Beyond Sustainability – A Manifesto

Nature does not have a core business, except that of diversity, abundance, and continuance.
— David Schaller.

Bruce Sterling has had many an inspired rant, and many a digression. It was something of a digression at the end of a rant on industrial design that brought into focus the mission of the enterprise that eventually became Planet3.0.

Here is that inspired and inspiring digression:

Our capacities are tremendous. Eventually, it is within our technical ability to create factories that clean the air as they work, cars that give off drinkable water, industry that creates parks instead of dumps, or even monitoring systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities, neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is not just “sustainable,” but enhances the world. The natural world should be better for our efforts and our ingenuity. It’s not too much to ask.

You and I will never live to see a future world with those advanced characteristics. The people who will be living in it will pretty much take it for granted, anyway. But that is a worthy vision for today’s technologists: because that is wise governance for a digitally conquered world. That is is not tyranny. That is legitimacy.

Without vision, the people perish. So we need our shimmering, prizes, goals to motivate ourselves, but the life is never in the prize. The living part, the fun part, is all in the wrangling. Those dark cliffs looming ahead — that is the height of your achievement.

We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here. We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.

Well, maybe it won’t, but it could.

What could happen? A genuinely happy future based in a realistic positive vision that goes beyond “sustainability”.

The talk, mostly on tangentially related matters though very interesting in itself, was from the SIGGRAPH computer animation conference in 2004.

Bruce was not the first to make this observation that “sustainability” is an uninspiring goal.

Similarly, Michael Braungart (h/t Gil Friend) observes:

In the face of this and so many other challenges, more people are asking: “Is ‘sustainability’ good enough?” It’s not, of course. As Michael Braungart observes: “If somebody asked you how your marriage was doing, and you said, ‘Well, its sustainable,’ they wouldn’t be enthusiastic. They’d say, ‘I’m terribly sorry to hear that.’”

The concept of “sustainability” without the “beyond” is, let’s be frank, sober and essential but not very inspiring – it implicitly calls on you to envision a world where everybody is poorer and less comfortable and nothing in particular is better.

So how do we get beyond sustainability?


The earliest use of the exact phrase “beyond sustainability” that I’ve been able to track down is from earlier in that year, in a remarkable essay by David Schaller.

The key to the challenge is this. When we fail to see all of the wealth that nature gives us, we quite readily see ourselves with less.

When we see ourselves with less, we find it easy to believe in scarcity and limits. When we admit to scarcity, we create economic and social and political conditions that allow some to have and many to go without.

And when many go without, we create a damaged and sad – not to mention dangerous – world.

We forget that nature does not have a core business, except that of diversity, abundance, and continuance. We cannot see abundance when we are purposely generating scarcity with our intentional optimizing of individual products and processes.

(Fortunately Schaller was writing in his capacity as a US federal employee, which means Planet3.0, and everybody else who preceded us or who followed us in using the “beyond sustainability” catchphrase, will probably not end up in trademark court.)

So, while I think I would happily embrace technologies that Schaller would probably eschew, this idea of a radical adoption of the methodologies of nature, and particularly of purposeless exuberant play in collaboration with nature rather than singleminded, grim and competitive optimization in frank indifference to nature, I think we are of like mind.

Anyway. Yes. Yes to Schaller, and yes to Bruce Sterling.

We should indeed abandon that which has no future.

We should imagine ourselves not as enemies of nature, nor as in an uneasy truce with her, but as collaborators with nature, co-conspirators with nature, living in a world where beauty and elegance matter, and where profit beyond the point of social benefit is seen as tasteless and crass.

Imagine living buildings and three dimensional farms. Imagine time at your disposal, and encouragement for your expression. Imagine a world of art and music. Our capacities really are immense.

We have reached an amazing technical level. There is plenty for all to share. Nobody needs to starve, or go without shelter, or without education, entertainment, or modest medical care. Competition and striving is not only unnecessary; it has become dangerous. It is time for us to relax and enjoy, to create and build out of exuberance, generosity of spirit, and love.

Let’s not push capitalism past its point of utility to the point where it eats us up. Let’s instead, use our prosperity while we have it, to design a world of delights, and then let’s relax, and enjoy it.

The time of hard work is over. The time of confusion that is upon us can be ended. Too much abundance becomes glut. (We have long since reached the tragic state where people are dying not for lack of food but rather for lack of money.)

