Sustainability: The Evolution of a Contemporary Myth
October 15, 2007 | Stuart Walker discussed sustainability in a historical perspective through emphasizing the development of environmental awareness and social change since the 1960s.
If you wanted then to talk afterwards and so forth. It's my pleasure introduce Stuart Walker to you. This is a Wrigley lecture. And in particular, in the Wrigley Lecture series, we are trying to attract people who speak to the issue of sustainability but also have a very strong presence in a perspective or discipline. And toward that end, Dr. Walker has already been a visitor and hosted by our College of Design in the past. Well known to faculty there.
And so this has been an opportunity to do build that link and that perspective into our School of Sustainability as well. The other important thing, and I was telling Stuart about, and I'm sure Thad, who invited him, told him as well is that, out among you, some of you discovered one of the Dr. Walker's articles last year, put it in front of some of us faculty and other students, and it immediately became one of our themes for our new school articles, and terribly important.
And that really got us on the boat to invite Dr. Walker here to speak in person and allow us to lift the covers and delve into what's behind it and what it leads to and things like that. And I'm not going to steal his thunder by telling you exactly what it is, though most of you have read this article, so I think you know, but there is more behind him than that article alone, and he has a new book about sustainability by design: Sustainable by Design.
And thinking about design as an important principle. I was just suggesting to him before this lecture that of course design in terms of buildings and objects and all is very important, but many of us are also concerned about design of environments and the world in fact being a product of, to a certain extent, human as well as natural design. It's not strictly a product of natural design, that we increasingly have to take responsibility for what we're doing to the world and maybe begin to think of it including design principles.
The other thing I should announce, and you all will know it from having read the announcement, Stuart comes to us from England, not Canada. I think when we invited him he came to us from Canada, where he's been both a professor and an administrator there in design, but has recently moved to Lancaster in the UK, where he's running this new organization that I assume we're going to hear a little bit about.
About imagination. And I think it's a great topic, and bringing together all of the things that we're interested in to hear from you with these new ideas, and places you're going, and things you're doing makes me very excited. So please.
Thank you very much.
Well, good afternoon, everybody. I'm very pleased to be hear to talk about this topic today. I understand that many of you have already read this article paper, and I hope I'll be able to add something by illustrating it, and maybe through the discussion afterwards, I've also updated some of the thoughts and brought them up to date.
As you just heard, I've recently relocated after 17 years in Canada back to the UK. And I was offered the opportunity at Lancaster University to co-direct a new initiative called Imagination at Lancaster, which is a new-- we're calling it a creative research lab, where design is central but the vision is to develop graduate programs and research in interdisciplinary design, because it's not just focused on sustainability, but certainly sustainability is a very large component of it.
And when we say when we start thinking about sustainability, then we have to very often think outside of traditional disciplines and traditional ways of doing things. And so when I was offered this opportunity to develop this new initiative, I jumped at the chance. It's a very exciting new opportunity in a relatively small research intensive university.
There's 10,000 students on campus. So these days, that's a relatively small university. When I went to university, I was at the largest single campus university in the UK, which was 11,000 students at that time. So you can see that things have progressed a lot over the last few years.
But it's a small research university with a top research reputation in the UK. But in the UK system, design and design thinking have not been areas which have traditionally been built into the traditional university model. They came up through a different model, through art schools, then art and design schools, then polytechnics. And only relatively recently design has found itself in a university system, where the polytechnics, some of the polytechnics were converted into universities.
So it doesn't tend to have the history of design research, which it does in North America. And so I hope to bring some of the experience that I had in a graduate faculty in Canada to this new initiative in Lancaster. So in this talk, what I'm going to look at is sustainability from a somewhat historical perspective, to give an overview of some of the most significant developments that eventually led us to this term "sustainability." Where that's come from and why that has emerged, I'm really trying to understand what it represents in contemporary society.
And I'm going to suggest a way of understanding the ideas within this broader context of human endeavor. And I've called it "Sustainability, the Evolution of a Contemporary Myth." And I hope when I get to the end of the talk and perhaps through some of the discussion which follows, you'll understand what I mean by that term, "a contemporary myth."
Now, as most of you will be familiar, the publication of "Our Common Future" in 1987, from the World Commission on Environment and Development, which we've come to know as The Brundtland Report, it was this report, which really popularized the term "sustainable development," which it defined. This is now a very well known understanding of what sustainable development is, development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Now, that's a much quoted definition. It's very brief, and it's very vague, and from it, there have arisen literally hundreds if not thousands of principles of sustainable development, which are tailored to all sorts of interests, industries, and views. And the term "sustainability" and "sustainable development," particularly over just the last few years, is used and over-used and being used to mean virtually anything.
