Can Humans Achieve Sustainability?

I believe that humans’ difficulty in designing a sustainable way of life is due to residual affects of evolutionary process. To sustain ourselves, we must replace embedded misconceptions with new designs for planetary stewardship. This assertion is based on an understanding of designing as a learning and change process that has affected human development and civilization. This perspective views designing as the fundamental process with which we create our world, not simply a way to make artifacts. I believe that human species’ capability to design has been the primary evolutionary factor enabling humans to survive and achieve planetary dominion.
Confirming my understanding of designing as a generic, human learning and change-making process was its definition “devising courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” by Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel laureate in economics and a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. In this light, I came to see designing as a form of purposeful, action-learning whereby humans create activities, structures, strategies, tools, objects, events, etc., to transform what exists into what they want.
Given that human beings learn to negotiate life’s contingencies by changing existing situations into preferred ones routinely, I was led to conclude that everyone designs and furthermore, that designing is the human species’ distinguishing activity. In this light, human survival, and domination of the planet, can be viewed as the aggregate outcome of trillions of human design decisions that changed “existing situations into preferred ones” over millions of years. But this triumph has exacted a cost.
Human designing has become problematic. Early in humanoid development, survival in every case was the “preferred situation.” Today, the reptilian complex, still part of our triune brain, continues sub-consciously to prompt ancient “fight or flight” survival responses. We are thereby predisposed to seek power in the form of social status and financial security; to feel “tribal” allegiance to particular social groups; to fear those unlike ourselves; to favor the short-term based on our ancestors’ need for quick responses; and to pay attention to the local, present, and concrete, as opposed to the out-of-sight, imperceptible, and abstract. While we are modern intellectually and technologically, we are primeval emotionally.
Further circumscribing the scope and quality of human understanding are naive intellectual constructs that arose with the awakening of cognition. The common “man/nature” and “mind/body” dualities reflect what primitive humans perceived as reality. These misperceptions were codified in philosophy, religion, and education and now define our common, felt experience of “reality.” Although today technology certifies that we are integral aspects of an earth/universe energy field, few can internalize this fact and change their behaviors accordingly.
In summary, we find that our astonishing capability to design, to create the world!, while once critically needed and enormously effective, is now failing us by continuing to function as though the same primordial “preferred situation” — brute survival — that we once sought at all costs were still our essential goal. But it is not. We can see now that our species’ Grand Problem is that our ongoing designing, now with tremendously amplified affect, is still largely controlled by ancient emotions and motivations. If we continue on our present course, these patterns will not realign themselves evolutionarily to conform with the radically changed concept of “survival” we must now pursue, one requiring that we reintegrate ourselves with the earth and achieve holistic sustainability.
In closing, here is the abstract to an article I wrote 18 years ago:
“Designing, viewed broadly as the human capacity to link thought and action, has meaning and value in the world, that transcend its material associations. Given the nature and urgency of current political, socioeconomic, and ecological problems, the creative, generative concept of design must be made more accessible and useful. Accordingly, my intent is to dispel prevailing, narrow, specialist impressions of design and to advance in the public mind a larger concept that can influence deliberations and behavior in society-at-large. One of today’s most critical areas of need, and one where I think design can make a particularly significant contribution, is education. A critical task for such “design-based education” is enabling people to design an ecologically and economically sustainable future.