EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

11.3 Human Factor in Sustainability Paradigm

In sustainability analysis, we are often reminded to broaden our view beyond the immediate boundaries of the problem and try to recognize the various forces that control the system, sometimes, against our expectations. Thus looking at a technological system, and being focused on the dynamics of the process and on the physical principles, it is easy to miss the human factor, which may be as powerful in the final success of the technology as its physical efficiency or economic benefit. Solar panels may be working and bring environmental and economic profits in some cases, but why don't we still have them on our roof? Human resistance has its causes, well justified, which are often left behind the scenes.

The following book chapter written by J.D. Sterman of MIT Sloan School of Management reflects on the intricacy of connections that surround the sustainability paradigm. The author picks a number of factors that are connected to human thinking and behavioral feedbacks. One of the surprising observations the author makes is how intuitive judgment of a situation, perception of benefit or urgency can sometimes be far off the reality.

Reading Assignment

Because our particular focus in this course is on technologies, how they develop, and how they can impact the future being of society, please especially pay attention to the system analysis on pages 46-52 of the above-referenced chapter, which explains the balancing feedback loops created by technological innovation and markets. There is a discussion if those loops are powerful enough to "save the world", and, I think, it is a good point to reflect on. Spend some time examining the system diagram in Fig. 10 of the chapter. You may agree or disagree with the author on certain points, and maybe in that process you can find additional loops (not shown on the diagram) to provide leverage to the system survival.

On the other hand, solving carrying capacity problem with new technology creates condition for further growth, and further growth creates a problem with carrying capacity again. Solve the scarcity problem again through innovation and efficient markets, the system will grow again and create new scarcity. What follows from this logic is that we can solve the problem of available resources for earth population for some time, but we may not be able to keep solving it forever. Simply because the typical delays in technology development would not diminish, and innovations themselves will require more and more planet resources. On the other end of the dragon, intentional control of the growth may have some promise as a strategy to bring the technology and consumption to some kind of balance.

You can treat this reading as a recap of the sustainability issues discussed in this class. Technologies, methodologies, policies, economic models, and social trends are all building blocks of the bigger concept, and now we can look back to review the big picture and think how to put all those building blocks together. This effort would require new type of thinking, personal and societal change – a task no less challenging than building a new technology. “To move beyond slogans, we need to develop our systems thinking capabilities, methods that avoid both self-defeating pessimism and mindless optimism, while remaining true to scientific methods and ecological realities.” (Sterman, 2012)

I hope that this discussion does not push you to the pessimistic side of the story, but rather urges you to develop more knowledge and insight into the real working mechanisms of sustainable development. While advocating for new technologies, we should also fully understand the limits of time and resources behind them and recognize other necessary leverage points, in particular, required social and behavioral adjustments.

Proper sustainability assessment should always strive to include systems analysis, which places a technology or subject matter into social context. Copy the Fig. 10 diagram for your reference - it may be a good baseline for system discussion of technology in your course project report.