0284 – What sustainable design means to me

I’m shifting gears a little bit today and will be talking about sustainable design. My friend Matt Grocoff, who blogs at Sustainable Design Update, asked me to share my thoughts on what sustainable design means.

So to the drawing board I went. My academic background is in engineering, so I’ve heard a little bit about sustainable design from the engineering side. The standard definition is something like making decisions that are economically viable, ecologically harmless, and leads to social equity. But what does this really mean?

Most engineers have been trained to think about cost when they design equipment. A small number knows how to evaluate the environmental cost/benefit through life cycle assessment and other tools. An even smaller number strives to understand the impact on the society.

Most of us have heard about the triple bottom line. Sustainable design is the intersection between the environment, economic and social considerations.

Still… what does this really mean in practical terms?

This is not an engineering problem. It’s about how we make decisions in general. When we make decisions, we tend to revert to our default criterion: money – the economic circle. We think about how much a product or device is going to cost us in monetary terms, and evaluate it from there. If we believe it’s going to give us more satisfaction than the amount we’re paying for it, then the deal is made. But that is hardly sensible if you think about it.

Take free food for example. Everyone loves free food, right? It doesn’t cost us anything, but what do we have to lose? My friend Tracy injected a dose of reality into me when she told me this: Nothing in the world is free. Nothing. There is a cost to the environment. There is the labor cost. There is the energy needed to produce the food. There are the animals being killed or plants being harvested. There are also others who may have nowhere near as much to eat as us.

The framework of sustainable design is difficult to embrace in our everyday decisions. So I propose another way of thinking about it: a simplified but practical (I hope) model of sustainable design: me and us.

In general, when we make decisions, this is how it works:

Everything is based on the ME circle. It’s all about the costs and benefits to the individuals. The individual sees everything else as separate and insignificant.

What I strongly believe is needed:

It’s that simple. We live in an interconnected world, where our actions will have consequences–most of the time unintended and unknown–on our surroundings, including other beings and the environment.

That’s what sustainable design is about–how we can come up with services and goods that are not just beneficial to the designer/provider, but to the society overall. Forget the complex math of life cycle analysis if you’re uncomfortable with it. Each day, every moment, feel your connection to the world at large. Remind yourself that you’re not here for just you. You’re here for a larger purpose, be it God, spiritual awakening, mankind, all beings, or understanding.

The shift from the ‘me vs others’ to the ‘me within us’ framework requires a monumental shift in the way we operate; The egocentricity that has imprisoned so many of us has to be replaced by the compassion and love that are inherent in all of us, but somehow have been suppressed and laying dormant in the depths of our souls for a long time. That’s why I blog. That’s why I do the work I do.

There really isn’t a place for ‘ME’ separate from ‘US.’ We are one.


2 thoughts on “0284 – What sustainable design means to me

  1. mwolverine April 11, 2012 / 12:22 am

    So true that we always just think about economic costs rather than the other type of costs, such as like the effects whatever we build will have on others. If possible, would you add another consideration to your first Venn Diagram? Is there any other big “thing” that you consider when you think about sustainability?

    • Pete W April 11, 2012 / 12:38 am

      My friend Kat Superfisky’s big idea is aesthetic sustainability–the concept that if we as a generation are going to leave a mark on the world, let’s make that a beautiful and small one. We can’t live without beauty. Beauty inspires us and touches us deeply and makes us marvel at life. Check out Kat’s talk at TEDxNicholsArboretum last year. It’s so great: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q71De6EMEeM

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