Today’s Salem “Statesman-Journal” has an article about a Friday-Saturday open house at the 275 acre Sustainable Fairview property. I’m glad to see any hint of openness from Sustainable Fairview Associates, the LLC that Laurel and I are members of, and which I’ve criticized in various posts (under my Sustainability category) for not understanding either (1) what “sustainability” really means, or (2) how to manage a mixed-use development of this scope, regardless of how sustainable it is.
If you go to the open house and walk around the property, you’ll see a lot of interesting old buildings and beautiful natural land. But you won’t see any sustainable development because it hasn’t happened yet. Betwixt abstract architectural plans and concrete construction lies the mysterious realm of Management/Implementation, the connecting link between theory and practice, vision and actualization.
This is where the rubbery concept of “sustainability” hits the firm road of reality. And this is where, sadly, Sustainable Fairview Associates is still muddling through. I say “sadly,” because I deeply want to see this project succeed. Good examples of wise natural resource use are sorely needed, especially since the Bush administration isn’t providing us with any.
Who is it, though, that needs how to learn to use natural resources more wisely? It isn’t Nature. The Earth is never anything but natural; the laws of nature know exactly how to act naturally. They don’t need courses in general systems theory to form viable feedback and communication loops, or respond creatively and flexibly to changing environmental conditions.
No, it is people who are the problem. We don’t face an environmental crisis. We are facing a human crisis, a crisis of people who don’t know how to live naturally—either with Nature, or more importantly, with themselves and their fellow human beings. This is one of the points Fritjof Capra makes in his excellent book, “The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability.”
Capra, by the way, is speaking in Portland on this subject November 19 as part of the Science, Technology and Society Lecture series.
Back when I thought I could help Sustainable Fairview Associates (SFA) learn how to manage better and be more sustainable, I put together a bunch of excerpts from the “Life and Leadership in Organizations” chapter of Capra’s book and handed them out at a SFA member meeting. I pithily indicated how this supposedly sustainable organization really wasn’t going about things in any sort of sustainable fashion.
Sustainability isn’t a thing. It isn’t a solar panel, a permeable road, a living system wastewater treatment facility. Sustainability is a process, as interactive, flexible, responsive, and creative as life itself. This is a fact that Sustainable Fairview Associates hasn’t yet realized, but Capra has. Take a look at what I put together and you’ll see what I mean.
Download capra_summary.doc [If you have Word, click "normal" under View on the toolbar if the document looks abnormally large, as it does for me]
“(11) We might say, following Thoreau, “In Weirdness is the Preservation of the World.”
The emergence of novelty is a property of open systems, which means that the organization needs to be open to new ideas and new knowledge. Facilitating emergence includes creating that openness—a learning culture in which continual questioning is encouraged and innovation is rewarded. Organizations with such a culture value diversity and, in the words of Arie de Geus, ‘tolerate activities in the margin: experiments and eccentricities that stretch their understanding.’ (p. 123)”
I clearly remember the moment at which I knew that SFA was ridiculously far away from being a “learning culture,” as Capra puts it, and so was equally far away from being a sustainable organization capable of competently managing a sustainable development.
We were a couple of hours into one of the most disturbing meetings I’ve ever attended. Concerned members of Sustainable Fairview Associates, me included, were trying to open up a dialogue with the management of SFA about where the project was heading, and why things were so closed-up, secretive, rigid, uncreative, non-responsive to obvious opportunities.
After I had made some impassioned comments about how we needed to form a close-knit community of people—individuals both inside and outside the room—who wanted to make Sustainable Fairview a success, one of the SFA officers turned to me and said, “Brian, from the beginning we never wanted your involvement; we just wanted your money.”
As an investor I was shocked, because this wasn’t the sales pitch that I heard when SFA was trolling for people willing to buy shares in this venture. But as someone hoping that SFA would be managed well, regardless of whether I personally was to be directly involved in the project, I was even more dismayed. This comment indicated a complete lack of understanding of what makes an organization alive, which is the hallmark of sustainability. Another excerpt from my Capra paper:
“(4) Community, openness, tolerance of new ideas, learning, adaptability: these are the signs SFA is really alive.
This led De Geus [author of The Living Company] to conclude that resilient long-lived companies are those that exhibit the behavior and certain characteristics of living entities. Essentially he identifies two sets of characteristics. One is a strong sense of community and collective identity around a set of common values; a community in which all members know that they will be supported in their endeavors to achieve their own goals. The other set of characteristics is openness to the outside world, tolerance for the entry of new individuals and ideas, and consequently a manifest ability to learn and adapt to new circumstances. (p. 105)”
Well, it is never too late to learn, and I hope that Sustainable Fairview can survive its shaky un-sustainable youth and adolescence and grow into a genuinely sustainable adult development. Head for the open house tomorrow and Saturday and see for yourself the potential of what could spring up here in Salem.