Exploring what “Being Less Bad” Means in relation to the Sustainability Movement

Paolo Soleri in my view is better at taking ideas and repackaging them into a holistic explanation of reality called Arcology than creating something totally new.  Indeed Arcology is a amalgamation of a diffuse set of ideas including: evolutionary biology, big bang physics, organic architecture and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin‘s Omega Point philosophy.

A case in point is the fact that in researching this post, I just realized that people had been discussing this idea of “being less bad” in relation to the “dumbing down” of the sustainability movement, years before Soleri began talking about “Better Kind of Wrongness.” Yet it was Soleri’s take on this concern of “being less bad – by focusing on superficial choices that might be used to give one an undeserved “green stamp of approval” – was what dominated my mind’s eye. It colored how I saw the world and often this is the danger of seeing the world too much in the lens of one way of thinking. Group think is a relatively new word that describe how a very smart group of people can be trapped by the insularity of their thinking, especially if they see it as just one solution or way seeing the world. That is one challenge to places like Arcosanti and those who are attracted to Soleri’s idea of Arcology is that they may become stifled by the projection of one influential visionary’s idea of how the world works.

I’ll be exploring this idea of GroupThink and the implications on Arcosanti and Arcology in future posts. For now lets to take a retro look at the good ole days of School of Thought discussions at Arcosanti and consider this idea of Better Kind of Wrongness and what it means to us in relation to putting forward a better way of living on this world.

An important thing to remember in this process, is that if we can’t figure out how to temper our passions of critical thinking about the power brokers and decision-makers at the top of society who often formulate the world’s ideas often without us, we may become more like them than we might want to admit. For what is most important today is not just to point out the WRONGNESS, but to see the shining lights of the people all over the world trying to create nodes of Convergence around the RIGHTNESS. Focusing not just what is wrong but to cleverly figure out how to change people’s minds by point out what is right,  is the only way we’ll create the kind of change we’re hoping for.

Bruce Sterling’s 1998 EcoDesign Manifesto on the Pitfalls of “Being Less Bad”

Soleri was not the first to talk about this idea of how the growing awareness to “go green” can be minimized and packaged into a corporate and consumer friendly PR campaign for making small changes to the system and then calling it triumphantly: “the greening of the economy.” Recently reading an old version of Dwell from 2007, I realized that the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling was credited by some with establishing the Ecological Design/EcoDesign (ED) movement by way of a speech his “Viridian Design Speech” made back in 1998. While I had known that he put forward some interesting ideas through his Viridian movement, I was not aware that he was considered by some as the founder of Eco-design.

The brief article in Dwell, which references the speech, talks about the “fragility” of the greening of the economy. The reality is that most of us rely on gas to power our cars, electricity to keep us filled to the brim with the creature comforts, we are taught to not only enjoy but demand. So you can talk green all you want, but if you threaten to take away all those goodies that are ample only because of the grossly unsustainable way our economy operates – you are going to get very unpopular very fast.

The Compelling need for Introducing Ecological Design into the Political Mainstream

Because of this tendency to dumb down ED and Sustainability movements intellectually, we have this strange reality where people are aware of the need to be more conscious in their use of resources, but are doing very little to make a significant change in their lives. Part of what enables this reality the lack of any substantive discussion of what it means to be Green at the personal level. This includes looking at practical and feasible pathways for Reformulating our society’s broken, dysfunctional economic and political systems. Many in the mainstream society are afraid of what people will think of them if they question the idea of endless economic growth and how it goes against this idea of sustainability. The very nature of being in the mainstream society is that your position of success is dependent on consideration of political correctness. You have to maintain appearances. Part of the PC culture mandates that not only our mainstream politicians, but also the professional leaders of the sustainability and green movement are supposed to avoid discussion of the tough issues and to reassure people by saying publicly that we have our cake and eat it too.

The political challenges in the way of real change in how we life on this planet do much to explain the way we frame technologies in the mainstream. The hybrid car, wind, solar and organic food emerge as panaceas to the fundamental problem that each of us is consuming way too many resources. The reality is that little progress has been made in the political realm to candid discuss the implications of a serious approach to Ecological Design at the macro-economic level. The current reality is the same as it was say 50 years ago: the economic, political and even cultural leaders main role is to encourage us to continue to consume without regard to these core issues of sustainability. There is a huge disconnect between our understanding of what it means to be “green” and the political mainstream’s consciousness of what the actual implications of these things in our minds.

It is important to note that it is easy to criticize people who have an investment in maintaining appearances and positions noted in the above paragraphs.

A Better Kind of Wrongness

Two years after the Viridian Speech as the Green Movement was taking off with the publication of books like Natural Capitalism, Paolo Soleri started questioning this trend. After the Paradox III conference in 2001, Soleri started having discussions that he called School of Thought comparing different approaches to the environmental movement. While he embraced the idea of Muda from reading Natural Capitalism, what emerged from this was his refinement of his notion of frugality into what he terms a dedication of to Leanness and associated words such as Lean Alternative, Lean Hypothesis and Lean Economy. He has since sought to avoid the use of the word sustainability and instead embrace what he terms the Lean Alternative/Hypothesis/Economy. A major critique of conventional sustainability approaches is that they continued to focus as Sterling puts well “being less bad” rather than making (or at least encouraging) a fundamental shift in the economy and society. Soleri used the term Better Kind of Wrongness to describe the continued investment in the car, consumerism and suburban sprawl rather than that reformulating the society so that more compact urban development is central starting point in the rebuilding and retooling of the current society.

The Challenge of Implementing the Lean Alternative at Arcosanti

We can see the influence on these discussions revolving around Soleri’s critique of what at the time were the prevailing ideas and terms within the ecological design and sustainability movements in the current website at Cosanti Foundation Mission and Values page:

  1. “Essential to the Foundation’s success in achieving its mission is to value creative resourcefulness in planning and execution of our lean alternative programs”
  2. We expect Cosanti Foundation will develop its urban laboratory prototype Arcosanti as a scalable demonstration of an alternative urban experience and will become a lean urban research and development center

The above sentences seem to be intended to replace the mainstream use of Sustainability, Green Design, etc, that imply or reference the need to reduce consumption of resources and reduce environmental impacts. This is because Arcosanti was part of a movement of people that questioned existing assumptions of infinite economic growth in a finite world. A economy based on the fallacy of infinite growth cannot be sustained over a long period of time without an adverse and possibly irreversible impact on the ecology of the planet.

My concern is that I need to see more detailed work outlining what the Lean Alternative is and how it births a Leanness Movement under which one might see Arcologies  and Arcosanti Critical Mass as being realized. Another consideration is the lack of discussion and dialog about these ideas with the community and alum. My view is that for the project to succeed the idea that Arcosanti is not a community but a Construction Site is going to have to be ditched unceremoniously. It is a part of the Arcosanti past we need to get away from. The ideas and positions of what a Lean Alternative really is, need to come from the people who care about Arcosanti, Arcology and forwarding Paolo Soleri’s ideas and vision.

A Pragmatic Understanding of the need for a Transitional Approach

While I can relate to what Soleri is saying about the tendency to take a more reductionistic and piecemeal approach, I suggest a moderate approach. Another view holds that more conventional green approaches can be seen as Transitional Technologies that can move us towards those core ideals of ecological integrity that Soleri holds.


Notes and References:

  1. Ecological Design – if you did not get all the often confusing terms of the green movement right – is a all encompassing field that results in the post-modern blurring of the boundaries between architecture and the more wide-ranging field of design as its relates to nearly every aspect and facet of human existence.

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