The solution to pollution is slack. The antidote to pointless slogging is joy. The way to defeat evil is with radical, uncompromising kindness.

And what of those dark cliffs looming ahead? That is the height of your achievement.


Image Cliff at the Basque Country by Mario Antonio Pena Zapateria (“Oneras”) is in the Creative Commons (CC by-SA 2.0)


  1. A tad too technocopian for my taste. We need to get a wee bit more intimate with nature's workings, not just leave enmity behind. We are in fact embedded in nature and part of it. This needs to be realized not only on the material level (technology, science) but also philosophically/spiritually (start with M Heidegger and H Jonas). Without that first step, forget about even sustainability.

  2. Indeed. It's cornucopianism to my liking. Great diagnosis of our Nature Attention Deficit Disorder: The vicious circle of manufactured scarcity.

    Typo above: "Starting with". Heidegger and Jonas where probably the first to try to get beyond the Cartesian split.

    1) I don't actually advocate reading Heidegger. But he thought some stunningly prescient things, well before ecologic thinking became fashionable: "Why does earth keep silent at this destruction" (Beiträge zur Philosophie, Nr. 155). That was in 1937. We need to find a good answer to this question. 2) Hans Jonas was a patron saint of the German Greens Movement, mostly for his book, The Imperative of Responsibility. But methinks more important is his sketch of The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Much of this stuff he already had in his mind in the 1940ies. He offers a clear diagnosis of our culture's total nihilism towards the world around us. (Yes, "total nihilism" as in "total war". Even the flowerpower inspired generation suffers from this.) We have to get beyond nihilism and see the value of Nature.

  3. "Cornucopian"? Not me, not in the usual sense, I think.

    Better is not necessarily more. In the West better is necessarily less in some sense. The point I am trying to make is that what we need less of is arguably mostly stuff that is making us miserable in many ways; that we are better off without it.

    I believe that there is a beautiful future still in the cards, but as long as we are focused on traditional models of wealth I doubt that we will get there. It sticks us firmly in the tired 19th century battle of statism vs privilege. No thank you to either path.

  4. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, June 23, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  5. "Sextainability"
    --by Horatio Algeranon

    Darwin selects
    For ooodles of sex
    o'er short-term obtainable
    But long unsustainable

    The problem we face
    For humanoid race:
    What's good for the one
    Ain't good in long run

  6. Thanks Horatio for drawing my attention to Tobis's interesting article. I get bogged down and forget not to repeat myself.

    On the down side, just found this old Bill Moyers piece on the problems with getting on when 40% of the population believes in end times:

    There are times when what we journalists see and intend to write about dispassionately sends a shiver down the spine, shaking us from our neutrality. This has been happening to me frequently of late as one story after another drives home the fact that the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power. We are witnessing today a coupling of ideology and theology that threatens our ability to meet the growing ecological crisis. Theology asserts propositions that need not be proven true, while ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The combination can make it impossible for a democracy to fashion real-world solutions to otherwise intractable challenges.

    One might apologize for referencing 2005 except this has gotten worse, not better. In a certain twisted worldview, the more evidence there is, the more right they are.

  7. Susan,

    Great artists like Mozart understand the importance of repetition, so you are in good company.

    The somewhat unfortunate thing is that the 40% who believe in End Times (tens of millions of Americans by Horatio's calculation) are madly trying to bring them to a head.

    But hey, at least they put their money where their End is, right?

    Heaven, Hell and High Water
    --by Horatio Algeranon

    Many sources
    Have been proposed
    For global warming,
    Heaven knows:

    Greenhouse gases,
    Cosmic rays,
    On summer days.

    Hen's teeth and horses' toes,
    Volcanic eruptions
    ENSO it goes.

    But none of these,
    Can really capture,
    The total picture,
    Like "The Rapture".

    The rising seas,
    The searing heat,
    The work of Satan*,
    In the street.

    The signs are there,
    For you and me,
    Someone should inform
    The IPCC.

    *Some believe that Al Gore is Satan incarnate.

    Here's one idea for adapting

    On a lighter note, humankind does not have a core business, except that of growth, war, pollution, and extinction (Madonna, football and White House blow jobs are the side business)

  8. Sort of OT and sort of not. Malala Yousefzai's speech to the UN is maximum goosebumps. The version I like is owned by the New York Times (I got it from DotEarth):

    Transcript here

    Some of my fellows will object to the religion; I wish they would accept that a vast majority of the world's population cannot imagine living without faith and people put their best and worst there; it's as real as soil to most. We cannot overcome it, and hating does not help. Only accept ... and try to walk beside them instead of aiming arrows at them.

