, I went for a run alongside the river Isar in Munich. As I was trotting down the path in the beautiful English Gardens, another four year old came running by and swiftly turned towards the bushes near the river with an excited skip in his step. I looked around and could see no adult nearby, but the gap between water and the boy getting smaller. Instinctively I dashed after him, grabbed his arm in time and lifted him up. Within seconds, I could see his father looking for him fifty meters away calling his name. I went over and handed him the boy, just like I had gotten mine handed by the Irish clerk not long ago. More impressively, another jogger saw me, a random adult, running after a blond little boy and snatching him up. He sprinted towards me to check that nothing improper was going on and only let me go when the real dad cleared it up. The jogger also was looking out for the boy, from a different but equally real risk.

These interactions reminded me how interdependent we all are in our society. I am sure everyone has similar experiences in their lives, but it left me with a strong feeling of meaning and moral integrity. It takes a village to raise children, but it also takes a village to work together as adults in a fair and sustainable way. Whatever our instinct is to look out for an innocent child is the very instinct we need to protect and grow when it comes to a broader interactions in the economy. It is in us, we need to give it its rightful room to unfold. We need to help each other to be successful and be able to make meaningful contributions to society.

How can we measure this form of quality in behavior? What increases it, and what diminishes it? Is it solely the role of religious institutions to promote morals or is our our joint obligation? Which forms of economic behavior support this and which ingredients need to be there for it to unfold? What kind of system would leave us with the same feeling of meaningful contribution? These are important questions when trying to undo the rigid cage of consumerism we are trapped in today.

Understand that we are all interconnected and interdependent. Receive kindness, do good and pay it forward. That might be a start to turn our lives into a direction of prosperity beyond stuff.