Sustainable Design: The Next Industrial Revolution?

By Baird, Stephen L. | The Technology Teacher, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Design: The Next Industrial Revolution?

Baird, Stephen L., The Technology Teacher

An insatiable appetite for energy, a burgeoning world population, and a heightened awareness of climate change are focusing global attention on sustainability, an issue that may very well determine the future course of civilization. Sustainability can be defined as a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely (Wikipedia, 2007). Sustainability was further defined in 1987 at the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (UNEP, 2007). The pursuit of a sustainable lifestyle today is of paramount importance for future generations. There are now more than six billion people on Earth, and together we are placing unprecedented strains on the planet's ability to cope. Our natural environment provides the basic conditions without which humanity could not survive. Life on our planet is contained within the biosphere, a thin and irregular envelope around the earth's surface just a few kilometers deep around the radius of the globe. Here ecosystems purify the air and water that are the basis for sustaining life. They stabilize and moderate the earth's climate. Soil fertility is renewed, nutrients are cycled, and plants are pollinated. Through scientific research, we are now able to appreciate the complexity of this web of interacting natural processes, yet we are still a very long way from understanding exactly how they all fit together. What we do know is that if any part of the web suffers a breakdown, the future of life on our planet will be at risk. The twentieth century saw a fourfold increase in human numbers and an eighteenfold growth in world economic output. These increases have resulted in unsustainable patterns of consumption and the use of environmentally unsound technologies (Topfer, 2007).


Achieving sustainability calls for the stewardship of all the natural systems of our planet, with everyone taking responsibility for solving the environmental problems we face today and will continue to face in the future. Good stewardship is the responsibility of all individuals, communities, businesses, and governments worldwide. While being environmentally conscious once meant recycling old newspapers and turning off the water while you brushed your teeth, now nearly every aspect of our lives--from the buildings we live and work in to the extracting of raw materials from the earth--is being radically rethought. Common sense should tell us not to pollute our environment. We do not have an infinite amount of natural resources at our disposal, and our planet is not growing along with the world's population. The next industrial revolution is the emerging transformation of human industry from a system that takes, makes, and wastes to one that celebrates natural, economic, and cultural abundance (MBDC, 2007).

The industrial framework that dominates our lives can now be thought of as primitive. It is conceived around a one-way manufacturing flow--considered a "cradle-to-grave" lifecycle. This cradle-to-grave flow relies on brute force for manufacturing products, and it seeks universal design solutions ("one size fits all"), overwhelming and ignoring natural and cultural diversity. And it produces massive amounts of waste--something that does not even exist in nature. In response to widespread environmental degradation, many industries, businesses, and communities have adopted the strategy of minimizing waste, pollution, and natural resource depletion, but this strategy, known as "ecoefficiency" is not a strategy for long-term success as it seeks to make the current destructive system sustainable. Ecoefficiency is a depletive approach. Minimizing toxic pollution and the waste of natural resources are not strategies for real change. Designing industrial and manufacturing processes, along with commercial and residential buildings, so they do not generate toxic pollution and waste and decrease the use of natural resources in the first place is true change. …

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