The Future of Sustainable Design

By Philip S. Wenz

It’s no longer just the peak resource freaks, environmental gurus and the anti-globalization crowd. Now, even the mainstream economists are beginning to wake up and smell the offing. We have entered what I call the Not-So-Great Depression, a double whammy of eco-nomic and ecological crises.

And despite the ever-hopeful prognostications of the mainstream media, there is far more than just a temporary economic downturn in the works. The globalized “growth economy,” is beginning to grind to a halt — not for lack of greed, but for lack of sufficient resources and environmental sinks to maintain growth.

Books such as Heinberg’s The Party’s Over and Power Down, Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down provide myriad gruesome details, but the essence of the situation is this: after a series of, at best, rapid energy and resource depletion scenarios or, at worst, full-scale shocks to the global economic/environmental system, we’ll be at a point of divergence from which there will be no return.

Namely, we can continue down our current unsustainable path of relentless growth until we overshoot the planet’s capacity to support us or we can choose a sustainable future. (Many think that we’re already at or well past the divergence point, and have gone down the wrong path. However, as that’s not obvious to most people yet, we can postulate, at least for the sake of argument, that we have a few years before our predicament really manifests itself and sinks in. Only then would a decisive majority of people see the need to change paths, and push us in one direction or the other.)

The consequences continuing to push the growth curve beyond its supportable limits are collapse — resource wars (possibly nuclear), the breakdown of industrial economies, famine, drought, mass migration — the scenarios we see developing around us today.

But what would a sustainable economy entail? We have become so locked into what Homer-Dixon calls the “growth imperative,” that it’s hard to imagine another mode of existence. What would people do in such a future? How would they live, support themselves?

Take the traditional architecture, engineering and planning fields, for example. All of our lives, especially in the developed countries, we have witnessed the constant expansion of infrastructure, the endless proliferation of dwellings, factories and public facilities. What will the construction and design professionals do in a world where such expansion is not viable, perhaps not even allowed?

Though the questions of work, leisure and purpose in a sustainable society are complex and multi-faceted — and this problem will be revisited in future blogs — I want to begin a discussion by those who would like to be involved in sustainable design on how they see their future role.

If most growth ceases in, say, the next three to ten years, years, what will you be doing in the short term. In the long term? Community development, rebuilding cities, creating a green energy economy? How will that be financed? And what will happen when, and if, we achieve a truly sustainable global eco-nomic, eco-logic system where there is no “growth?”