A reflection on David Orr’s critique of “technological sustainability”

December 6, 2017 | 1 comment

At Penn State, we define sustainability as “the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations.” As many authors, practitioners, and critics note, the term remains blurry. Said another way, any “discussion of sustainability which refers to definitions is pointless without an understanding of how the definitions operationalized.” What are we pointing it at? Since we often orient sustainability toward technologies and technocratic policy we might be served by looking at the embedded values. How compatible is our work on technology and policy with sustainability?

In Earth in Mind and elsewhere, David Orr equates “technological sustainability” with sustainable development. In its stead, he proposes “ecological sustainability.” Unlike technological sustainability, he believes that ecological sustainability will not let us and our habits off the hook so easily. Ecological sustainability demands cultural transformation, not just tinkering with prices, redesigning gadgets, and fiddling with policies and procedures. Instead, ecological sustainability requires we a) recognize our limits, b) decouple ourselves from endless economic growth, c) recognize and work from proven wise practices including indigenous practices, and d) make nature the benchmark for design.

Sustainable development as defined by the United Nations raises a host of questions. It emerged in the late 60s and early 70s as global society awakened to the interconnections of environmental degradation and gross human inequality. By 1987, the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) awoke to the rampant ecosystem damage the world’s developed economies had caused while leaving hundreds of millions or billions of people in poverty. The WCED formulated “sustainable development” as a form of development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It oriented people—mostly institutions–toward reducing human suffering through economic and political development that depends on an integrated and healthy environment in a world with limitations though “not absolute limits.” And, they wrote, humanity would need to be “managed.” Management would enable the modern economic order to be sustained, to bring more people into it, but that somehow it would not be at the expense of the biosphere. Such management is difficult to say the least.

It would be fair to say that the developed nations of the world have shown little evidence of being capable of management. From George H.W. Bush’s declaration that the “Whitehouse effect” would counteract the greenhouse effect President Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric and great intentions, American presidents have talked about a more sustainable economy. True, Bush joined the Montreal Protocol and Obama joined the Paris Agreement and the Kigali Agreement on HFCs. But little policy or limits on technological expansion or progress have emerged that clearly respect the Earth’s carrying capacity. And this says nothing of Donald Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement and his appointment of Ryan Ziinke to head the Department of Interior, Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, or Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump or not, critics as varied as Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Gus Speth, and Pope Francis have decried global society’s failure to address  growth. The famously cranky Edward Abbey said, “Growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Today it is the raison d’etre of global society, the human population continues to grow, and with them the “great acceleration” of income inequality, nitrogen, carbon pollution, and more. Can you imagine a political leader standing up and saying we need to stop growing? An angry mob of technocrats would be on the hunt in short order. But the costs of growth, Orr would argue, are all plain to see.

Image courtesy of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme

The following is an updated version of his writing “What is Education For?”

If today is a typical day on planet Earth, I estimate we will lose 77 square miles of rainforest, or about two-thirds of an acre per second. We will lose another 126 square miles to encroaching deserts according to the UNCCD, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. According to calculations derived from the World Wildlife Fund, we could lose between 5 and 275 species, and no one really knows whether the number is 5 or 275. UNICEF reports the human population will increase by 353,000. Today we will add only a tiny percentage of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere that we did in 25 years ago though we will contribute around 40 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere this year. Tonight the Earth will be hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.

Sustainable development as techno- and policy fix implies an unlikely scale of social engineering and suggests that there is consensus about what sustainability means. “Sustain what?” as Andrew Revkin would ask. Is sustainable development a form of “total domination of nature with population control” as Orr writes, a population comprised of “economic men, who know no limits of sufficiency, satiation, or appropriateness,” creatures caught in their own traps. Are “sustainable” economic and political institutions just “greenwashed” versions of an industrial economy that produces crisis as it prefabricates consumable identities as Richard Kahn has argued? But if the pricing is right, the material substitutions found, the maximized energy and resource efficiency realized, then maybe we will escape limits in “a painless, rational process managed by economists and policy experts sitting in the control room of the fully modern, computerized society, coolly pulling levers and pushing buttons” while ignoring democracy and home rule, village economies of scale, or any potentially engaged citizenry.

We are “limited, fallible creatures.” Following Wendell Berry, whatever limitations humans have, our machines will express and extend. No matter our technological advancement, humans live with limited comprehension and coordination and are only capable of being so good. Even if we could escape the limits of our comprehension and coordination, our capacity for good would still affect our technologies and their deployment.

An ecologically sustainable citizenry can be realized only through the thoughtful actions of ecologically aware citizens who work to decouple themselves from a rapacious global economy. Grassroots action that addresses local and community activities should transform the ever-growing corporate- and state-dominated economy. Such thoughtful work on the local and regional level can ameliorate the aggregated effects of social traps like Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons.” We need sufficiency and capping principles as Thomas Princen has urged.

To be considered ecologically sustainable, a practice should be grounded as much in past and indigenous practices and careful place-based adaptation as they are in the work of modern science and technology. Orr writes, “The crisis of sustainability has occurred when and where [the] union between knowledge, livelihood, and living has been broken and knowledge is used for the single purpose of increasing productivity.” This rupture renders biodiversity, appropriate technologies, and ways of human living and being into quaint things best remembered in museums. Such ruptures with past practices are dangerous because we can lose our human cultural sustenance to technological wizardry or fads and we can egregiously damage species, ecosystems, or the entire biosphere that sustains us.

Finally, ecological sustainability requires that nature be the benchmark for the design of our built environment. Human endeavors should mimic the structure, function, resilience, and place-basedness of natural systems such as prairies. Is there any assurance that in imitating nature the human penchant to dominate nature will not come through? Not necessarily. But if sustainability is understood as necessarily and authentically restorative, then sustainability advocates can act at appropriate scales and through decentralized action to avoid the enormous problems caused by global thinking and acting.

Some technologists like Bjorn Lomborg, the self-proclaimed “skeptical environmentalist,” argue that technology is “the only game in town.” Technological progress is the path. But as Wendell Berry asked in 1988, “Who can desire a future that is determined entirely by the purposes of the most wealthy and the most powerful, and the capacities of machines?” No one wants to live in The Matrix. Does such cornucopian techno-optimism smuggle unwelcome values into ecological awareness? Under the aegis of efficiency and the growing economy, has the sustainable development discourse failed to challenge what some might call a cult of growth? Do we need to question the moral dimensions of modern technology on a larger scale? Is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adequately balancing human fulfillment with technological development?

Technologists have couched ecological crises as vast territories of growing technological and economic opportunity and natural resource and biosphere management–a shock doctrine for seizing the commons and commodifying them. To be clear, many sustainability champions are not immune to this challenge. Many of us tout the potential of offshore wind power. What of the urgent “need” for Pennsylvania to  increase solar PV’s share of the energy market? Are we setting up an economy that’s just less carbon-intensive and more efficient but still growing? If we are, then we should expect rebounds and the continued gross imbalance between industrialized people and the biosphere. And what’s to stop a carbon-neutral or renewable economy from being as unjust as the economy we have now? The technology won’t do it. How do we?

These questions and answers don’t have immediately clear paths. But what does technology do to sustainability is defined as “the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations”? How do take Orr’s warnings to heart, halt the warming of the globe, let nature restitch herself, and treat one another with more dignity?

1 Comment

  1. Greetings friends of Sustainability.psu.edu. Here is a proposal that might be of interest to you:


    Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
    Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
    After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a self-sufficient and sustainable model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
    The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
    If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website https://elmundofelizdelfuturo.blogspot.com/ (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.

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