But in general terms, I think it can be understood as a type of development that takes into consideration these three interrelated areas. And they're interrelated, interdependent, and they must be dealt with in a simultaneous way. You can't choose one of them and deal with just that bit. Environmental stewardship, social equity, and justice, and economic issues. And it's the interaction between those things which makes sustainability and sustainable development very complex, and very uncertain, and very uncomfortable.
Because it really encompasses such a huge span of ideas, that where do you scope things? Because you can just keep going out and out and out to see the ramifications of human activity. And we're not used to doing that. We're not used to doing that in our industries, in our professions, in our disciplines, or in our universities.
But in many ways, I think it can be argued, and I will argue here, that the statement of these three principal concerns of sustainability is our current way, our contemporary way, in a secularized society of repeating age old wisdom teachings that have been expressed down the centuries in the form of mythology and through our sacred literature.
We've always had and will always have myths, because it's through this metaphorical language of myth that a culture is able to express its deepest concerns. And sustainability can be seen as our modern myth, which has emerged from an age over the last few hundred years, an age of science, technology, and reason. And like many previous myths that have helped define our understandings of our place in the world, it aspires to an undefinable and I would say an unattainable goal. A goal which nevertheless many see as worth striving towards and aiming at, but which forever eludes actually arriving at it and getting there.
In addition, it tells us that if we don't listen to this message, and if it goes unheeded, and we fail to change our ways, then we will be the cause of our own destruction. So the message is both environmental, which we're all familiar with, and also ethical. It promotes more ethical behavior and improvement in the living conditions of those in need, especially in developing countries. So there's this social equity and social justice issues involved.
And it encourages conservation and preservation of the natural environment and asks us to pay attention to the effects and the impacts, and perhaps reduce our energy use, our consumption of resources, our finite resources very often, our production of pollution, and to perhaps moderate our tendencies towards human greed.
But sometimes, as in many of these kinds of discussions, its advocates become rather hyperbolic. For example, Gordon and Suzuki have said in their book, "The simple truth is that we are the last generation on earth that can save the planet." Now, that statement is an assumption and a warning, but it's certainly not a proven fact, and it's anything but a simple truth.
So how do we interpret that? Well, it's perhaps overblown rhetoric, but it also can be seen as a well-intentioned message to try and spur us into action, to call attention to an issue, to a problem, and perhaps spur us into changing our ways. And there are many, many other examples in the literature of sustainability and environmental writing who illustrate possibilities, practical measures for moderating out impacts on the planet, sort of how-to manuals, if you like, and others that warn against the imminent dangers to the future because of our destructive ways of living.
Now, in that theme, in that general message, there's a sense of loss, a loss of a perfect state, a loss of innocence, and a loss of harmony with nature and with community, with our fellow human beings. And there's also embedded in that story the idea that through right effort and right action, we can somehow regain this lost state of perfection.
And when you look at that in those broad general terms that this message is conveying, that's a repetitive theme throughout human history. As the poet Borges has said, "All our paradises are lost paradises, places of contentment that we've destroyed through our own folly and our own greed."
And we see this in the history of myth. The term "myth" has a rather pejorative understanding in common parlance these days, that a myth is an untruth. But myth is actually a different kind of way of speaking about the truth. And we see these kinds of themes throughout the history of mythology.
So Pandora, for example, in the Greek myths, curiosity led her to open the box that released suffering and disease into an ideal world. Before that, it was perfect. Adam and Eve were expelled from the perfection of the Garden of Eden through their human failings. And we point to our own destruction of nature and are now striving to regain our lost sense of an ideal through something we've called "sustainability."
Now, the understanding that sustainability may not actually be achievable in any practical sense does not make it any less important to consider. We've always created and will continue to create myths that allow us to understand our world and our place in it. The point of these stories in the Greek myths, in The Bible, in The Bhagavad Gita, or any of the other wisdom traditions is not about achieving an end state as such. It's more about asking us to take on the task of learning how to live in the world. It's the age old question. How should we live?
And sustainable development can be seen as our contemporary secularized version, because many of these are religious, but our own contemporary secularized version of this same idea.
Caring for the natural environment and ideas of socioeconomic security and social justice and well-being are notions that have been with us for a very, very long time. But their importance and their mutual interdependence have only been reconfigured into an acceptable language for contemporary, developed, secularized societies in relatively recent years.
