Cantilevered Sustainability

November 6, 2009 at 10:05 am 2 comments

The question of how we as a global civilization can achieve a sustainable economic system looms large in my thoughts.  As any economist will tell you, the question of economics is one of scope and scale, but with a population over 6 billion people, our conventional systems and tactics are failing us.  And, while we know what practices are sustainable, the challenge I’m tackling is to achieve global sustainability that is palatable to the great diversity of people that make up our world – not only culturally, but economically.  Because, let’s face it, the world is being shaped and molded by the “have’s” and the developed countries of the world are very much attached to the trappings of modernity they’ve accumulated over the past century.  The solution I’ve come up with is what I refer to as “Cantilevered Sustainability”.

A cantilevered structure is one that is supported only at one end.  As I envision it, a civilization that is economically and socially cantilevered to be sustainable will be anchored by millions of resource-light communities that locally combine their products and services via smart raiCantilevered Sustainabilityl and internet to offset the more resource intense cities around which they are centered (see diagram).  In this way, a cantilevered system will allow us to have our proverbial cake and eat it too.

The success of this cantilevered design is rooted in the ability of local communities to resolve and provide for most of their economic needs from local sources.  By resolving these fundamental needs at their production source, a great deal of wasted time and energy is recaptured by its participating members.  This “trickle up” approach to self governance and reliance will eliminate a growing reliance on central governments for local solutions allowing the big governments to focus on the “big matters” such as financing and coordinating rail infrastructure and international relations.

This “whole systems design” approach offers the opportunity to simplify and streamline structures in ways that incremental changes cannot.   The complexities of our current legal, tax, transportation and health care systems are testament to the downside of incrementalism.  While it is a complicated idea to sell, I believe it is one that the Obama administration understands as it tries to reform health care.

Why is this a good idea?  Well, to any undertaking there is a time component.  And, while academics and policy makers think in terms of incentives – carrots and sticks to achieve policy goals, it is also an approach that requires time we don’t have.  I should be clear that this urgency is not about our planet’s environment – the Earth will eventually restore its ecological balances and health.  The urgency is a social one rooted in how our economics is impacting, both socially and environmentally, our fellow mankind.

I understand that such a drastic change in how we live may seem an unreasonable choice – as a species we prefer to take the tried and tested path.  What this argument fails to recognize is that the path we are on is neither tried nor tested because of the scope and scale of the problem.  We are conducting an experiment whose failure can be witnessed in poverty and terrorism.  I truly believe that our humanity is defined by how we treat one another.  And, if we don’t do our best to care for our brother’s and sister’s around the globe, we will have failed the very challenge that a conscious life offers us individually and collectively as a species.

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Entry filed under: Design, Economics, Environment, Transportation.

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