Thoughts on Sustainable Design – Part 1

The first draft of the Green Space column I recently wrote for the January issue of CSE was actually much longer than what was published; like 5 times as long. I have that problem when I write; the first draft is usually way to long and then Michael (Ivanovich, CSE Editor in Chief) and team have to patiently coach me through the process of winnowing out the stuff that is “fluff” around the key points.

In this case, some of the “fluff” was maybe a bit more philosophical and “touchy-feely” than was appropriate for the column. But, that doesn’t mean its not worth mentioning for folks to consider and Michael has encouraged me to use the blog as a platform for bringing up some of my thoughts for your consideration.

So, here we go. If you continue reading beyond this point, be prepared for some stuff that may seem to have political and social overtones.  It probably does because ultimately,
sustainability and the environment are inextricably linked with society and politics.  But, I’m not trying to make social or political points;  I’m just trying to raise issues for your consideration that I believe are important if not crucial as sustainability becomes a key design consideration. 

What follows is also not a discussion of technology. But, (at least for me) the reality is that at best, our technology is only a very crude attempt to mimic extremely complex processes that the natural world accomplishes with elegant simplicity and efficiency and in harmony with each other. I’ve come to believe that the more we honor and embrace the earth and its rhythms, the more we will move toward a society that lives in harmony with the planet and each other, achieving both technical and social sustainability.

One of the original drivers behind the column was a quote that I read when I was younger, (in the 1970’s). It was in a book called  Touch the Earth and was from a Wintu holy woman (the Wintu are an indigenous tribe centered near Mount Shasta in California) who said;

How can the spirit of the earth like the White man? …
Everywhere the White man has touched it, it is sore.

At the time, it really resonated with me and I found that I have thought about it frequently in the ensuing years.

Recently, Joni Mitchell released an album called Shine that is basically about our destruction of the planet earth. In a song titled If I had a Heart she says:

Holy Earth
How can we heal you?
We cover you light a blight ….
Strange birds of appetite ….
If I had a heart I’d cry.

When I read those words, (they are the first thing you see when you open the CD jacket, or at least the first thing I saw when I opened the CD jacket) they hit me hard, like the Wintu holy woman’s thoughts but harsher and with the options for a way out diminished.

Before I had ever heard Shine, in the culmination of a meditation, I concluded that perhaps one of the most sustainable things I could do was expire; as in die. Think about it; baring
extenuating circumstances, sometime with-in 6-12 months, I would no longer have an environmental impact. If my body did by some process, become mummified, then maybe I would represent sequestered carbon; maybe you could get a carbon credit for me (shades of Soylent Green).   But, alas, I’m an engineer, and engineers, being practical folk, don’t place expiring at the top of our priority list.

The fact is that we exist, and I happen to believe that we exist for a reason. And, if we exist, we will have an impact on the environment. I think that the key to all of this might be how we view our impact and thus, how we mitigate it. If we recognize that we have an impact and attempt to live our lives in a manner that honors the environment and endeavors to minimize our impact and recognizes that the resources we use are gifts, not givens, then perhaps there is hope that we will not deplete them to the point where our extinction is the unavoidable result of the culmination of the choices we, as a society made. I think this is really important because:

We don’t inherit the world from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

This is another quote from an unknown indigenous person. In my experience, the older you get and the more you are around your children and grandchildren, the more profound it becomes; if we don’t begin to learn how to live in harmony with nature and each other, there won’t be much to hand over to them, which is both a sad and frightening thought.

You’ve probably noticed that I’m quoting indigenous people a lot here. I think that is because generally, their society is much more centered around honoring the earth and living in harmony with it. When Michael was helping me look for the specific sources for the
quotes I was using, he found a web site that was full of quotes from indigenous cultures, many of which touch on what we might call sustainable and holistic values, including this one.

Traditional people of Indian nations have interpreted the two roads that face the light-skinned race as the road to technology and the road to spirituality. We feel that the road to technology…. has led modern society to a damaged and seared earth. Could it be that the road to technology represents a rush to destruction, and that the road to spirituality represents the slower path that the traditional native people have traveled and are now seeking again? The earth is not scorched on this trail. The grass is still growing there.

William Commanda, Mamiwinini, Canada, 1991

This is another quote that really resonated, partly because of its currency, but mostly I think because I feel like we are at the very fork in the road referenced by Elder Commanda. After reading this quote, I started looking for more of Elder Commanda’s thoughts and ideas and discovered that he founded a global eco-community called Circle of All Nations based on his conviction that:

… in a very fundamental way, we all belong together, as the children of Mother Earth, irrespective of color, creed or culture.

I found the vision and wisdom contained on the Circle of All Nations website to be inspiring, thought provoking, and in many ways, full of hope.  I would encourage you to visit it and consider some of the ideas. You can get a pretty good overview by simply downloading their two page brochure and reading through it.

In closing, lest you think I have strayed too far from the field of engineering, I wanted to refer you to the most recent version of the  National Society of Professional Engineer’s code of ethics which was the subject of a recent HPAC article by Arthur Schwartz. In Section III.2.d it states that:

Engineers are encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development in order to protect the environment for future generations.

Perhaps not as eloquent as some of the indigenous quotes, but the message is the same and as technical people, we have an critical role to play both as leaders and doers.

Come back in a couple of days and I’ll share a few more things that I have encountered that have given me insights into sustainability and connected me with the earth. (If all of this is a bit much for you, come back in about a week and I’ll be back at the techie engineering stuff I usually write about).


David Sellers
Senior Engineer – Facility Dynamics Engineering

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