But economics, and merchandising, and the business requirement for profit go back to time immemorial. But in Christian cultures, profit and business have often been viewed with a somewhat suspicious eye. And I mention Christianity in particular, because it was Christianity and the religion of Christianity that has most strongly influenced the development of Western industrialized countries. And it's the Western industrialized model which is now wreaking such havoc on the environment through the industrialization combined with consumer capitalism.
But there are numerous passages in the New Testament that cast riches and wealth in a poor light. Now, whether we take these passages from the Bible literally or in terms of metaphor and symbolism, these stories have undoubtedly contributed to Western societies' rather negative view of economic necessity. But ironically, it was the accumulation of vast wealth within the Church, with its associated exploitation and corruption and scandal that contributed to the Reformation of the first half of the 16th century.
Advances in science and technology and industry eventually led to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. And as trade and commerce increased and expanded, the Church, that had once been unified by Rome, became more fractured and more fragmented.
So Protestantism, which rejected allegiance to Rome, grew through, amongst other things, the establishment in the 16th century of Lutheranism in Germany, Calvinism in Belgium and Holland, in the Low Countries, and Anglicanism in Britain. And since these initial phases of Protestantism, many other religions grew over the subsequent years.
So these developments in religious understandings and religious stories and myth, if you like, and interpretations of those stories, were attempts, or can at least be seen as attempts, to reform religious practices and to reconcile them with this new scientific and industrial age which occurred at the same time. Because these changes in religious understandings occurred during a time of rapid scientific discovery and innovation and understandings in that realm.
The increased application of science in the development of technology and the expanding use of technology in creating commercial potential at the same time as all that was going on, and part and parcel of it, was massive urbanization, which was a consequence of the factory system of industrialization, and colonial expansion, and the British empire primarily looking for markets and exploiting resources, and so on.
So this scientific revolution and the Age of Reason are not only related to the fragmentation of the Church, they're also related to a diminishment in its influence and power. And most Western societies, from that time on, have become increasingly secularized. And naturally, with this secularization, the teachings of the Church became less well known and less influential.
So jumping ahead now to the second half of the 20th century, after two or three centuries of scientific industrial and commercial development and expansion, and with two world wars, the horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Japan still in the relatively recent past, not only had the traditional myths and religions lost much of their relevance in Western industrialized societies, but also the worldview that had evolved since the Reformation, the so-called modern period, was now also beginning to be challenged.
So during the second half of the 20th century, new understandings began to emerge and developed into an era that we've now called the post-modern. And yet before this, there were many earlier indications that people were concerned with the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of the modern age and the age of industry and science.
For example, 100 years before, in the mid-1800s, Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, published Walden, which was highly critical of the expanding technologies of that time. And the latter part of the 19th century saw the establishment of the world's first national park and the formation of the Sierra Club, both in the United States, which was expanding massively in terms of its economic industrial output at that point, and both aiming at conserving natural places and wildlife.
Now, we can see that the reason that those things evolved, the first national park and the Sierra Club, in response to the perceived threat to natural places and the natural environment because of this industrial expansion in the United States. So they were some early bubblings of environmental concerns and environmental action to preserve natural places because of industrialization.
The other aspect of sustainability that I'm going to emphasize is the social issues. I think the economic issues are part and parcel of these other issues, so I'm not going to concentrate on that. But in terms of the social issues, which this other important facet of sustainability, the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century witnessed a number of changes and developments.
For example, the introduction of the first social security and health insurance acts, which looked at issues such as social justice. And some initial activity in changing the prevailing attitudes towards the right of women and of homosexuals. And some of these issues didn't actually kick in into demonstrable change, in terms of the environmental and social issues, until later, until later in the 20th century.
But the start was much earlier. And eventually, in the late 20th century as we shall see, there was widespread reform. But the bubblings were much earlier. So coming back to the late 20th century, the '60s were a time of particularly significant unrest and fear and uncertainty, especially among the younger generation in the Western countries.
The threat of nuclear war triggered peace campaigns in Europe and the United States throughout the late 1950s, throughout the '60s, and into the '70s. These extensive protests challenged the wisdom of the establishment and the traditional conservative bastions of power, because it was perceived by many that the very future of the planet was at stake, and those fears were not entirely unfounded.
In 1963, the world came to the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis. And this pervading threat to the future was evident through the books and the art of the time. Nevil Shute's novel, On The Beach, which was published in 1957, was a story of the world laid waste by atomic war.
During the '60s, protest songs were at their height, from singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. And works by artists such as James Rosenquist and Larry Rivers contained many references to death and destruction. This piece by James Rosenquist called Campaign, you can see here there's a military uniform behind here with medals, and these things in the background, they could be flowers or they could be explosions. And this piece by Larry Rivers has got obvious references to the missile crisis in Cuba.
