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This paper was produced for the St. Andrew's Prize in 1999 in new thinking in sustainability. It shows how Dooyeweerd's aspects can help us understand sustainability.

A new framework for sustainabilty?

Andrew Basden

"I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories," said Elrond in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. So it has been with sustainability - many defeats, and many fruitless victories.

As in Tolkien's tales, some defeats have been obvious, while others - indeed the majority - are gradual and go unrecognised until the defeat is certain. Of the obvious defeats for sustainability we may cite the building of the M25 and numerous planning decisions that have allowed many more motorways and bypasses. We might deplore the building of many housing estates and out-of-town business and retail parks. We might bemoan the thoughtless actions of many farmers over the last fifty years in destroying countryside and wildlife. Of the more gradual defeats we might look at the fostering of the consumer culture by the combined forces of media, retailing and manufacturing. We might see gradual defeat in the attitudes and life habits of people, with gradually growing dependence on the car and bulk shopping.

As suggested by these examples, I wish to venture beyond urban sustainability to sustainability as a whole, which includes the non-human with the human. Urban and ecological sustainability cannot sensibly be separated because each has an impact on the other.

Fruitless Victories

Victories there have been for the cause of sustainability, but they have usually been shortlived and have never completely delivered what we expected. In the late 1980s the U.K. Green Party gained what was for them a glorious vote - "Thatcher awash in a Sea of Green" ran one headline. But too soon the glory faded, and we would be hard pressed to name more than a few obvious influences the Greens have had.

More hopeful perhaps have been changes in establishment politics - the setting up of a Department of the Environment back in the 1970s, the issuing of Planning Policy Guidance notes that became increasingly geared towards sustainability throughout the 1990s, and international efforts like Agenda 21. Yet, again, such victories have so far proved almost fruitless. According to Prof. Richard Southwood, Chairman of the U.K. Round Table on Sustainable Development, while Government top level policy and guidance may have changed, "mechanisms are not in place on the ground" to reverse the damaging direction which planning had taken over the last few decades. Local Authorities - such as Northampton, which the Round Table studied - still 'compete' for inward investment by offering out-of-town greenfield sites to large corporations, with consequent increase in road use as people travel to work.

Science has been conscripted to the battle for sustainability, and now it is scientists who acknowledge the reality of global warming. It was a victory that Mrs. Thatcher changed her mind on the environment - because of the entreaties of top scientists. Research into more efficient means of production and transport has received considerable funding. Scientific advances have been made in measurement and monitoring. Learned journals and associations and university courses connected with sustainability have proliferated. Yet in spite of our knowledge, in spite of research funding and teaching, there is little political will to tackle the major issues. Mrs. Thatcher stubbornly defended her "great car economy", and the present U.K. government dawdles.

Technology has been geared towards sustainability - a little. Cars are now fitted with catalytic convertors and burn lead-free fuel - yet we drive more than we ever used to, and the result is more pollution and destruction.

Economic incentives have been tried, such as increasing fuel tax - yet company car concessions remain, and many drive further and more, in order to reach the next tax break.

The media put on environmental programmes during the 1980s, which delighted many of us for a time - until they became passé. Far more popular and influential are the extravagences portrayed in the Soaps, in advertisements and in other entertainment.

The counter-culture cherished its own little victories, and offered esoteric religions, healing stones or rustic modes of living. Yet its very rejection of the norms most of us hold dear puts it outside our respect, and its influence is less than it should be.

We have tried politics, we have tried science, technology, finance, media, and even the counter-culture - yet all have failed. "Many defeats, and many fruitless victories." Where can we now turn to achieve sustainability?

What might be the answer? Unlike the hero in The Lord of the Rings we have not found an Enemy's Ring, a device in which resides all evil power. We do not have two stout hobbits who will faithfully undertake the long hopeless trek to dispose of the Ring. Our situation, real life, is different, and we must depart from The Lord of the Rings, and seek our answers direct, and not through literary parallels. We must now be in deadly earnest.

Perhaps there is no ultimate answer, other than at the end of time, when the Creator and Redeemer comes back to "renew all things" in Love and Joy. Yet those who take such a view will remember that until that time comes we have been given sacred responsibility to steward His creation, managing it with care, along with the priviledge of understanding and enjoying it, and it is this temporal stewardship that I wish to address. Those who dislike this (Christian) view may take it metaphorically if they wish; I do not mention it again.

'A mere footnote to Plato'

It seems to me that there is a pattern in the defeats and fruitless victories, a pattern of perception and presupposition that reaches back 2,500 years to the Greeks. They had a glorious civilization, but it was unsustainable, and eventually fell. We fall prey to the same defeats and fruitlessness perhaps because, as the philosopher Whitehead said, all Western thinking is merely "a footnote to Plato". The framework that Plato suggested has remained essentially intact for over 2,000 years as that on which most of our thinking is based. It has been refined, of course, and elaborated and even evolved down through the centuries, yet for most of that time we have shared Greek presuppositions - presuppositions about the nature of things, and of where good and bad, problem and solution, may be found. Let us consider briefly a possible avenue toward sustainability that few have so far discovered and yet which may be worth exploring because it is based on different presuppositions. I am not suggesting this is the final or only answer, but only that it may be worthy of your consideration.

