1. IntroductionEstablishinghow a university can be re-envisioned through a disciplinary informed frame,”Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Transitions to Sustainability” edited byEdmond Byrne, Gerard Mullaly and Colin Sage, portrays through an open andscholarly character of inquiry, the issue of how contemporary societalunsustainability can be addressed and understood in a way that eclipses crampeddisciplinary work. In addition, a practical epitome of how more essentialoptions for action in relation to contemporary sustainability-related crisescan emerge than could be accomplished.The book exhibits how real progress can be achieved through a transdisciplinaryethos and approach.
1 Transdisciplinary,by definition of the Oxford dictionary, is: “Relating to more than one branchof knowledge; interdisciplinary”. Considering much has been written abouttransdisciplinary and sustainability, this book provides a logical patternwhich signposts the way others can follow in the common journey for realprogress. The chapters in this book consist of a range of viewpoints on makingthe transition to sustainability that can only come to fruition by overcoming obstacles.
However, while the creators of this book stem from different backgrounds, the sectionscontained within this book in a sense, cannot be proven to be integrated solelyaround transdisciplinarity. The chapters within this book briefly reachtransdisciplinarity. However, among this collective, a burning ember ofambition lies at the centre, to lookoutward and candidly, connected with a disciplinary bashfulness which is animportant basis for convincing and legitimate transdisciplinary conversationsand abstract knowledge formation. The collaborators share an admirableenthusiasm and spirit of inquiry whichhas led them to venture beyond normal disciplinary barriers, delving into newsynergetic possibilities outside university walls. Due to the prevailing moodof techno-scientific rationality that has prevailed throughout the Irish highereducation, a collaborative effort has been made by the editors to find a meansof evolving interdisciplinary partnership within the university; seeking otherswho share similar anxieties for the need of a united push to work on thephilosophical and interconnected challenges faced in the world. 2. OverviewAspart of the book review, six chapters were selected which I found insightful.
In the first part of the book, “Setting the Scene”, the book’s editors turntheir attention to a series of applicable facets of the essence oftransdisciplinarity, most notably in the context of sustainability. 2 Followingthis includes a chapter by Byrne, which analyses some paradigms ofsustainability, which are established on a “process, relational, dialecticaland integrative view” of convoluted reality, and which detail to expansive”ontological, historical, social and scientific contexts”. This promotes anexposure of transdisciplinary thinking, a framework that is involved in therecognition and understanding of, and is required to construct, the precedingunderstandings. In this context, it is presented how such a model and ideologycan add to a redirection of the commanding conception of progress, veering fromthe monist ideal and approaching one which would consider it in anargumentative and contingent sense, to encourage “integrative (ecological-,social-, techno-economic-) system sustainability-as-flourishing”. These chaptersare followed by the key part of the book on “Transdisciplinary Conversation andConceptions”. Byrne follows on from his previous chapter with a view acrossfour contrasting areas to indicate how a modern and rising model, based on thetransdisciplinary approach of complicated thought,is embodying itself in varying but comprehensible ways, across disciplinaryconceptions of existence. These areas scope from the tough scientific to thesocio-technical and from the socio-economic to the profound and abstract. Inchapter 10, Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir, Dr Paul Deane and Dr AlessandroChiodi acknowledge how modelling respective energy futures schemes can supportpolicy decisions.
3 Modelledschemes are presented for the energy blend in the Republic of Ireland withinthis chapter in the hope of carbon emission targets being lessened over theimpending years to come. The task aids in exposing the extent of the current test;”the scenarios presented, which include both 80% and 95% reductions in carbondioxide emission levels”, need not important alterations to renewables, butadditionally critical reductions in overall energy consumption. A lot more thana technological adjustment is required, a matter that the collaboratorsacknowledge alongside additional restraints of the model.
