“Affairs are easier of entrance than of exit; and it is but common prudence to see our way out before we venture in.”
The old phrase tells us that new and old ideas find a natural balance, that the introduction of the new requires that it is also “out with the old.” Indeed, sustainability should be about saying “let’s do something new” rather than “stop doing that old thing.” However, most sustainability practitioners and campaigners spend much of their lives fighting to change existing behaviour. Much time is spent rationalizing unsustainability, rather than doing as Buckminster Fuller advised:
“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
This is to a large extent related to a combination of familiarity, status quo bias, infrastructural inertia and willful resistance to change of vested interests than the conceptual or practical problems of imagining and implementing new ways of doing things. Rarely do we find that the entrance of the new means that it is out with the old.
Indeed, the “new” seldom really is new, built as it so often is upon the ramshackle foundations of the old — not upon fresh footings of its own.
The asymmetry of acceptance and rejection
“Two quite opposite qualities equally bias our minds — habits and novelty.”
Jean de la Bruyere
In technological terms, there is a huge asymmetry between the ease of introduction of new things, be they technologies, products or processes, and the difficulty of phasing them out when they prove to be problematic.
It seems to be the case that the burden of proof required to retire a functioning (definably problematic) technology is far higher than that required to introduce it.
350 or 355 ppm? It is risky dancing on the head of a pin
The introductory narrative for technologies tends to be focused around utility (what this wondrous new technology will do for us) and the removal narrative upon a debate about the probability and extent of risk.
This means that instead of concentrating upon the introduction of innately and undoubtedly sustainable technologies, we tend to waste all our time in discussing and proving the dangerousness of unsustainable technologies already deployed.
We get stuck in internecine, angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments about the exact thresholds of toxicity that are “acceptable” — rationing safety rather than producing products through processes that are innately safe (and for the most part eminently feasible).
The challenge to introduce technology, sometimes high though it may feel, is still lower than that required to remove it.
This is wonderfully demonstrated by the burden of proof seemingly required to demonstrate the blindingly obvious; that burning fossil fuel is a bad idea from pretty much any perspective (other than we are already addicted to it and the withdrawal comedown would hurt).
This level of required proof is way, way beyond that required to introduce a new drug (significant though this is) or a new genetic technology, or to flood the world with phones and computers full of complex, semi-disposable aggregations of precious metals, intensely energetic processes and scarce elements, produced by workers toiling long days in poor conditions.
Come on in … please don’t go!
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
John Maynard Keynes
The height of the hurdles to the removal of unsustainable and deadly technologies are set not only by custom, precedent and vested interest, they are also mandated by systems of economics and finance that seem to find it irrelevant and pointless to evolve the means to value the planet and its people as a going concern over the coming decades.
Just as the thresholds overcome for the introduction of industrial technologies in the 17th and 18th centuries were low, so were the ones required for the introduction of the economic theories that dominate, shape and drive our unsustainable world.
Conversely, the barriers that we face for the reform of our economic theories, such that they produce innately sustainable outcomes, are set very high indeed. It is not just a fight of fact against fact, but of sentiment, familiarity and private profit, set against the long-term interests of us all.
Such a fight with either be long or will suddenly flip, perhaps as we recognise that money and markets don’t represent the physical world we depend upon for our very existence.
Still, a long fight is no less worth fighting.
As Winston Churchill didn’t quite say:
“Sustainability at all costs, sustainability in spite of all terror, sustainability however long and hard the road may be; for without sustainability, there is no survival.”