The Greek thinkers were interested in things and types of things. Once we differentiate types, then we have dualities, such as change and permanence, natural and cultural. Unfortunately, deep within us is the tendency to drive the poles of dualities apart, and call one pole Good, or 'higher', and the other Bad, or 'lower'. This leads to a dualism. For some Greek thinkers, civilization, control, permanence, order and delights of the mind were superior, or Good, while barbarism, licence, change, disorder and pleasures of the flesh were inferior, or Bad. Others believed the exact opposite.

We still have this tendency to split the poles of a duality into a dualism; think of gender, for example. The tendency might not always be extreme, of course, but it is still there. Different poles are championed by different groups of people, sometimes at the same time, but often one after the other, such as when trying to correct the mistakes of the past. This leads to a dialectic process of fashion and reaction, in which yesterday's Good is seen today as a Problem, and nowhere is it more apparent than in what might be called the dialectic of sustainability.

The Dialectic of Sustainability

The dialectic of sustainability can be traced as a thread, among many threads. Let us start in an era when the natural world was seen as a threat, full of disease and dangers. Then came the scientific era in which some of the threats were understood and this understanding was applied - to the benefit of the wealthy. Then came the industrial era, which sought among other things to undercut the wealthy and bring those benefits - such as soap - to all. (There are, of course, many other threads running through the industrial era, such as greed, which are evil.) But industry led to filth, ugliness and oppression, and we had the Romantic reaction. More recently, after two world wars and the threat of food shortage, industry was again seen as Good, and we applied the perspective of industrialism to agriculture - it became a dominant fashion during the 1960s to stress "Agriculture is now an industry!" Such fashions led to destruction of natural things, and a reaction grew, epitomised in Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring and the Blueprint for Survival in the early 1970s. In some circles this reaction gained fashionability, emphasizing the biological and the non-human. One extreme result is 'deep ecology', which tends to deny any special status to human beings, sometimes going so far as to wish all humanity destroyed. But many in the green movement felt this approach ignored the social aspect, so, during the early to mid 1980s, a growing reaction started to focus on the idea of 'community' as a centre of green thinking. Others felt that policy and economics had been ignored, and should be redefined to serve the needs of sustainability rather than national interest or class struggle, and formed the Green Parties. By the early 1990s, the biological, social and economic perspectives were accepted, yet were devoid of spiritual content, so this gap too was recognised by a growing number of people in the green movement, and today the spiritual element is becoming more important.

Much has been left out and there are many other threads. But the picture shows two things quite clearly. One is that to attain true sustainability many aspects of our life must be taken into account - not just life functions (ecology) but also science, culture, technology, social interaction, economics, aesthetics and spirituality, and other things not mentioned in the simplified picture above. For true, full sustainability, which Hebrew thought terms shalom, we must take all things into account.

The other is that thus far we have discerned what these aspects are, only by a blind wandering process in which we discover the mistakes we have made only after making them. Each dialectic cycle in this process grabs at some new idea, which becomes elevated in importance in its turn, and then rejected in the next cycle. In this blind, unguided process, the cycles never seem to end in a true sustainability; there is always something ignored that future cycles pick up.

In ages past the planet and human culture were perhaps large enough to absorb our mistakes, but this is true no longer. There are many more of us now, and the impact each of us has (especially in the West) is magnified many times by technology and communication. We cannot afford to keep on making such mistakes as we wander around the dialectic cycles.

And yet ... that which later cycles pick up is not some esoteric refinement that was unpredictable earlier on. It has always been something that earlier generations could have understood - in principle if not in detail. The problem lies not in lack of knowledge, but lies rather in lack of wisdom: our tendency to elevate one thing and suppress another and thereby to become trapped in dialectic cycles. Surely, if this is so, then we might hope to find a guide who will help us escape.

But where are we to find such a guide? In the sciences? If so, which science would be our guide? Should physics? Or the life sciences? Or psychology? Sociology? Economics? Theology? All sciences are by definition limited to single aspects of our experience - as they isolate their central aspect to study it. So science cannot be our guide.

Should we turn away from the Ideal of Science to the so-called Ideal of Personality, from Rationalism to Interpretivism, from Fact to Value or, approximately, from Modern to Postmodern? That won't help us either because human personality gives no solid foundation. Different people and different cultures hold very different values which often cannot be reconciled, and we become subject to dominating personalities or fashions - witness the existentialism of Heidegger which helped to pave the way for Nazism.

A Different Framework

We need something that reaches deeper than the modern divide between Science and Personality, deeper than the Nature-Freedom dualism of which it is an expression. A philosophical framework is emerging that may help us, which was pioneered by two Dutch thinkers at the Free University of Amsterdam: Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd. The latter expounded it in 1955 in A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. He traced many of our problems back to Greek presuppositions about the nature of things, and showed how both they and their modern equivalents always end up splitting reality and preventing true integration. (My argument about dialectic is informed by his critique.)