This leads to acrucial stride to expand the learning that would not be primarily reliant oncommunicating with a variety of other disciplines, but in a quality oftransdisciplinarity, to also communicate with society on a more widened scope. 4The final chapter is a contemplative section which deals with the campaign sofar and concentrates on “emergent possibilities” and tasks around theutilisation of transdisciplinary approaches within, without and across theuniversity.3. A Paradigm of reduction and separationA Paradigm of reduction and separation is an idea thatI found very insightful.
5Sustainability, as defined by Ehrenfeld, is the “possibility that humans andother life will flourish on the planet forever.” 6 Ehrenfeld would plea thatprincipal narratives around sustainability use the idea in a form that excludesthe encouragement of flourishing, a word defined by Ehrenfeld as “therealisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context”,but involves the increasing material consumption and consideration of thefinancial bottom line. 7 Byrne describes through the words of Ehrenfeld whichmakes the point that by “reducing unsustainability, although critical, does notand will not create sustainability”. 8 Although this idea is tough tovisualise, Ehrenfeld describes “The way they advertise and publicise their greenprogram lulls the public into believing that the firms are taking care of thefuture but almost everything being done in the name of sustainability entailsattempts to reduce unsustainability.” From my observation, many companies providesustainability reports along with annual reports as indicators of their workand achievement. The dilemma is that none of this altruism builds authenticsustainability.
At best, it briefly slows humanity’s progressing drift towardsunsustainability. At worst, it serves as feel-good marketing for products andservices that deteriorate and contaminate our environment. Thus, for companiesto change their direction in a serious way, the adjustment must come from withinthe business walls. This claim is supported by Ehrenfeld, who describes in hisbook “Flourishing”, by saying that, for example, Coca-Cola create an absurdityby broadcasting their environmentally oriented water management programs whilesupplying the ever-growing problem of obesity.
9 Furthermore, as Byrnedescribes, “”Reducing unsustainability” here manifests itself as the concept of”sustainable development””, where “sustainable development” is defined by Ehrenfeldas “conventional economic development as the best way for human beings to moveforward, with the proviso that we have to do it more efficiently and fairly.”This “development” turns to drive further consumption and growth due to a callfor eco-efficiency which is a good thing in the short term. Personally, this idea remains firmly established,relaxing on the impression that the more cash-ladena nation and its individuals are, the better off they will be. There is a greatcontrast in wealth between the North and South of the world and an explicitawareness of this contrast needs to be developed. It is a call to arms to sharethe resources available on this planet more reasonably, both for the presentand the foreseeable future. By grouping together less harmful material consumptionand incorporating more reasonability in the sharing of the prosperity of thoseresources, a satisfying temporary path is forged. However, it is not asolution.
10 It is a path, defined by Byrne, “which can never hope to weansociety off its unsustainable habit of growth-based consumerism”. Thus, I feel itis paramount to change the structural way humanity lives. My impression is thatalthough it is imperative to be more efficient and to reduce impacts, this willnot transport humanity toward sustainability. Principal models and ideas ofsustainability originate from the commanding social paradigm. 11 Byrnedescribes this as the “modern neo-Cartesian paradigm which has obtained anddeveloped over the past four centuries or so.” The main neo-Cartesian paradigmof reduction and separation would weaken the theory of sustainability byseparating sustainability’s three domains of environment, society and economyand visualising that they can be handled, as Byrne describes, “as part of abigger reductive zero-sum game where overspills from one domain can convenientlybe accounted for as quantifiable externalities”. In Cartesian thinking, humanity becomes detached from theworld, the unfolding of truths that structure human behaviour and consciousness is split between an external,ahistorical existence and the mind, which through its logical powers,re-creates that external world inside the body. 12 By reductionist scientificreasoning, the human body is perceived, by what Ehrenfeld would describe as “amechanistic organism”, that imprisons the world in its mind and operates onthat awareness according to some logical reasoning, propelling a mental computingmachine that is navigating its operations to manufacture pleasure.
