Friday, November 19, 2010

Guest Blog #6: Jason Lai - What does a sustainable future mean to you? (with added commentary from me)

"The struggle in trying to integrate sustainable practices into an entrenched social paradigm is that to most, thinking about sustainability is like reading a Salman Rushdie novel, filled with both dubious prophecies of environmental doom and fantastical technologies that promise to save the world. The problem of sustainability, like a work of fiction, is inherently open to a multitude of interpretations. We don’t know definitively how the global environment is going to change, nor do we know how our actions will shape the future. Varying perceptions of this uncertainty leads to, in the most extreme case, conflict between those who prefer to turn a blind eye to increasingly hazardous environmental consequences, and those who champion ostensibly ‘sustainable’ alternatives. Environmentalists may appear as arrogant and pedantic, while conservatives may appear as obstinate and short-sighted. Both parties have legitimate beliefs and have important roles to play in an open discussion of our society’s future.

I personally believe that we are on the right track, and can approach a more environmentally sound future systematically, by continually making sustainable choices that affect individuals in palpable ways. Being from Toronto, I have lived through many garbage strikes and watched massive piles of trash build up on baseball diamonds and playgrounds throughout the city. I have watched traffic build up on highways in spite of skyrocketing gas prices. We may not know how to live sustainably from a holistic standpoint, but we can try to make the problem more tractable by addressing specific issues.

Before action though, we must make sense of the problem. Both overzealous environmentalists as well as obstinate conservatives push their respective agendas. Moreover, to many people, the overwhelming and grandiose nature of these issues may lead to confusion, apathy and inaction. Ultimately, the first step in overcoming this inertia is the collective answer to this question: What does a sustainable future mean to you?"


Jason speaks to the issue of problem definition and conceptualisation. Clearly, issues of environmentalism, social justice and sustainability cannot be addressed by people focused on their individual disciplines alone. However, we live in a reductionist world, where most of us are trained to think of breaking problems down to smaller components and attacking each one systematically. This is how many of us are trained as engineers, too. (Jason and I have backgrounds in engineering) Yet this is the sort of thinking that has created such multi-dimensional problems. Any sort of criticism of reductionism leads people to become defensive, and to some extent, it is understandable. Their livelihoods are founded on reductionism. It is definitely worth starting to approach sustainability from a reductionist perspective (we are still starting from scratch), but it concerns me that this is will just delay much needed holism. It is unfortunate that even at progressive places like the University of Michigan, there are significant institutional and organisational barriers to such holism, as Kate was mentioning today.

I think Jason's question is deep and thoughtfully stated. It states the the present is clearly not sustainable, and that the future is not necessarily a rosy place. It is not a given that the future will be better than the present or the past. Each one of us will be affected differently, and any change is an analysis and criticism of the legacies of our families, communities and neighbourhoods. Please comment on this post and answer the question Jason posed:  

What does a sustainable future mean to you?

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