Once certain words become adopted by the federal government and, we know it is time to seek new ground. “Organic” is, perhaps, the most recent and certainly the biggest example. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma does a great job of demonstrating that
industrial organic is more industrial than organic, but most Whole Food shoppers fail to recognize this. By the time mainstream America began embracing organic macaroni and cheese real organic farmers were dropping the “organic” label not necessarily because of the cost of certification, but because of the paperwork required and the complete lack of spirit retained by the word once the EPA got involved. Substituting inputs –organic fertilizers and pesticides for chemical fertilizers and pesticides– is the narrowest interpretation of organic that one could demise. It limits “organic” to only that which relates to the chemicals themselves and ignores much of what the grassroots organic movement was/is about:building long term soil fertility, enhancing biodiversity, shortening supply lines, etc.
In much the same way, “sustainability” has become more narrowly defined by some as little more than input substitution. Few Americans realize that Hydrogen is not an energy source but a storage mechanism, much like a battery. Ethanol may be a domestic product, but some say its carbon footprint is bigger than the carbon it contains. In other words, it is a net energy loser. Meanwhile, the more methanol we produce the higher corn prices rise in Haiti, Nicaragua and every other country we convinced to dismantle their local sustainable (oops, slipped there) agricultural systems over the last decades. Electric cars in America will likely run indirectly on the remains of our massive coal reserves. Again, input
Beyond the narrow-mindedness of input substitution, the most popular interpretation of sustainability has less to do with the preserving the planet for the Seventh Generation than with making compromises. The Sustainability Triangle is a way of watering down high environmental standards. It is aiming low, not high. William McDonough says, “Being less bad is not being good. It is just being less bad.” If the greatest goal of our most innovative schools, businesses and government agencies is to be less bad, what happens if we fall short? What kind of message does “being less bad” send to our children? Who is driving this natural gas powered bus?
The “triple bottom line” is still a bottom line.
“People, Profits, Planet” is still two versus one. It’s not easy to beat a
double-team. Sustainability was new and exciting ten years ago. It was an admirable goal then, but times have changed. Substituting inputs is a grossly inadequate strategy to address the manifold pressures closing in on human culture. “Being less bad” only buys enough time to figure out how to be good. That time has come.
It is a good day to be good!
Part 2: The Next Step in Education
When it comes to good design, few come close to permaculture. It is
difficult to identify many human design strategies from the last century that result in healed landscapes, increased fertility, and enhanced biodiversity.
Since the early days of permaculture in the 1970s, the design theory –often called regenerative design – has evolved to address more than just agricultural applications. Modern permaculture is seen as a philosophy and lifestyle ethic as much as it is a system design tool. Indeed, the design principles are broad enough to apply to many of our cultural systems. When used as a prism for design, permaculture: looks at whole systems; seeks connections between key components; observes how the components relate to one another; and proposes to mend weak systems by applying techniques that have proven effective in healthy, self-sustaining systems.
Regenerative design, at its best, results in landscapes that are healthier and more productive, and buildings that produce more energy than they consume. What then, would a regenerative education system look like?
Regenerative design principles can be integrated into a comprehensive secondary science and technology education. Instead of producing consumers who expand their ecological footprints with every higher level of education gained, schools can graduate citizens who become active in repairing the damage humanity has done to Earth’s life support systems. Education can be ecologically fecund instead of destructive. The next generation can be trained to have the knowledge, skills and motivation to create abundant cultural systems that increase fertility and biodiversity.
It is possible to educate a generation of human beings that will have a healing – regenerative – presence on the planet, but how can schools model this here and now? Putting regenerative design principles at the heart of the curriculum is the place to start. A good example of the transition from sustainability education to regenerative education is illustrated by the different triangles embraced by each. The Sustainability Triangle, as pointed out above, tilts the balance toward people and profit and away from planet. This may have been an appropriate transitional model a decade ago, but the time has come to take the next step. That step is embodied by permaculture’s Triad of Ecological Ethics: Care for People, Care for the Earth, Recycle Resources.
Baby steps are ok, but we need to keep stepping. The clock is ticking.
There is no time for laurel resting. That’s why sustainability is no
longer an appropriate goal. Many organizations and individuals have
reached that compromise by now and need to aim high once more. This is especially true of schools. Education has no choice but to offer hope and real solutions to young people.
Outdated, irrelevant curriculum is a crime against the future. In his 2002 book, The Nature of Design, David Orr points out that, “Issues that will seem trivial or even nonsensical to our progeny are given great attention, while problems crucial to their well-being are ignored and allowed to grow into global catastrophes. At best they will regard us with pity, at worst as derelict and perhaps criminally so” (p. 105).
Even as the trilogy of Peak Oil, climate change, and endless war in the Middle East constricts around us, schools fail miserably to educate children about their relationship to energy and its consequences. These are the issues that will shape the rest of our lives, yet most schools continue to educate students for a fantasy future that resembles the 1980’s with more technology and less Heavy Metal.
And even for those few schools that have managed to claw their way toward sustainability during these years of unprecedented economic growth and denial of interconnectedness, there is no rest for the weary. Check for blisters, double-knot the laces and keep on stepping. The future is what we make of it.
Harmony is my life's thesis