So these growing concerns about the actions of human beings and the future were spurred on by the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. This book raised public awareness of the environmental costs and the impacts of widespread, in this case, widespread pesticide use. And the publication of this book is often linked as being the start of the modern environmental movement.
So that was what was happening in the '60s. Moving on now to the '70s, the energy crisis which took place in the early 1970s, when the OPEC countries placed an embargo on oil exports, raised awareness about energy use and led to developments in energy conservation and the consideration of alternative energy sources, such as wind power.
And I will get to this a bit later on, but it was at this time that we started to see these kinds of alternative energy movements and appropriate technology movements beginning to emerge during the early '70s. So the raising of public consciousness that hydrocarbon-based energy sources were actually finite put at least a temporary end to the production of the gas guzzler, especially in the United States, which were then replaced by smaller, more modest automobiles.
And at the beginning of that crisis, the Japanese car manufacturers took over large proportions of the market in North America because the North American makers are making very large cars. And it was the Japanese car manufacturers that were producing small compacts that were much more economical in terms of fuel use. And then eventually the North American manufacturers started to produce smaller compacts themselves.
But during this time, evidence of increasing environmental destruction and concerns about energy resources resulted in the emergence and the expansion of the green movement in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. So it was in that period, the late '60s and the early '70s, where the green movement really began.
So we saw, over a very short period of time, the development of a whole bunch of different movements and special interest groups to address these kinds of issues. So the Club of Rome was formed in 1968. The US Environmental Protection Agency two years later in 1970. Friends of the Earth was formed in Europe and Greenpeace in Canada, both established in 1971. And in 1972, the United Nations Conference in Stockholm led eventually to the establishment of the United Nations Environmental Program, or UNEP.
So alongside those developments that focused on the environment, there were also major changes in the social issues during these years, and in our understandings of human rights, areas that also became embraced by these notions of social justice and social equity, which now come under the sustainability umbrella.
So during the 1960s, the civil rights movement in the United States, campaigning for the rights of black Americans, was at its peak in the early '60s. Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech at a civil rights march in DC in 1963. And during the mid-'60s, race riots broke out in major cities all over America. And in 1969, desegregation was introduced by the US Supreme Court.
Another social change was women's emancipation, which was also being developed in the 1960s. In 1960, the contraceptive pill was approved in the US, which started the sexual revolution and influenced the progress of the feminist movement. In 1970, Germain Greer published a highly influential book, The Female Eunuch, which challenged the subservience of women in a male-dominated society. And in 1973, a woman's right to have an abortion was approved in the United States.
The beginning of the gay rights movement has been attributed to a riot that broke out at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969, in response to a police raid. And the subsequent decade saw the establishment of many homosexual rights organizations. And so we see that during the late '50s, the '60s, and the early '70s, a multitude of different and apparently disparate events and changes occurred throughout the Western world that, in a very broad sense, responded to firstly increased environmental awareness and recognition of the fragility of the planet, and secondly, to social inequities and our contemporary understandings of human rights.
And then in 1972, a photograph of the earth from space, which was taken by the crew of Apollo 17, reinforced the finite nature of the earth and its vulnerability. And this was a very profound photograph, which really made people sit up and think how vulnerable this place is, how finite it is, and how beautiful it is.
And so during these periods, from the late 1950s through the '60s into the early '70s, saw the essential foundations of sustainable development, although it wasn't called sustainable development in those years, it was there that the foundations of it are rooted.
In terms of my area, which is product design, the publication in 1971 of Papanek's Design for the Real World was highly influential in bringing the mood of these times to the attention and within the scope of the product designer. I think that Papanek's-- I don't know if any of you have read this book, but it really is a lambasting of conventional product design, and his call to address real needs rather than created wants resonated with many young designers at the time.
His arguments were rejected at the time by the, for example, Industrial Design Society of America, but today the same arguments are being put forward and are fully embraced. So it takes some time for these things to take hold. In 1973, another very, very influential book was published by EF Schumacher called Small is Beautiful. And in this book, he began to show the relationships between economic enterprise, poverty, especially poverty in developing countries, energy use, and environmental repercussions.
Schumacher's views on the introduction of appropriate technology in developing countries to allow greater self-reliance paralleled many of the sentiments of Victor Papanek back in the United States-- Schumacher was based in England-- and began to be implemented through the establishment of Schumacher's group called, at that time, the Intermediate Technology Development Group in the UK and Rugby in England. It's now called Practical Action, which is much more succinct and much more descriptive, I think, for ordinary people.
