In the early days of contemporary surgery, as asepsis procedures were catching up with the principle of eliminating the sources of contamination, surgeons knew that washing hands before an operation reduced risks of infection; but they did not always think of washing the surgical site or instruments. With the result that, in some places, deadly infections continued for a certain time
Consistency is surely the least consistent characteristic of the way we think and act. With respect to sustainability, we are not closer to consistency than surgeons were a century ago. We put in place tax rebate programs that support the development of fuel-efficient cars in an effort to reduce carbon emissions; then turn around and subsidize gas-guzzler Formula One events. If we can’t be consistent across such closely related matters, how are we to address the challenge of sustainability, a challenge that cuts across all aspects of our lives ?
What we need is a new worldview, a new roadmap, one that unfolds and encompasses all aspects of life, much as all plants and forms of life are affected by the onset of Spring. We need to replace the current mechanistic worldview, predicated on cheap fossil energy, competition and hubris, with a new worldview – perhaps we can call it the good design worldview - based on information, cooperation and respect of limits. What this means is well illustrated by the emergence of an information intensive approach to agriculture as an alternative to energy intensive agro-food industry. David Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept, characterises the history of agriculture as the sequence of three phases; the first is labor intensive traditional agriculture, the second, energy intensive industrial agriculture, and the third, information and design intensive permaculture.1 An example of good design is the use of plants, such as sweet clover and bird vetch, that have an exceptional capacity to fix nitrogen. Industrial agriculture considers them as weeds, to be destroyed with fossil fuel based herbicides; it prefers to control soil nitrogen with fossil fuel based fertilizers, transported over long distances, increasing carbon emissions at every step of the process. Good design reaches the same results by harnessing the power of plants.
This new vision is not wishful thinking about an impossible return to the past; it is the call for a smarter science, one that will enable us to fulfill our needs without putting the planet at risk. This new science is to the old what the wind board is to the motor board. The new science works with nature, understands its ways and its complexity, and mirrors its processes; it is a restorative science, one that places equal emphasis on immediate gains and overall long-term impact. In contrast, the old science was a conquering science, focused on simple mechanical processes to maximize short-term local efficiencies, with little or no concern for its global impact. The industrial agriculture it supported maximized immediate production, but it did so at the cost of the ongoing life-giving properties of our most precious agricultural resource, the topsoil, now largely lost to erosion.
Developing a worldview that can address this emerging science and speak to our social and spiritual needs may seem like an impossible task considering our natural lack of consistency. But it is the inspiring challenge of humanity as it enters adulthood. We now know and understand that with the power we have over nature comes a responsibility. We can no longer afford the intellectual irresponsibility that caused us to abuse this power; we need to be attentive to the impact of our activity and engage all of our creativity. We need to balance our reductionist science with a global conscience; laboratory experiences with observations in nature; the sciences of quantity with the sciences of quality; high tech with high touch; the material dimension with the spiritual one.