Western society has become dysfunctional in its ability to meet “two of the most basic prerequisites for human civilization: the need for people to live in harmony with their environment, and the need to live in harmony with each other”

By Greg Paine…

Walk With the Elephant- fourth in a series of articles…

Sustainable development is about a whole:  about seeing things systemically and with regard to all the connections – and implications – of what we do. Critically, it also is about exploring the variety of solutions that are usually available to any problem or task and which are invariably embedded within this whole, if only we look beyond our usual habits and answers.

But the contemporary Western tradition has, for some time, eschewed the whole in favour of the powerful tool of understanding and invention that is the breaking down and analysis of something by its parts.  And as the issues  – like sustainable development itself  – get larger, the predilection for addressing such large questions and dilemmas via a process of fragmentation into ever smaller, seemingly manageable parts only seems to grow.

In turn, specialisations concentrate on (usually) one only of these parts to the neglect of others.  Slowly, but hopefully increasingly, there is recognition that such a narrowing approach, powerful as it is, no longer gives us the solutions we require.

Indeed, for some, approaches that give primacy to the parts rather than to the interactive whole, are causal to our current lack of success in “living more sustainably”.  As the quantum physicist Niels Bohr contends in respect to such approaches:  “you are not thinking: you are just being logical”.

A lecturer in social work in Western Australia Dr Jim Ife, suggests that Western society has become dysfunctional in its ability to meet  “two of the most basic prerequisites for human civilization:  the need for people to live in harmony with their environment, and the need to live in harmony with each other”.  Extending this contention to now encompass the current economic “crisis” couldn’t be easier.

Thus, this fourth encounter with sustainable development looks at what can be called a process of re-embedding  – reconnecting these (currently) disparate parts and in doing so, instituting reconnections between ourselves and those parts we have ignored, or found just too hard to address.  It is a reversing of what the sociologist Anthony Giddens contends is an unsatisfactory consequence of modernity  – a “disembeddness”, or progressive distancing of ourselves, from the “here and now”, particularly a denial of the natural systems which sustain us.

As part of this reversal there is now a long line of authors – and of practical experiments in new ways of living –  exploring the greater inclusion of other organisms, places, systems, or generations into our decision-making.  It is this process that also prompts a re-valuation of the ways of traditional or vernacular societies and calls for a “re-enchantment” with nature itself.

Further, these views suggest a necessity (think back to the lessons gained from seeing Earth for the first time alone in the blackness of space) to reconsider the role of the ego in determining the nature of our endeavours  – explicitly, a need to lose, or at least modify, the ego born of our (modern) technological achievements if we are to regain an ability to both learn from others and re-engage with what David Abram refers to poetically as the extended “more-than-human” world.

The “deep ecologist” Arne Naess, for instance, writes of the need to reattain something of the ego-less outlook of early childhood, where children inherently see “the personal, social and natural self as being one and indivisible”.

If you think that a bit too soft and fuzzy, there is, again, an alternative view:  that our current predicament is nothing like that experienced previously and therefore we can gain only limited lessons from the past. However, it would also seem to be inconsistent, within a holistic view, to forsake lessons from past practice entirely.  As Jared Diamond asks:   “What is it that made some societies weaken and other societies robust?”

And, as Tim Flannery seems to allow in his call for Australians to revise their cultural habits to be more in tune with natural systems, solutions can come to the fore through reworking, rather than dispensing with, existing traditions.  And after all, most of us do, in fact, appreciate a natural environment that has retained its integrity  – just look at real estate prices in such areas.

In this way, sustainable development can be viewed as the establishment of a new order via a progressive movement from one (dirty, inequitable: unsustainable) state of affairs to another (clean, fair: sustainable).

The idea of re-embedding can also (necessarily must) be applied to this idea of larger, progressive change  – the bringing back into the fold all the criteria we need to consider in decision-making, and with equal emphasis to each, not just those that we feel most comfortable with.

Here it is useful to introduce the now well-known concept of the triple bottom line  – a great tool designed by John Elkington (who now runs a business helping  organisations to develop triple bottom line decision-making  – see his website: www.sustainability.com) to assist the imperative of bringing back into our considerations all three social, economic and natural systems’ components of our environment as a level playing field.

However, this tool also presents a good example of how we must still take a conscious holistic approach, rather than a reductionist one, to everything we do. The triple bottom line, if we are not careful, can still be inherently reductive. If used only as an albeit useful and generally hitherto lacking comprehensive accounting procedure, it will still not, as a matter of course, lead to the re-integration of these economic, social and environmental considerations.

Such re-integration is an additional process  – one needing its own recognition and application of energy to generate solutions that achieve (new forms of) development, having linked benefits from all three areas. Critically, such solutions require creativity (design) skills and, importantly, the application of sufficient time to generate such solutions. The current predilection for decisions now (if not yesterday) is the antithesis of this  – and, by correlation, with outcomes that are truly sustainable.

Greg Paine is an environmental planner with extensive experience in Government decision-making. These articles draw on a research degree that explored both the concept and the practice of sustainable development from the point of view of a group of people who had “put their hand up” and said “we would like to contribute to sustainability through our own lives”.