Another important voice at this time was Buckminster Fuller. Now, he had been developing his ideas for the effective use of technology since the 1930s, and his work came to renewed prominence in the early 1970s. Fuller believed that it was possible to combat famine and poverty through the thoughtful and responsible use of science and technology. And he was one of the earliest proponents of the use of renewable energy sources. And his ideas were very, very influential to the younger generation in the '60s and into the early '70s.
So taken together, the work of Papanek, and Schumacher, and Fuller, amongst a number of others, responded to the environment and the social reforms of the '60s and presented a persuasive alternative in a particular area of product design. During these years, fears of nuclear obliteration and environmental destruction and concerns about social inequalities were manifested mainly in the form of protest groups, student demonstrations, and through the formation of small special interest groups.
So that was how you might characterize those movements during the '60s and into the early '70s. From the late 1970s on, however, partly due to the aging, I guess, of the people who were protesting in the '60s, many of those issues started to become integrated into the establishment in the form of legislation, agreements, and representation. Now, you can see that change happening because those people who were once students protesting started to get into positions of power. But also because the arguments and the points were maturing and starting to make a difference.
So later on, after the late '70s, we started to see many of these things being part of the establishment at a much higher level. So in 1983, the Green Party entered the West German parliament with 27 seats. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol to limit the production of ozone depleting substances was adopted. In 1989, the Dutch introduced its first and at that time the world's most comprehensive national environmental policy. And in 1992, the first UN conference on Environment and Development, which became known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio. And during those years, during the '80s, there was further evidence of major environmental concerns and social inequities were beginning to be raised to the public consciousness. There were indications of ozone layer depletion over the Poles, and the ozone hole, and of global warming trends were revealed by scientists.
Also in the early 1980s, which this period is covering, reports of the debt crisis faced by many developing countries was followed up by pictures in the press of mass starvation in Africa, especially in Ethiopia. And the inequities, the social injustice and social inequities between the rich and the poorest countries were raised to new levels of public awareness through the Live Aid concerts, which are organized by Bob Geldof.
And during the mid-1990s, there were numerous reports in the Western press of the use of sweatshop labor by firms in developing countries that were supplying goods to US and European companies for consumption in the West. Environmental degradation and increased awareness of inequities between rich and poor have, over the last few years, over the last decade or so, spurred more protests and riots around the world.
So we saw the riots and the protests in the late '50s and '60s, and we're seeing them again. We have seen them again over the last decade, but with a different thrust. The targets of these protests are the major corporations and political leaders who make agreements that, according to the views of the protesters, exacerbate social inequities and environmental harm.
Demonstrations and violence were seen at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, which was one of the first in this period, which really broke out in violence and mass demonstrations. And again at the G8 summit of world leaders in Genoa, Italy in 2001, where actually deaths occurred during this one. The following year, the G8 was held in Kananaskis in Canada, very close to where I was living. And it was in such an isolated spot that there was no violence at this one.
And in February 2003, we saw the reappearance of the peace march, with the biggest international displays of protest since the anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam War marches of the 1960s. And these, of course, were organized to demonstrate against the US-led war in Iraq. And violence was again seen in France at the G8 in 2003.
In Cancun, in Mexico, in 2003, World Trade Organization talks collapsed amid further protests and serious differences between the rich and the poor countries, especially with respect to government subsidies given to farmers in the richer economies, which, it was alleged, rendered produce from the developing countries less competitive. In 2005 at the G8 in Scotland, there were further protests and arrests. And also this year, the Live Aid concerts, again organized by Bob Geldof, which at this time called for greater social justice for the poorer nations.
Then just last year, in Russia at the G8, environmental issues in this G8 were off the agenda because of the Middle East crisis between Israel and Lebanon, and the environment was put on the back burner. But there were other major developments in 2006. The Stern Review published in the UK at the end of 2006, linked, in a very persuasive manner, global climate change to potential economic impacts and reduction in GDP by up to 20%. And the UN's World Meteorological Organization announced that greenhouse gases were at a record high, steadily rising and showing no signs of abating.
However, at the same time, some were warning against the use of overblown rhetoric and rhetoric of alarm and catastrophe by scientists, campaigners, and politicians, arguing that this kind of language is often self-serving and unscientific. While recognizing that climate change is real and needs action, it's argued that talking up the imminent dangers and disaster is inaccurate, alarmist, and feeding a culture of fear, negativity, and depression.
Also in 2006, we saw the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank for their work in addressing social development issues at the grassroots level, through microcredit. This kind of innovative, localized social development enables the world's poorest people to climb out of poverty, and it's a key element of social equity and the social justice concerns of sustainability.