Then Dooyeweerd explored alternative presuppositions and attempted a re-construction of theoretical thought, while applauding the efforts of thinkers through the ages. Instead of starting with Existence and Types as the fundamental property of all that there is, as the Greeks did, he started with Meaning (or, rather with God who gives Meaning and thus Existence to all) and thus his framework is perhaps more Hebrew than Greek based. It has an internal cohesiveness that reaches deeper than the modern divide, not by reduction and rejection of differences, but by their integration into a pluralistic framework of Meaning.

As a philosopher Dooyeweerd wanted, among other things, to explain our experience of diversity and unity in things and happenings around us. He wanted to avoid the problems of dualism and dialectic, and their inherent disunity, yet he believed that monism (postulating only one, single explanatory principle) was not the answer because it cannot truly explain diversity.

Diversity and unity are explained, not in terms of types of entities, but rather in terms of aspects in which we function, which are irreducible to each other and yet intertwined by relationships of analogy and dependency. These aspects, of which Dooyeweerd delineates fifteen (quantitative, spatial, kinematic, physical, biotic, sensitive, analytic, cultural, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical and pistic) have different laws, some deterministic, like physical laws, and others normative, like social laws. In this way the aspectual framework integrates the two poles of the Nature-Freedom dualism.

Relevance to Sustainability

The relevance of the Dooyeweerdian framework to sustainability, has been explored by Patrizia Lombardi in Italy and Donald and Veronica de Raadt in Sweden, and rests on the idea that if our functioning in any aspect is deficient, then shalom is harmed. This shalom is the broad, rich characterisation of sustainability that many are reaching for today, and includes urban sustainability.

Deficient functioning can arise either from going against the laws of an aspect (where those laws are normative, which is the case with the later aspects) or from elevating or ignoring certain aspects and thus upsetting the aspectual balance. This latter is the engine that drives the cycles of dialectic, as I attempt to explain in my forthcoming paper, "Engines of Dialectic" in Philosophia Reformata. Therefore, according to the Dooyeweerdian proposal, for full sustainability we must understand the importance of each aspect and 'go with the grain' of its laws.

Let us look briefly at the way each aspect (with its 'meaning kernel' in brackets) might relate to urban sustainability, illustrated with a few examples:

  • Quantitative (amount): e.g. finance, accounting
  • Spatial (continuous extension): e.g. space taken up, interrelationship of spaces
  • Kinematic (movement): e.g. transport of goods and people; movement of wildlife and pollutants
  • Physical (energy, matter): e.g. physical ground conditions in the city
  • Biotic (life functions): e.g. pollution, sewerage, food, biological ecology
  • Sensitive (feeling, emotion): e.g. levels of stress in people
  • Analytic (distinction, clarity): e.g. distinguishing important factors from unimportant during planning
  • Cultural (formative power): e.g. heritage, technology, achievements
  • Lingual (symbolic communication): e.g. are lines of communication within the community open?
  • Social (social interaction and structures): e.g. quality of social relationships in community, types of social structures
  • Economic (frugal use of resources, NOT finance or market): e.g. are resources wasted or re-used?
  • Aesthetic (harmony): e.g. harmonising development with landscape, harmonising incoming groups into the community
  • Juridical ('what is due'): e.g. is any in the community robbed of their rights?
  • Ethical (self-giving love): e.g. level of generosity, quality of family life
  • Pistic (vision, faith, commitment): e.g. community morale

The framework copes with the long term as well as the short, because the later aspects are longer term in their effects. The full impact from deficient pistic functioning, for instance, can be a century or more in manifesting itself.

Many issues can be understood in terms of these aspects. For example, out-of-town developments often lead to deficient functioning in the kinematic, biotic and social aspects (with impacts on transport, agricultural land, and town centre life). We can also see now why "victories" have been "fruitless": while focusing on some aspects they overlooked deficient functioning in others. In its Planning Policy Guidance concerning siting of development, the U.K. government focused on these three aspects but perhaps overlooked the ethical aspect, in which cut-throat competition is deficient functioning. But since the "mechanisms ... on the ground" function in all aspects, they undermined the government's intentions.

Thus Dooyeweerd's framework offers a model for understanding sustainability and stimulating discussion about it, together with criteria for evaluation that will encourage planners, developers and environmentalists to take a wider and yet a more integrated view. We are preparing, in collaboration with U.K. local authorities and other organizations, to develop knowledge based systems that encapsulate knowledge of all the aspects. These systems will serve as tools to evaluate the sustainability of urban developments and promote group discussion and decision making.


Is this merely a quirky set of ideas that should be sidelined, or a truly radical new perspective that will unlock a new route to our goal of sustainability? We do not yet know, but research is underway in a number of centres to test its true relevance to sustainability, and to assess the ease with which non-philosophers can learn to use it. Results so far show promise.

All the twists and turns of the dialectic of sustainability seem to be explained by Dooyeweerd's framework, as well as some that have not yet occurred. His set of aspects emerged long before the word 'sustainability' gained its current meaning and importance. It is therefore remarkable that the aspects lend themselves so well to the consideration of sustainability. I commend it to you as worthy of serious investigation.

Created: by Andrew Basden.

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