Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society
By Andrés R. Edwards
227 pp. New Society Publishers – Feb. 2010. $17.95.
The more research you do into the subject of sustainability, the more you realize that talking about sustainability is like talking about matter. It's so wide-ranging, multifaceted and pervasive a topic that it's hard even to know where to begin. "Sustainable development" is often equated with environmental protection and conservation, but it's actually far broader than that, encompassing economic, political and sociocultural concerns as well. Defined simply as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,"* sustainable development is more a general approach than a specific set of practices or policies. And it can be applied across literally all sectors of human endeavor, from education to enterprise—and from fine arts to the physical sciences.
Given what a sweeping category sustainability is, author and noted sustainability expert Andrés Edwards is to be commended for distilling it down into two easily digestible volumes for lay readers: The Sustainability Revolution and Thriving Beyond Sustainability. The first book, released in 2005 by New Society Publishers and subtitled as a "Portrait of a Paradigm Shift," showed how large numbers of individuals and organizations across the world had come to recognize the failings of the industrial "growth" economy fast undermining its own ecological foundations, and had begun to forge pathways toward a sustainable future. Their grassroots efforts, Edwards predicted, would prove to be vital guideposts along the uncertain course ahead for humanity. This first book was mostly a theory study; Edwards recalls that he didn't get a chance to flesh out its concepts with tangible examples to the extent that he would have liked. Hence the need for this new book (also from New Society), which he says is intended to share "the stories of the people and organizations undertaking this important work."**
The method of Thriving Beyond Sustainability is straightforwardness itself: the book simply gathers together pointed examples of several key themes long at the core of the global sustainability conversation. The first chapter, titled "Lessons from Our Ancestors," reminds us of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond's case, articulated in his bestselling book Collapse, that human civilizations often decline largely as a result of having despoiled the natural capital on which they depend. Edwards poignantly demonstrates how the modern developed world stands to learn as much from the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island, who went into steep decline after they over-harvested their trees and marine life, as it does from the Inuit, who have managed to thrive for centuries in the Earth's North Polar regions. Some other notable chapters include those on regenerative design, saving ecosystems, going "glocal" and the evolution of the corporate world's new "triple bottom line"—which requires that companies heed social and ecological concerns in addition to economic imperatives when making decisions.
In a vision that will please technological optimists but will seem like blatant pie in the sky to the more pessimistic among the environmental crowd, Edwards insists that with the right approach industrial society can attain a state not only of sustainability, but of "thriveability." Edwards never gives a clear-cut definition of thriveability but he does eloquently describe how it differs from sustainability. "Sustainability," he writes, "separates us from nature and envisions us 'getting by' by limiting our negative environmental impacts over the long term." Thriveability, in contrast, represents a "shift from 'less bad' solutions to solutions that energize us and improve our quality of life through our connections with all life forms."
Edwards asserts that if we citizens of the developed world are to successfully meet our biggest challenges as a civilization (which he deems to be ecosystem decline, energy transition, population growth, economic disparity and climate change), then we must drastically change our entire worldview so that it reflects a thriveability perspective. He says that before beginning any new sustainability initiative we must first evaluate the extent to which it is "Scalable, Place-making, International, Resilient, Accessible, [and] Life-affirming," as well as whether or not it promotes "Self-care" (these criteria go by the acronym SPIRALS). We must also follow the precautionary principle, which states that if there is any doubt as to a proposed initiative's potential risks, we must err on the side of caution and forego implementing it until we have better information.
In the chapters that follow, Edwards presents a thorough analysis of how individuals, corporations, national and regional governments, nonprofits and international organizations, among countless others, are currently undertaking projects that espouse SPIRALS ideals. For example, he highlights the City Repair Project in Portland, Oregon, as an exemplary model of the place-making dimension of SPIRALS. The project aims to transform intersections into lively public squares dubbed "Share-It Squares," which foster community and help reclaim public spaces. Edwards points out that crime rates in these repaired sections of the city fell by 10 percent following their conversion into public squares, as reported in the Journal of Public Health. And he cites the environmentally responsible forestry practices of lumber company Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE) as a prime example of SPIRALS' intergenerational component. MTE embraces the "seventh generation" thinking of traditional Native American ethics, which requires that today's decisions be made with a view toward how they might affect people living seven generations from now. Under this directive, the Menominee Forest's total timber volume has not dwindled but rather has steadily grown from 1.3 billion to more than 1.7 billion board feet over the past century and a half.
Where Edwards' analysis falls short, however, is in attempting to illustrate the scalable and accessible aspects of the SPIRALS framework. Compared to the others, these two sections seem overly brief and light on specific examples. For instance, Edwards provides only one concrete example of a present or emerging initiative demonstrating the scalability part of SPIRALS. And that one example, a nationwide infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs) as envisioned by the EV service provider Better Place, is patently of dubious scalability, as anyone can tell you who has bothered to look into the daunting obstacles that impede wide-scale EV adoption. Further, Edwards sometimes seems to be hammering an example into a particular subset of the SPIRALS framework, when in fact it could just as easily fit into a completely different one, or even multiple subsets.
But these are relatively minor flaws in what is, for the most part, a comprehensive, prodigiously studied panorama of today's sustainability landscape. Drawing on its author's considerable knowledge of ecological design, sustainable business, environmental education and community development projects, Thriving Beyond Sustainability is sure to be one of the authoritative desk references on sustainability for some time to come.
* The World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 43.
** Andrés R. Edwards, Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010), ix.
Frank Kaminski is a member of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA), a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.