And of course, social injustice is linked to conflict. So we're seeing now the emergence, just over the last couple of years, of a link in things like the Nobel Peace Prize, a link between the sustainable concerns of social justice and environmental protection and peace, world peace and conflict, which are very important developments.
And if you're not familiar with the Grameen Bank, this is a microcredit system. I was talking to a class earlier, where I was talking about a fundamental systemic shift being needed in the way we think about these issues. Now, Muhammad Yunus was educated, I believe, at the London School of Economics in traditional Western economic theory.
He went back to Bangladesh, and none of what he'd learned seemed to be applying, because there were very, very poor people living there, who were in a kind of almost a bonded labor and continuous debt. And so he started lending money in small amounts to these people, people who had no collateral. So he was lending amounts that, in a normal banking system, isn't worth the paperwork. And he's lending it without collateral. Which, if you've got no collateral, you don't get a loan, right?
So he really looked at how that was possible, and then the model he came up with was trust and peer group pressure, if you like. So if the person he lent the first loan to paid it back within a certain period of time, he would then lend it to someone else in the co-operative group, and so on, and so on. And that provided the incentive to pay it back.
And so this was a very, very innovative banking model at the microcredit level, which is enabling people in the poorest countries to climb out of this debt. Also this year, in 2006, Al Gore's movie brought the issue of climate change to a broad worldwide audience. Then bringing it right up to date, to 2007, at the G8 in Germany this year, after years of foot dragging and disagreement, there was finally some kind of agreement about climate change signed. Now, it's full of conditions and caveats, and it's anything but ideal, but it is a sign of acknowledgment and of progress.
And also in 2007, just a couple of days ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change for their work on the climate change issue, which has also been linked to potential international conflicts, such as conflict in Darfur, where drought and crop failures meant that people migrated into other areas, seeking food and water, and conflict ensued.
So in two consecutive years, we've seen the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded first for social development issues, and second for environmental issues, two of the main pillars of sustainability. So taken together, these diverse events, changes, and reforms constitute a very significant shift in attitudes and understandings and expectations.
The modern worldview has, to a great extent, been replaced by a post-modern world view, where absolute certainties have been replaced by more relativistic and in some cases more tolerant attitudes. Environmental responsibility, social equity, and human rights have become established in our legislations and in our thoughts and our actions.
The notion of achieving more sustainable ways of living is held up by many political leaders and business leaders as something worth striving towards, even if, and I would say, there is relatively little understanding of what a sustainable society what might actually look like, and even less of how we might actually get there from our current state of high energy use, resource depletion, and consumption.
However, over a period of about 40 years, these issues have steadily moved from lone voices and minor special interest groups on the sidelines to the forefront of people's minds. And they are now on, an international level, at center stage. They are affecting political agendas, development agendas, and are commanding major resources in terms of scientific and social research.
In terms of what all this means to the designer, there are various ways that these changing understandings have been impacting the field of product design and the manufacturing sectors. A variety of legislations in many countries now control things like the dumping of toxic substances, the amount of air emissions, allowed water pollution, and so on.
International voluntary programs lay down best practice guidelines for environmental responsibility, programs such as the Natural Step, which was coming out of Sweden, have been taken up by a number of major corporations, and things like life cycle analysis have been developed to aid companies in designing products to help lower environmental impact.
And there have been a host of other programs and approaches that attempt, in a whole bunch of different ways, to address sustainable concerns. In Europe, for example, the WEEE Directive, Waste, Electrical, and Electronic Equipment Directive, has been introduced to deal with waste, electrical, and electronic products by making producers more responsible for their products when those products reach the end of their useful life. And when you think that one through, you can see that's going to create a rethinking of how products are designed in the first place, so that they can be dealt with more effectively when they reach the end of their useful life.
So while there are many developments that run counter to our understandings of sustainable development, there are also many signs of change. Even though labor exploitation in developing countries is still widespread, and is still often associated with large Western corporations, there are also areas where reform and positive change is taking place.
The production of very large automobiles with high fuel use is still widespread, perhaps especially in North America. It went down to the small compact with the oil crisis of the 1970s, which I mentioned earlier, but then slowly and steadily came back. But there are also now alternatives at the other end of the spectrum, such as this kind of commuter bike, which BMW produces in Europe, and the Toyota Prius, and the smart car.
And I don't know if you've seen-- well, you've seen this one, because I saw this one on campus this morning. This is an electric car. But I don't know if you've seen this one. This is the new Highwire being developed by General Motors, which is a prototype powered by a fuel cell known as the skateboard concept, because the power train and all mechanics are all located in that skateboard chassis, under which it's possible to basically clip any range of different body shapes.
