And why this is important for future of energy in the built space

by: Dr. Yannick Beaudoin

As society has moved into the 21st century, it has not significantly addressed a critical blind spot: the fundamental human system that lies at the root of our ecological and social challenges– our core interface with Nature and primary social operating system.

Omitting to update our ‘economic software’ to match the changing reality of our planetary hardware is akin to deciding to refuse to update your computer or smartphone when prompted and then wondering why the whole system eventually stops running.  Whether advocating environmental or social justice, there remains, as examined by Otto Scharmer, Katrin Kauffer and others at MIT, a propensity to perpetuate divides between how we as people perceive the function and purpose of our economic system with respect to our relationship with the planet (i.e. the ecological divide), with those around us (i.e. the social divide) and how we relate and see ourselves (i.e. the spiritual divide).

We need to let go of what divides the Function and Purpose of our Economic system with respect to our relationship with the Planet, Society, Ourselves.

Our core societal construct, the economy, does not reflect the most basic relationships that define a purpose-filled existence that would unleash humankind’s full potential. In other words, we are stopping ourselves from achieving our fullest potential at emerging generative, respectful and naturally harmonious societies.

“We have within us the ability to wonder,
the intelligence to understand, and the
love to care about that which we wonder at.
I try to play to those abilities, within myself
and within others, and in them I always find hope.”

Dr. Donella Meadows,  a pioneering American environmental scientist,
teacher, writer
said about her work, in an online forum, 1992

Ask an average Canadian what the current purpose of the Canadian economy might be.  The answers typically resemble those a corporate CEO would provide describing their company goals – with more growth and job creation often topping the list. Ask an average Canadian what they aspire to and you get much more human and nuanced answers.  Prosperity, fulfilment, increased quality of life and well-being, a healthy future for generations to come. Personal answers are very similar to the model of Fundamental Human Needs developed by Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef.

Here lies our aspirational paradox

Canadians have aspirations that are not compatible with the fundamental workings of our contemporary economics. In other words, we have a foundational operating system, an economy informed by an economics that is not designed to deliver what we actually want.

As first defined by economist John Ruskin (1819-1900), we are now increasingly generating “illth”, (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: the condition of being economically unprosperous or miserable) for the masses while concentrating the financial ‘wealth’ that results from the unsustainable conversion of Nature and human endeavour to money, in the hands of a few.  We are violating planetary boundaries and are not even meeting in a distributed and inclusive way, our basic social foundations. With a twist of irony, we have become exceedingly adept at accounting for the natural (and social) costs of our unsustainable economic approach. However, they remain external to our primary decision- and policy-making driver.

Our inability overall to take concrete actions to reverse negative environmental trends is not due to a lack of good environmental and developmental visions or a lack of knowing of better practices. If we followed through on all existing environmental and social policies, laws and regulations, we’d likely be living together in a garden of Eden! We have instead allowed the hubris of a few take what was originally an art, attempt to force into a science and finally convert it into a belief system with “The Market at its divine center and a chosen clergy as the unquestionable, untouchable shepherds of the faith” Source: The Guardian, 2017

Why is this important in the context of future energy and green build?

Humanity lives as a complex adaptive social system which is part of Nature –  itself, a complex adaptive, self-regulating system. If we genuinely want to transition to societies that see environmental health, social justice and real well-being as core pillars of success, then our efforts, from developing truly clean energy and building in a nature positive way, will depend on updating our economic software rather than only thinking about external, band-aid social and environmental policies and choices. Specific to our concepts of resource efficiency as a path to sustainability, British economist Willian Stanley Jevons observed in 1865 that when technological advances or government decisions increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand. In other words, in our material-growth driven system (i.e. domestic product is the primary driver of our economy), the more efficient we are (e.g. energy, raw materials, impacts on Nature, social impact of economies of scale, etc), the more we end up using, polluting, negatively impact when viewed in absolute terms. Using greenhouse gases over the past few decades as an example, though we have become better at emitting less for each unit of production, our total units of production have continued to increase at incredible rates. In other words:  our total emissions continue to rise – ergo, Jevons’ Paradox.

So, what do we do?  

To create a more sustainable future in the context of energy, buildings and society, we must embrace the courage to enable honest and constructive conversations and actions that challenge these and other outdated yet entrenched belief and myths that prevents us from truly thriving.  And start letting go of outmoded Economics as a purely human construct.

We have the proof and the means. We can easily do better in the 21st Century than an old 20th Century piece of code.

About the Author:
Dr. Yannick Beaudoin, Director-General Ontario and Northern Canada, The David Suzuki Foundation (DSF)