Sustainability is Impossible in the “Real World”


[This post is based on excerpts from Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation]

“That’ll never work in the real world!”

Many of you who work to create sustainable designs have probably heard something like this before. Maybe all too often, in all too many ways: It won’t work. It won’t sell. It’s too expensive. It costs too much to make. We can’t make enough money off it. It’s not how we do things.

These are discouraging words, but the worst of it is they are often not based on thoughtful consideration or thorough analyses. They are based on a fixed mindset that I call the Conventional Paradigm — the set of assumptions we make about the way the “real world” works.  

What are these assumptions? Scarcity, Individualism, Competition, Greed, Resistance, and Fear.

Scarcity: We believe that we need resources, that resources are limited, and that there’s not enough to go around. In a growth-dependent economy based on exploiting finite natural resources, this makes sense.

Individualism: We consider ourselves to be independent beings, and our organizations to be independent entities. We believe that, ultimately, we have to look out for number one.

Competition: We believe that it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. You’ve got to play the game, and play to win. Even “win-win” is based on an assumption of competition.

Greed: In a competitive world where resources are scarce and you have to look out for number one, greed is an imperative. Our economy depends on it.

Resistance: We rely on predict-and-protect strategies, trust the tried-and-true, and take pride in staying-the-course, even when we know we’re designing and deciding for a future of unknowns and uncertainty.

Fear: The conventional paradigm reflects a paranoid view of the world. If you’re not winning, you’re losing. If you don’t get it, someone else will. We fear the unknown. You may not feel afraid, per se. You may simply worry or stress, feel taken advantage of, or backed into a corner.

What’s wrong with the Conventional Paradigm? Hopefully it is self-evident.

Sustainability, viewed through conventional lenses, pits profit against people and the planet, pits work against life. There are limits and trade-offs. It’s a balancing act, a tug-of-war. Focusing on individual metrics, binary choices, and oversimplified relationships tends — or intends — to ignore the system, ignore what we don’t know, or would rather not know. Unintended consequences are the predictable result of intentional ignorance.

Sustainability is impossible in the “real world”, the world that emerges from the assumptions of the Conventional Paradigm.

Yikes!  What’s the alternative? Read about it a future post!

[Image courtesy of Stefanie Koehler MASD 2013, from the book she illustrated, Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation]

Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]