  9. Thanks and a pleasure to hear from you. You're out of date on your pop heroes and heroines, but that graph is amazing, while tragic.

    mt knows what I'm talking about, though, and I realize I've been boring on forever about getting off fossil fuels absolutely without having anything constructive to say about how to do so. I do so because it is necessary, and all voices need to work together to bring it home, though it may be too late.

    I was thinking earlier about the marketing situation. In my parents' house, where I have charge of caregiving, we employ five people, and it is almost impossible to overcome the deep training provided by the TV era about what is important. Whites must be white, shoes must have high heels, music must induce screams, and on and on (did you know that eyelashes are sexy and must be enhanced? I got nowhere on that one). Marketing comes up with new tricks for more highly concentrated labor-saving chemical disposable cleaning solutions every week. Trying to persuade help that I'd rather have a little less than perfectly visually clean laundry with a lot less chemicals going into the environment is a losing battle, and they treat me like a bully and I have to give up to get along. I can't get through.

    Media have taken over from parents the job of training youngsters what is right and proper. So many girls "need" breast implants, for example.

    It seems impossible to persuade youngsters that their virtual realities are no help in a hurricane or flood. They just retreat behind their social barricades.

    I'm a bit fan of mt's "love" solution, but as far as I've been able to discern, it's not winning, it's losing.

  10. well, I took some liberties with the Rapture Index (just a couple).

    And you are right.

    Most of the younger generation doesn't even know who Madonna is.

    Could have said Lady Blah Blah, but she's basically a carbon copy of Madonna, at any rate, so it's sex of one and a half dozen (thousand) of the other.

    Your mention that "virtual realities are no help in a hurricane or flood" is interesting.

    My experience during Irene where we lost power for a week is that kids go through an initial period of withdrawal followed by a return to real communication and play. My brother's kids were playing board games, reading (by candlelight at night) and actually talking with one another, rather than just watching TV, playing video games and texting their friends. They seemed to be having a grand old time, but of course, as soon as the power came back, they retreated back into their electronic shells.

    What experiences like Irene prove is that we can live with less -- much less, in fact. We were lucky in that we had city water which was pumped by generators and we had frozen a large number of water bottles to put in the fridge (enough for the whole week). But clearly, we can get along just fine with significantly less energy use.

    Getting along with much lower energy consumption is clearly key because it opens up many more possibilities with regard to energy production that are simply not feasible with our current use patterns.

    The most interesting thing of all that was shown by Irene (and sandy) is that, as Michael points out time and again, less can actually be more.

    People start to really look out for one another, to act as a community that puts the really important things first.

  11. "Sterling Silver"
    -- Horatio's versification of Bruce Sterling

    The dark cliffs there ahead?
    The height of our achievement.
    The end of dreaming, dead?
    The depth of our bereavement.

  12. Horatio, you continue to shine.

    With hindsight I'd like to mention those five are part time - I'm not the lady of the manor. This is what happens when one's family gets old: a rota of aides and housekeeping help to allow me to revisit my own life from time to time. It puts me in close quarters with a segment of the population many of us ignore, struggling from day to day, with high moral standards and barrels of love, but without the means or the education to know they are being played.

  13. The idea that less is more is something that artists and scientists have understood for ages.

    Poets try to say it with as few words as possible.

    Scientists try to model it with as few equations as possible.

    Visual artists try to represent it with as few brushstrokes and colors as possible.

    Musicians try to play it with as few notes.

    Computer programmers try to program it with as few lines of code.

    Art is really very much a subtractive process, a special kind of minimization.

    There is something very aesthetically pleasing in such minimization.

    One could speculate on why that might be (I have always found minimal --eg, least action and least time -- principles operating in physics to be almost mystical), but one thing is pretty clear.

    If we all adopted the same approach to our everyday living, we would undoubtedly be more satisfied, more happy and more fulfilled as a result.

    And we would use considerably less energy and resources.

    But sadly, instead, many of us take just the opposite additive (or even multiplicative) approach, with only ugliness and emptiness as the outcome.

  14. Horatio, you says it.
    One of the most difficult things for mortals is to do nothing. I see this especially when working in/on nature. Human work and time exerted for destroying Nature's work and time.

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