The Wobbly Three-Legged Stool of Sustainability

Last week I began what will prove to be a multi-post series detailing my criticisms of what I call insular planning – the dominant planning model in effect today. In case you missed that post, I will briefly summarize.

Urban planning was formalized during the Age of Exuberance – that is, a historically anomalous phase of burgeoning physical expansion, social autonomy, economic growth, and technological progress. In a very real way energy ascent relieved our cities of limiting factors that constrained their operation and growth for thousands of years. Additionally, these new conditions precluded planners from needing to consider physical and ecological laws. The truth is that during much of the recent past the world did seem big and limitless and humans did seem to bend nature to their will. Cities were insulated from larger system realities; questions of energy availability or climate instability were unfounded, and pollution and environmental considerations were purely a local affair.

However, today we face a new suite of challenges under a decidedly less-rosy set of circumstances. We recently crossed over into the realm of the Age of Sufficiency, yet sustainability planning best practices continue to mistakenly project expired exuberant assumptions and trends out into the future while remaining ignorant of the implications of physical and natural laws, the severity of the world’s ecological deficit, and the scale of fossil fuel dependence.

That’s why I’m so critical of insular planning: it remains deeply-steeped in a big world paradigm originating from a narrow-minded, anthropocentric, utility-maximizing perspective. Hence, the recommendations it propounds are ill-suited to deal with the increasingly dire realities of our time.

All manner of nonsense follows from this dismal position. And it can get confusing and frustrating to sort thorough it. But when you’re aware of insular planning’s myopic nature, several conclusions come into sharp relief. For starters, let’s talk about sustainability.

Perhaps no word in the English language has shape-shifted over the past 20 years as much as the word ‘sustainability’. It has been bent over and corrupted to such a degree that I hesitate to even take it on. But I would be remiss to ignore it outright because so much is done in its name – particularly with regarding to urban planning.  Besides, it’s hot on the lips of every environmentally-minded planner, and that’s the core of my readership.

Generally speaking, at its base “sustainability” seems to me to be a vague call to action – to do something – anything – in the name of the environment. Having said that, there are a few tolerably good approaches out there.

For example, I happen to like the Brundtland Commission’s definition just fine: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Any definition of sustainability that explicitly references posterity is bound to stand on solid ground.

Another good one is the Natural Step. Its four principles of a sustainable society read as follows:

  1. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
  2. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced as a byproduct of society;
  3. nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means;
  4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

I admire the Natural Step for being grounded in physical science and for its backcasting approach to sustainability; these are important considerations in our increasingly ecologically and energy-constrained world. Notably, the APA Sustainability Policy Guide incorporates language from both the Brundtland Commission and the Natural Step. If read carefully the APA Sustainability Policy Guide proves to be a fairly strong and provocative document; if only the principles contained therein were understood properly and implemented in an unadulterated fashion.

Unfortunately however, most insular planning approaches incorporate either one of the dumbed-down sustainability approaches that go by the name “triple bottom line” (people, planet, profit), or ”three-legged stool”/“three E’s” (equity, environment, economy). You’ve very likely seen them laid out diagrammatically. It features three intersecting circles, each represented by one of the three facets of sustainability. The union of the three circles in the center is meant to represent sustainability. The underlying ideological assumption at play here is the each of the inputs – equity, environment, economy – holds equal weight in contributing toward what action or policy might pass for sustainable.

It seems reasonable enough, but on closer inspection this is revealed to be an ontologically inconsistent relation. Physical and natural laws show that each of the three E’s cannot hold equal weight when two of them – economy and equity – depend solely on the environment for their existence. The true relationship would be better represented by two concentric rings of economy inside equity, and equity inside the environmental sphere. In other words, the environment is the single limiting factor which governs what’s possible in the other two realms. It is here that insular planning reveals its weak ideological footing. These models bastardize and confound a core reality of sustainability, namely that nature is in charge.

This discontinuity flows from the prevalent and now outdated myth of insularity that permeates our culture and institutions. It implies and projects the morally repugnant position that nature possesses little intrinsic value above and beyond that which industrial civilization deems useful as feedstock for its processes. More generally, it suggests that sustainability today is just humanism in drag. Page through any sustainability-minded planning document and you’ll likely come upon 10 policies that radiate from this narrow perspective before finding one that doesn’t.

I’d like to take a moment to stipulate that of course I recognize the importance and validity of factoring people and economic considerations into the sustainability equation. I consider myself to be a humanist. What I’m taking issue with is the order of operations. We planners must understand that, as cruel as it sounds, Mother Nature doesn’t care about how we arrange our society insofar that its functions conform to the laws of the jungle. She is the ultimate limiting factor; therefore, we must take her dictums seriously – and from the outset.

But instead, insular planning promotes the Human Imperative* – a syndrome of policies which strives to provide ever-greater standards of material comfort, wealth, and fossil fuel-dependent technologies upon an ever-greater number of people (but not all), regardless of the environmental cost.

I don’t believe for a minute that there’s anything at all sustainable about pursuing technological progress and continued economic growth for an ever-growing number of people on our finite planet. Paul Ehrlich goes a ways toward showing this with his I=PAT equation (environmental impact (I) is equal to population (P) times affluence (A) times technology (T)).

If anything, his equation suggests that what’s good for the economy and what’s good for the environment are diametrically opposed. Or, to paraphrase Herman Daly, it would suggest that the term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. I’ll have more to say on this in future posts. My point here is that insular planning’s focus on equity and economy over environment makes the three-legged stool of sustainability pretty wobbly.

We planners cannot continue to misapprehend the relationship between our cities and nature. We must recognize that without the environment there is no equity or economy – or cities at all for that matter. That’s why I believe insular planning has no long-term future in the 21st century.

We need to start re-prioritizing environment over society and economics as physical and natural laws require us to do. After all, they clearly demonstrate that infinite growth is impossible in a finite world. We need to internalize the fact that achieving anything resembling sustainability and providing for a world full of increasingly dense, technologically-intensive, affluent, and even ‘greener’ metropolises are mutually-exclusive goals. After all, the latter would require continued economic growth, energy-intensive technological progress, and increased physical expansion.

And even if we did continue to bury our heads in the sand, the implications of overshoot and energy descent would lead us down a blind alley anyway. In a nutshell, we have to get our heads around the fact that any sustainability planning strategy which doesn’t call for curtailment of energy use simply isn’t serious.

I’ll have much more to say about curtailment next week when I discuss the drawbacks of efficiency as a primary means to achieve sustainability. See you then.

*For more discussion and explanation of the Human Imperative concept, I invite you to visit this post on Dave Cohen’s Decline of the Empire blog.

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