Similarly, myview of the Cartesian idea is of a mind seizing information via the senses andshaping those images using “logical machinery”, which has led to a falsedepiction of the mental system as a computer with built-in logic. However,humanity and the world cannot be reduced to mechanical metaphors. Humanity andthe world are convoluted and behave in non-linear and erratic ways. Thisexercise, theoretically, is visualised as a value-freeendeavour, stripped of normativity, wherean ethical domain cannot be envisioned. In addition, reversibility, another main archetypaltheorem, is the principal cause of this and in reversible systems,directionality is futile.
13 Professor Edmond Byrne writes how it is “assumedthat “all else is equal”, using this to simplify complexities and effectivelybracket the social.” The outcome is a quick fix, established in the form of anever-increased efficiency. However, when repeated aftermaths of complex systemsrise, we label these as “unintended consequences”. Thus, from my understandingof the reductionist world, unintended consequences are someone else’s problemsto solve. In the world of complexity, no such easy alibi can be invoked. Hence,sustainability is lined up with the concept of progress. 14 Sustainabilityand progress, examined through the lens of the reductionist model of modernity,represent, as described by Byrne, “the ultimate destination on a directedlinear causal path”. The adventure along this road is fed by the philosophiesdeep-rooted in reductionist science such as a pointless techno-optimism,suppression of risk and uncertainty, blind hope in efficiency and positivisticand materialistic theories of science and reality.
Furthermore, by this dogma,the expansive scientific reality, paradigm shifting implications such as thedouble-edged nature of technology, including its deep-rooted increased tendencyfor disruption and susceptibility, are rejected. From my angle, technology standsbetween humanity and the world, and in that separation, something is absent,leading to the creation of a visible barrier on our path to sustainability. 15Byrne describes how “Essentially our modernistic goal of controlling theuncontrollable only serves to exacerbate the problems we have created”.
In myopinion, technology becomes a device that safeguards us from the disorderlinessof human experience and the responsibility of our actions. 16 From the wordsof Ehrenfeld “The root cause of unsustainability is that we are trying to solveall the apparent problems of the world, large and small, by using themodernistic frame of thinking and acting that has created the meta-problem ofunsustainability”. Similarly, in my perspective, humanity has concludedthat technological gadgets are the answer to meet the needs of both humans andthe world, alleviating humanity of the responsibility to reflect on those needsand act appropriately. Human life is essentially social; however, the vitalfunctions of relationships fall and disappear into the mindless abyss of socialmedia.
Developed technologies such as Facebook and Twitter are modifying theaspect of friendship from the element of relationships to the quantitative countof how many “friends” one is connected to. Slowly, as humans we become detachedfrom the world that humanity guides towards sustainability. 17 To venture outside limits of reductionism andgrasp a model of complexity, Byrne describes how Ehrenfeld “steps into thebreach and proposes a definition which envisages sustainability in qualitativeterms as an emergent system property.” 18 Therefore, Ehrenfeld proposes flourishingwhich is described as “the result of acting out of caring for oneself, otherhuman beings, the rest of the “real material” world, and for theout-of-the-world, that is, the spiritual or transcendental world”. This idea ofsustainability strongly places it outside limits of reductionism and inside thedimension of values, ethics and philosophical discussion, described by Byrnethrough the words of Ehrenfeld as “an entity built “not just on technologicaland material development, but also on cultural, personal and spiritualgrowth””. 19 From my standpoint, in relation to contemporary scientificconcepts of reality, this idea makes sense once a complexity informed theory ofscience is acknowledged and stretches outside limits of what Byrne woulddescribe as “a narrow reductionist materialism”.
4. Evaluation Personally, my understanding of the world has changed.I believe solving the issue of unsustainability is fixed in a mind-set thatprevents our aim of sustainability from surfacing.
However, this book hasopened my eyes to humanity’s addicted nature of solving problems through areductionist frame. In the past, I had envisioned the future as being bigger orbetter. However, such a path will keep us deep-rooted in the past.
