1. part of the book review, six chapters which

1.   
Introduction

Establishing
how a university can, in a logical and practical sense, be re-envisioned
through a disciplinary informed frame, “Transdisciplinary Perspectives on
Transitions to Sustainability” edited by Edmond Byrne, Gerard Mullaly and Colin
Sage, portrays how through an open and scholarly character of inquiry, the most
varied issue of contemporary societal unsustainability can be addressed and
understood in a way that eclipses cramped disciplinary work. In addition, a
practical epitome of how more essential options for action in relation to
contemporary sustainability-related crises can crop up than could be accomplished. The book exhibits how only real
progress can be achieved through a transdisciplinary ethos and approach. 1 Professor Edmond Byrne is a Senior Lecturer in
Process & Chemical Engineering, Dr.
Gerard Mullaly is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and finally Dr. Colin Sage is a Senior Lecturer in
Geography at University College Cork, Ireland. All three are lead collaborators
on the “Sustainability in Society” transdisciplinary research group at University
College Cork. 2 Transdisciplinary, by definition of the Oxford dictionary,
is: “Relating to more than one branch of knowledge; interdisciplinary”.
Considering much has been written about transdisciplinary and sustainability,
this book provides a logical pattern which signposts the way others can follow
in the common journey for real progress. The chapters in this book consist of a
range of different viewpoints on making the transition to sustainability that
can only come to fruition by overcoming a path of obstacles. However, while the
creators of this book stem from different respective backgrounds, the sections
contained within this book in an exacting sense, cannot be proven to be
integrated solely around transdisciplinarity. The chapters within this book, in
varying scope, briefly reach transdisciplinarity. However, among this
collective, a burning ember of ambition lies at the centre, to look outward and candidly, connected with a disciplinary
bashfulness which is an important basis for convincing and legitimate transdisciplinary
conversations and abstract knowledge formation. The collaborators share an
admirable enthusiasm and spirit of
inquiry which has led them to venture beyond the bounds of normal disciplinary
barriers, delving into new synergetic possibilities outside university walls. Due
to the prevailing mood of techno-scientific rationality that has prevailed
throughout the Irish higher education, a collaborative effort has been made by
the editors to find a means of evolving interdisciplinary partnership within
the university; seeking others who share similar anxieties for the need of a
united push to work on the philosophical and interconnected challenges faced in
the present world.

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2.   
Overview

As
part of the book review, six chapters which I found particularly insightful
were selected. In the first part of the book, “Setting the Scene”, which
consists of three chapters, the book’s editors turn their attention to a series
of applicable facets of the essence of transdisciplinarity, most notably in the
context of sustainability. 3 Following this includes a chapter by Professor
Edmond Byrne, which analyses some paradigms of sustainability, which are
established on a “process, relational, dialectical and integrative view” of
convoluted reality, and which detail to expansive “ontological, historical,
social and scientific contexts”. This promotes an exposure of transdisciplinary
thinking, a framework that is both involved in the recognition and
understanding of, and is required to construct, the preceding understandings. 4
In this context, it is presented how such a model and ideology can add to a
redirection of the commanding conception of progress, veering from the monist
ideal and approaching one which would consider it in an argumentative and
contingent sense, to encourage “integrative (ecological-, social-,
techno-economic-) system sustainability-as-flourishing”. These chapters are
followed by the key part of the book on “Transdisciplinary Conversation and
Conceptions”. Byrne follows on from his previous chapter with a view across
four contrasting areas to indicate how a modern and rising model, based on the
transdisciplinary approach of complicated thought,
is embodying itself in varying but comprehensible ways, across disciplinary
conceptions of existence. These areas scope from the tough scientific to the
socio-technical and from the socio-economic to the profound and abstract. These
areas relate specifically to: Chemical phase equilibrium thermodynamics,
Electrical power generation and transmission and distribution, Management and leadership
and Influence of process thought and integrative thinking on theology. In
chapter 10, Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir, Dr Paul Deane and Dr Alessandro
Chiodi acknowledge how modelling respective energy futures schemes can support
policy decisions. 5 Modelled schemes are presented for the energy blend in
the Republic of Ireland within this chapter in the hope of carbon emission
targets being lessened over the impending 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 carbon dioxide emission levels”, need
not important alterations to renewables, but additionally critical reductions
in overall energy consumption. A lot more than a technological adjustment is required,
a matter that the collaborators acknowledge alongside additional restraints of
the model. This conclusively leads to a crucial stride to expand the learning that
would not be primarily reliant on communicating with a variety of other
disciplines, but in a quality of transdisciplinarity, to also communicate with
society on a more widened scope.

6
The final chapter is a contemplative section, conducted by the editors, which
deals with the campaign so far and concentrates on “emergent possibilities” and
tasks around the utilisation of transdisciplinary approaches within, without
and across the university.

