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.

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. Pingback: „Climate Divide”: Klimablogs in den USA und im englischsprachigen Netz « Klima der Gerechtigkeit

  2. Because the story "The businessman and the fisherman" is retold on so many web sites it apparently strikes a chord with many of us raised in the increasingly high tech portions of the world. It speaks to the innate longing in most of us to live a simple life of connectedness with other villagers and nature. The indigenous tribes in South America understand this and are demanding that the natural resources sought after by the capitalists/monopolists of the world must be left where they are. I imagine the 250 million rural Chinese peasants would much prefer to be left alone in their villages rather than driven into cities to become landless, low paid urban consumers. The villagers of the world all through history are not the ones who desire to build palaces and temples and monuments for the plutocrats. I would venture to say that most of the people on the planet understand that beyond sustainability lies the real life of simplicity and low technology, of sharing and cooperation.

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