To escape fromthe past, humanity must think in an entirely different manner. The modern ideaof sustainability, as sustainable development, is not a view for the future. Itis an adjustment of the modern process of economic development that itsadvocates claim, need not cause the catastrophic consequences of the past.Sustainable development is essentially instrumental. It suggests unique meansbut tired ends. In addition, at best, our present sustainable developmentstrategies can hardly endure the forces of unsustainability: a condition of theworld that is rare to provide the biological backing for human and other lifeor the humanistic and social underpinnings that make life purposeful. Few companieshave addressed the main cause of unsustainability. Alternatively, thepredominant mindset devises technological fixes, such as eco-efficiency.
It isa case of shifting the burden, or focusing on the syndrome rather than strikingthe dilemma at the roots. In my opinion, the fundamental condition usuallyreasserts itself in further astonishing ways, where society’s capacity tochange is crippled by the deception that humanity is addressing the problems,when, mankind is not.Thus, I have concluded that humanity needs athoroughly different way to envision sustainability and to consider and actabout it.
Humanity must establish a unique model of sustainability. Furthermore,sustainability can only surface when we embrace a new story that will changeour behaviour so flourishing presents itself in action. Personally, sustainabilityis about a world of flourishing and care. I feel that as a society, humanity isattached to fixing our problems through a reductionist frame. Sustainability isa holistic approach that takes a holistic position.
Reductionist solutions willnot satisfy. For example, considering greenhouse gas emissions and theirrelationship to global warming, the presently favoured policy is throughemissions trading and carbon taxes. These instruments are constructed to bringabout a minimisation of global emissions that gradually slows down theaccumulation of solar-energy-trapping gases. Relying on these “solutions”deviates attention away from striking the issue at its roots. As a futureProcess and Chemical Engineer, it will potentially be my role in the future toprovide innovative renewable energy sources that will disjoint this problem. AsÓ Gallachóir et al. highlight in Chapter 10, there are challenges associatedwith decarbonising the energy sector in Ireland with a focus on achieving the leastcost to the economy and society. The movement to a low carbon energy systemwill impact the economy, but it is difficult to visualise the nature of suchimpacts.
From my view, the interdisciplinarity of the energy modellingsuggested for 2050 and beyond should be extended through engaging with thesocial sciences to form new ways of dealing with these limitations. It isimportant to shift beyond scholarly disciplines and to engage with society. Althoughthis is a challenging concept, it is crucial. From my standpoint, humanity isdriven to believe that everything can be solved by technology. However, eventhough we may find solutions to the immediate issue, this perpetual way ofrelying on technology has the dangerous effect of producing the depreciation ofnature and humanistic capabilities. Firstly, I believe that humanity mustconceptualise sustainability in an aspect that incorporates the thoughts,beliefs and values of men and women.
It is paramount to confront the lack ofcaring and ethical conduct that makes the human species distinguishable fromother life. In the short-term, there are productive paths towardssustainability. Furthermore, these paths start with responsible, ethicaloptions in everyday life that help establish the right routines and mindsets. Inaddition, companies can help direct ethical behaviour through the design oftheir products and services. They can use tools to involve themselves in society’snormal behaviour, raising awareness of obsessive behaviour and transfer thatbehaviour towards sustainability. For example, to save water, the Netherlandsuse several toilets that are equipped with two flush buttons, one large and onesmall, allowing the user to make a mindful responsible decision.
Another exampleis the inclusion of speed bumps on roads, which warn drivers of unsafebehaviour. Secondly, humanity must change the modernist view that ismaintaining the ceaseless revolutions of the ferocious circle with anexpressive view of the world that can push us into the future. This demandssteady management from individuals in government and industry with thecapability to effect change and arouse people to our obsessive arrangements ofmodern life. In addition, the technology used and the institutions and infrastructurethat mould humanity’s social lives must be remodelled. In a way, humanity iscemented in the system that has created our problems.
By my reckoning, the oldtried but no longer true answers to sustainability need to be replaced withunique and effective ways to construct a sustainable future.