So while there's all these positive developments and technical developments, there's still quite a long way off becoming mainstream. And today, there's still massive reliance on road traffic in general, and heavy dependence on goods transportation by road rather than more environmentally benign methods, such as rail, for example.
But in some countries, to deal with these problems there are now new initiatives being developed. Ken Livingstone, the Lord Mayor of London, introduced this one a few years ago, and it's subsequently been expanded considerably. This is the congestion charge in London. So if you want to drive into London these days, you're on camera wherever you go in London these days. And they'll take a shot of your number plate. And if you haven't paid up your congestion charge, you'll get a fine in the post.
Now, that's in addition to paying extortionate parking charges when you get there. Even to drive in there, you have to pay this. And so it originally started out as five pounds per car. That's now in the process of being changed and revisited, so that electric cars and hybrids can go in and get free parking. They don't have to pay the congestion charge, and in certain areas, they can get free parking. But if you drive an SUV, it's 25 pounds. So there's a real incentive there to consider the type of vehicle.
Also in the borough of Richmond, just outside London, if you drive an electric car, you get your parking pass just to park outside your house for free. If you drive an SUV, it's much more expensive than if you drive an ordinary car. So it's hitting people in the wallet, which always gets them.
And in some areas, we're seeing renewed investment in things like city trams and city rail systems. This is the C training in Calgary, which is widely advertised as being completely wind-powered by these wind farms in the south of Alberta. And there are many new examples of products that use recycled materials and clean technologies coming on the market.
And recycling programs are now commonplace in many, many parts of the world, expected, and in some places even mandatory. And designers-- I should mention, this one's of car-sharing programs. There are car-sharing programs in all the major cities all over the world these days, where instead of owning a car, you book it in advance, and it's that kind of shared use product, which makes sense in a lot of countries, where that's actually a pain to own a car, because there's nowhere to park it, and it costs a fortune to do so. But still, on occasional use, you can get one.
And designers are exploring new ways of defining products to address environmental and social concerns. And there are a number of groups around the world, which are small design outfits, which are really challenging our notions of product design. The Droog Group in Holland is one of the most well known, with Renny Ramakers, who brought together the work of many designers in Holland and further afield that really challenge what our expectations of products are, how they're made, their aesthetics, how we relate to products, how we get involved in products, how we make our own products, how we interact with products, how we value products. All sorts of different agendas are being addressed.
The Boims in New York, a husband and wife team, have produced all kinds of innovative work, which make you look twice. Is that good design? Is that bad design? What does that mean for the future of design? There's many designers working in these areas. They're not particularly commercial design. What they're really doing is looking at design in a more conceptual framework, really challenging our expectations of what design good design is and how it could be.
So there's many there's many positive aspects of the current design areas, which are building towards looking at more innovative ways of doing things that address sustainable concerns. But the links that must be formed between localization-- and I'll get to that one-- between local scale initiatives and mass production to further environmental responsibilities and social equity and self-reliance have received relatively little attention.
We're still generally thinking about product design and mass production, and yet much of the literature in sustainability is about localization, but there's been relatively little attention given to that in material product design, and the rates of energy use production, consumption, and waste production in the Western nations continues apace. And there are more and more signs, as we all know only too well, of climate change.
For example, just a week or two ago, it was announced that the Northwest Passage is now open for business, that passage across the top of Canada, which joins the Atlantic and the Pacific. Throughout history, it's been iced up and not navigable, but now it's completely navigable and free of ice in places. And you can actually get a ship through there for the first time due to climate change and the melting of the ice cap.
And in the report I heard, which was on the World Service of the BBC, it was reported in a rather surprising way, because one would expect to hear that, that people were responding with major concern. We've got to do something, and this is disastrous. But actually, the response was, well, this is going to open up new development opportunities, land development in the north, and new commercial opportunities.
And so you know, we still maintain these, I would say, rather short-sighted perspective without realizing that the place is falling apart around our ears. So the vision of a sustainable society, especially when the population of the world is now well exceeding six billion, is, it seems, much more an ideal than actually a feasible, practical possibility.
So In this sense, and in a variety of other ways that I've referred to in this talk, sustainability bears all the hallmarks of a mythic story, a story that tries to come to terms with and provide resolution to something that is actually beyond our grasp. Now Steiner has explained the criteria for attributing to a body of thought the status of mythology.
There are three major things. It must provide an ideal an ideal of completeness, a total picture of humanity in the world. It must have a recognizable beginning, and development, and include key founders and texts and so on. And it will develop its own stories, language, and scenarios. And I think, I hope, that in what I've just said in sustainable development, you will see that we have clear evidence of all three criteria being satisfied.
