Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Success, is it possible?- Chapter 11

During class on Tuesday I was thinking about how to gauge if any sustainable practices actually work. It sounds like an easy question, but how do you really know if you and your community were successful in attempting to create a sustainable community? I sought answers in chapter 11 only to discover that gauging success is incredibly difficult.

Hallsmith begins the chapter explaining that humans are great at problem solving through specially designed programs. She then says the pitfall of this is that people tend to end up caring more about if the program goes as according to plan than if the program actually achieves its purpose. The sight of the big picture is often lost. This is one of three problems that Hallsmith acknowledges in evaluating success. She describes it as the lack of a holistic approach. In an example, Hallsmith discusses this problem as a “vicious cycle” of “grow grow grow”. It is very difficult to know when to step back and analyze the progress based on the original objective.

Another difficulty in gauging success is the tendency to judge the progress of a program based on activities rather than results. Most sustainable programs do not have the resources to get the information that will tell them the impact they had on their surrounding environment. Hallsmith calls this “the activity trap” when progress is gauged based on secondary measures such as amount of people trained in sustainable living or the number of energy efficient materials that were installed in the lifetime of the program. Although this may be a decent subjective indicator of the success of a program, there is no guarantee that these activities actually had any affect on the planet’s natural systems. In an account about a California based group called Common Ground the success was measured based on the semi-celebrities that attended an event… no way to gauge actual environmental impact.

One of the most risky aspects of beginning a sustainability program is the repercussions it may have on externalities. Some programs may be deemed successful as they had “solved” the problem at hand, but in the process of solving this problem new ones were created. Can an instance such as this really be considered a “success”?

This is why “indicators” are the best gauge as to the success of a program. These indicators are based on natural phenomena; for example, how an ecosystem is doing based on the number of salmon swimming upstream. In a concluding statement, Hallsmith writes that “Ultimately, the success of efforts to improve sustainability in communities will be evaluated based on whether or not all the human needs are satisfied…” In other words, it is virtually impossible to claim a sustainability program is entirely successful.

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