Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why do we resist sustainable ideas?

We humans have some internalized dynamics that tend to influence our reactions to events. We tend to blame each other first because it makes us feel better. We cling to those who share our desired outcomes because there is safety in numbers. We default to an automatic opposition with those we do not agree with or understand because doing so facilitates short term decision making. We tend to dismiss out-of-hand information that is not supported by our desire-motivation for preconceived outcomes. In the end, our reactions are about the enormous amount of information that we must process here and now, and the mechanisms that we use to do so.

One tool used to sort through the enormity of information that comes to us each moment of every day, is homogenization. We create structures of identity and similarity to channel useful information so that we can react without delay and without contemplation. We expect our Starbucks and our McDonald’s, as well as our definition of organic and how we access the Internet to be predictable, even as we seek creative differences in our lives. This collision of desires creates a dynamic tension of ambiguity in our decision making processes. We oscillate rapidly between short and long term information acquisition.

The expectation that all McDonald’s will operate fundamentally the same whether in New York or Moscow, that every home shall have a lawn whether in the desert or the eastern hardwood forest, propel us towards a monaural information system design. From the system monoculture we get rapid decisive information that allows us to react quickly and efficiently. We plant great expanses of one species to increase yield (information); we develop great swathes of identical shopping malls that facilitate our immediate needs. An unintended consequence is the proportional decline in creativity that comes from reliance upon the homogenized information stream. But more crucially, the very nature of the monoculture opens it to effective and repeated attack from external information streams enabling critical disruption and loss of the information. In other words, a corn field of one cultivated variety or genetically modified cultivar is subject to increasing attack and increasing odds of catastrophic failure through disease, pestilence or climate change. The uniform shopping malls, built to provide selection and price options, are because of their similarities subject to the same market forces and unable to react quickly to changing demographics or land use conditions. Both systems sacrifice creativity and novelty to increase short term information yields.

The other possibility for information flow is found in diversity rich information streams which require much thought, research and planning to navigate. They are costly and novelty rich, but while they are resilient to disruption, they are thick with informational noise. Going to a market place in Uganda, with expectation of an American strip mall experience will bring a user up short for the information will not be packaged as expected but will require time to assimilate and understand so that the planned useful information (product/yield) can be acquired. The dynamic ebb and flow of the traditional market will be a hub of creativity delivered in small discrete packages of information.

There is a ornamental landscape analogy. We look for similarities in design and species choices to reduce the noise of novelty. When we step out of our caves in to the light of dangerous day, we do not want to be distracted by un-useful information; if it moves we want to know we can shoot it - now. So we learn a landscape grammar that can be applied anywhere; we acquire a common landscape literacy. In doing so, our gardens and landscapes become prey to disruptive forces such as invasive species, diseases pathogens and pests as well as an inability to adapt quickly to external ecosystem forces. We trade the short term comfort for the long term options in the hope that technology will find away to rescue us as it has done in the past.

A critical part of sustainability’s de-homogenization is sacrifice; to have sustainable systems some information becomes “sacred” and out of bounds. The wide array of start-up green offerings offer no short term information references; we have sacrificed some basic knowledge for alternative creativity. Interestingly, the market demand for product and service certification - itself a type of informational homogenization – is a redirected use of information in order to save the time lost by de-homogenization. In sacrificing one short term information flow, we are creating another. Of even more consequence, is the sacrifice of boundless expectations and the unintended consequences of even considering that path. Many would consider living to the highest possible standards available, a basic right of humanity. In addition, environmental justice issues are raised by sustainable policy implications. Sacrifices are considered by those who least can afford to make them by those who have discretionary resources at the moment. It is well and good to choose a Prius, but for those who real choice is between paying for dinner or the heating bill, such conversations are off the mark.

The channeling of information through homogenization provides value to the end user. The definition of value offers up a problem for sustainable policies. A good case can be made that pleasure is the root of value. [Hedonism As The Explanation Of Value ScienceDaily (Sep. 13, 2009)] Pleasure is a form of short term information. We are then driven to find ways of delaying thinking about long term options in favor of short term pleasure. Thus we pave our way to prosperity, we send our manufacturing off shore to reduce present costs, we choose hydrocarbons now for the quick information feed (pleasure) rather then deal with their impact on our ecosystems let alone their finite availability.

This information conflict is the collision of desires that underlies the antipathy and reaction to questions and ideas of sustainability. We develop structures to constrict a selected flow of information to deliver pleasure faster; the unplanned consequences will be dealt with later on an ongoing basis. We have preconceived supporting concepts of ecosystem services that are free and infinite, that will sustain us no matter what. So we can spend now ignoring the science of consequences and dismiss the theologians who have always caled for sacrifice. Here is the intersection of faith and research, of science and religion. And here is where we dare not go. The immediate pleasures of many are threatened by unspoken sacrifices implied by ecologically motivated desires and policies.

1 comment:

Cindy said...

Strip malls and monoculture, great analogy. Is this what we want, or what 'the market' wants?

We ignore the consequences, because we think,the bill might not come due on our watch, or in our country [beware Karma & reincarnation].

And yes, how very convenient to pride ourselves on our Prius, while knowing there is dinner and a hot shower waiting every night.

But at least we thus acknowledge the problem, and our complicity. A beginning..