It contains many of the essential elements that are present in the traditional myths and religions, but represented in a contemporary and highly secularized form. Like previous myths, sustainability is about the moral and spiritual underpinnings of being a human being. The three key elements, environment, ethics, and economics, cover our physical environment, our moral sense, and our social well-being.
So from what I've outlined, I hope it's clear that, while the needs of sustainability may have been sown much earlier, it began in earnest during the 1960s and early '70s, starting with the protest movement, through social changes, such as environmentalism and feminism, and through the writings of key people, key authors, such as Carson, Schumacher, and in product design, Victor Papanek.
These ideas became cemented during the 1970s and '80s, and the term "sustainable development" was popularized by The Brundtland Report in 1987. And as with any good religion or myth, we also have the evangelists and the prophets, who proclaim the new vision and who warn of dire consequences if we don't heed their words and change our ways. So the sandwich board apocalyptic who once could be seen on our city streets, proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh, has been replaced by often sensationalist newspaper columnists, who base their assertions on the authority of science.
And there are a plethora of books available that assert the dangers of continuing on our current course that document environmental disasters, warn of the dangers to health of air pollution, and speak out against the policies of major corporations. And some of these arguments are well founded, while others are more sensationalist, but also more tenuous in their assertions.
Nevertheless, there is a body of work that has arisen in recent years to address and begin implementing the ideas contained under the sustainable development umbrella. And they constitute a rich and very diverse set of ideas. And there's also a language of sustainability, with terms such as "the natural step," "factor 10," "product service systems," "enabling solutions," "back casting," and "scenario development." All these jargony terms are familiar to those who are working in the field.
And so sustainable development does offer an idea of completeness, a total vision. It has a recognizable beginning, identifiable founders, and is spawning a burgeoning collection of narratives, terminologies, and scenarios. And therefore, I think, it can be fairly confidently viewed as a contemporary myth.
Now, I don't think the fact that we identify it in that way-- I don't think it negates its value or its importance. It simply allows us to see it from a different perspective, and perhaps a more philosophical perspective. While sustainability may not actually be physically achievable, its very presence in our consciousness indicates that there is a discontent and disease with our current state of things and a need to strive towards something we believe to be better, better for the environment, better for society, and better for ourselves.
And as Richard Holloway has said-- he's a theological philosopher in England. He said it this way. "Throughout history, there have been many of these eschatologies of human equality. The fact that they never entirely succeed nor entirely fail is the main point. They act as a stimulus to the work that is always to be done, of bringing out of the chaos of desire and greed some order of mercy and justice."
So I've tried to show in this talk that sustainable development encapsulates and represents particular aspects of traditional teachings. It's a relatively recent phenomenon, and it consists of several broad, interconnected themes that address some of the major pragmatic challenges of our time.
But it's often considered a kind of a cure-all for today's environmental and social problems, not merely as an element within a much larger narrative of meaning and significance. But without some greater aspiration and vision of human existence, it's hardly enough to inspire us, that alone sustain us.
Ultimately, I think, in my view, sustainable development yields only a partial and ultimately a rather meager view of the human condition. Too often it seems-- in the way that it's interpreted, anyway, too often it seems to address some of the more important practical issues of environmental stewardship, social justice, and economic security, but it's often stultifying prosaic. It's largely bereft of ideas that nurture and develop the inner person, the inspirational, the imaginative, the transcendental, and the struggle for self-knowledge.
They are all aspects of our existence that fuel the artist, and the composer, and the musician, and the poet. And we have a long heritage of mythical, spiritual, philosophical, religious, and artistic traditions that can provide us with a foundation on which to base our current endeavors and to address our environmental and social responsibilities.
And I think that sustainability and sustainable development must broaden its view. In many ways, it is broad, but in terms of how people think about it, it must broaden its view to embrace this heritage of human culture and meaning. And these aspects can help make it both a meaningful and a lasting contribution to the way we live in the world.
So in an age that tends to give short shrift to religion and the traditional mythical views of the world, where the very word "myth" is seen as something which is untrue, it's sobering to realize that, I think, that we have in effect created our own myth for our own time, and appropriately in a language that we can accept.
But just as now many are rejecting literal interpretations of traditional sacred texts, we must be prepared to do the same for our own. If the question to ask of the traditional myths is not "are they true?", which seems to be too often asked these days, "are they true?", but the question we should be asking is, "what do they mean?" And if we must ask that of the traditional myths, then we must also ask the same question of our own myth. We must not ask, "is sustainability impossible to achieve?" But rather, what does the creation of this new narrative--
This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. For educational and non-commercial use only.