Monday, 4 November 2013

Time to reconsider Sustainability and become more Resourceful instead?

Something is broken in our ability to communicate the problems and issues which beset our complex, struggling World. Well quite a few things, but in particular, we seem to have got lost in our efforts to express in simple terms the things which matter.

After '92 (maybe even before this) the meme of choice became 'Sustainability'; a useful catch-all which encapsulated the spirit of the messages coming out at the time - the need as a global society to live within our means.

But these days, it seems the term is losing its edge. Many commentators have pointed out that it has become cheapened by over-familiarity, that its many meanings and interpretations are so diverse, its marketing usage so overblown, that irrespective of the underlying values which the original usage implied, 'Sustainability' as a concept may itself no longer be sustainable.

The number of reasons why this has happened is legion, do not require reiteration here. But, for me, there is an issue which I have not seen much discussed, which is that the term and its conceptual underpinning are fundamentally negative.

In a nutshell, 'sustainable' implies a sense of 'survival', of making do, reduction, subsistence. For many of the developing nations this conception makes perfect sense, since survival in the face of adversity has been (though need not have been) a common theme in contemporary accounts of the 'needs' of these societies and their peoples. But the implicit hair-shirted self-sacrifice which so often is cited hand-in-hand with Sustainability has become, in the developed world, as much an albatross as a rallying-call.

Sustainable living as an fundamental idea still has its value and merit, that has not and should not change, but the time has come to put aside the hair shirt and try to find a new 'overriding' conception of what it is we need to do, individually, collectively, politically, economically. A conception which permits the best of humanity to shine and points forwards rather than backwards.

The time has come for us to be Resourceful. To apply Resourcefulness to our problems and issues and become "ingenious, capable, and full of initiative, especially in dealing with difficult situations" (Collins Dictionary) or develop, as Wiktionary describes resoucefulness: "the ability to cope with difficult situations, or unusual problems".

We can also be more aware of the resources we use - as, for example, via a circular economy. We can direct the best use of the resources available to us so that the most possible is made from them. We can apply our unique characteristic - ingenuity - to the multitude of environmental demons which beset us, whether we consider mitigation or adaptation or both, and apply well-found principles to seek imaginative solutions.

It is probably no coincidence that as a word 'Resourcefulness' is phonetically and structurally similar to the Buddhist concept of 'mindfulness', implying a constant and considered awareness of what is around us as we live, and the causal consequences of actions, inactions, decisions and desires. For me, there is a strong sense that this has the potential to be a truly powerful and worthwhile re-alignment of the language of future-building. 

Sit back for a few seconds and think about the idea, the message, the implications; I hope, like me, you find it positively stimulates the imagination and leaves you replete with the sense of possibility.

Resourcefulness is a fundamentally positive conception. It is pragmatic - it implies a process involving thought and decisions and action which is so necessary to the global environment. It is also a very Human concept - it applies to people in particular, but also to groups of people of all kinds. It also connects us more directly to the things of the planet, be they raw material, product, or finance, as things we are bound up with, rather than objects of our intercession.

As of this moment, for me it is an idea which requires more fleshing out, some further defining and limiting - otherwise it is in danger of suffering the same fate as 'Sustainability' - of meaning both too much and too little at the same time. This is work I and I hope others will be undertaking, to raise the bar, change the negative into a positive, and start actually working on these many problems of our World with Hope rather than Resignation.

This is the message: the time has come for us to be more Resourceful, and to use our Resourcefulness for the betterment of the human condition.

Side note: Similar usage of the term, relating to sustainable practice in the built environment, has been used recently in Architecture and design, for example, here.