3. A Paradigm of
reduction and separation

A Paradigm of reduction and separation is an idea that
I found very striking and insightful. 7 Sustainability, as defined by John R.
Ehrenfeld, is the “possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the
planet forever.” 8 Ehrenfeld would plea that principal narratives around
sustainability use the idea in a form that excludes the encouragement of
flourishing, a word defined by John as “the realisation of a sense of
completeness, independent of our immediate material context”, but wholly
involves the increasing material consumption and consideration of the financial
bottom line.             9 Ehrenfeld and Hoffman make the point that
by “reducing unsustainability, although critical, does not and will not create
sustainability”. 10 Although this idea is tough to visualise at first, in my
view, Byrne describes “The way they advertise and publicise their (green)
program lulls the public into believing that the firms are taking care of the
future (but) almost everything being done in the name of sustainability entails
attempts to reduce unsustainability.” From my observation, many companies nowadays
provide glossy “sustainability reports” along with their annual reports as indicators
of their work and achievement. In my opinion, the dilemma is that none of this
altruism builds authentic sustainability. At best, it briefly slows humanity’s progressing
drift towards unsustainability. At worst, it serves as feel-good marketing for
products and services that deteriorate and contaminate our environment. From my
observation, to get companies to change their direction in a serious way, the
adjustment has to come from within the business walls, either from leadership
or from the businesses customers or stakeholders. This claim on companies is supported
by Ehrenfeld, who describes in his book “Flourishing”, by saying that, for
example, Coca-Cola create an absurdity by broadcasting their environmentally
oriented water management programs while supplying the ever-growing problem of
obesity around the world. 11 As Byrne describes, “”Reducing unsustainability”
here manifests itself as the concept of “sustainable development””, where
“sustainable development” is defined by John R. Ehrenfeld as “conventional
economic development as the best way for human beings to move forward, 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 call for eco-efficiency,
which by in large, is a good thing in the short term.

Personally, I feel this idea remains firmly established,
relaxing on the impression that the more cash-laden
a nation and its individuals are, the better off they will be. There is a great
contrast in wealth between the North and South of the world and an explicit
awareness of this contrast needs to be developed. It is a call to arms to share
the resources available on this planet more reasonably, both for the present
and the foreseeable future. By grouping together less harmful material
consumption and incorporating more reasonability in the sharing of the
prosperity of those resources, a satisfying temporary path is forged. However,
critically, it is not a solution. 12 It is a path, as defined by Byrne,
“which can never hope to wean society off its unsustainable habit of
growth-based consumerism”. It is paramount to change the structural way we live
from my standpoint. My impression is that although it is imperative to be more
efficient and to reduce impacts, this will not transport us toward
sustainability. Principal models and ideas of sustainability originate from and associate with the commanding social
paradigm. 13 This is described by Byrne as the “modern neo-Cartesian paradigm
which has obtained and developed over the past four centuries or so.” The main
neo-Cartesian paradigm of reduction and separation would weaken the theory of
sustainability by separating the composition of sustainability’s three domains
of environment, society and economy and visualise that they can be handled, as
Byrne describes, “as part of a bigger reductive zero-sum game where overspills from
one domain can conveniently be accounted for as quantifiable externalities”. In
Cartesian thinking, we become detached
from the world, 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. 14 By reductionist scientific
reasoning, the human body is perceived as, what Ehrenfeld would describe as “a
mechanistic organism”, that imprisons the world in its mind and operates on
that awareness according to some logical calculus reasoning, propelling a
mental computing machine that is always navigating its operations to
manufacture the most pleasure. My view of the Cartesian idea is of a mind seizing
the information coming in via the senses and shaping those images using our
so-called “logical machinery”, which has led to a false depiction of the mental
system as a computer with built-in logic. However, humanity and the world
cannot be reduced to such a mechanical metaphor. Humanity and the world are
convoluted and behave in non-linear and erratic ways. Complexity does not
eliminate the discovery of truths about the world that can be used to construct
and manage it, but the scientific approach cannot be trusted upon to achieve
all of the knowledge required. Our knowledge of the world today will always be
fragmentary. By accepting this, we can adapt and act accordingly.

This exercise, in
theory, is visualised as a value-free endeavour,
stripped of normativity, where an ethical domain cannot be visualised nor contained. Reversibility,
another main archetypal theorem, is the principal cause of this and in reversible
systems, directionality is futile. 15 Professor Edmond Byrne writes how it is
“assumed that “all else is equal”, using this as a mechanism to simplify
complexities and effectively bracket the social (and its accompanying baggage
of values).” The outcome is that a quick fix is established in the form of an
ever-increased efficiency, but when repeated aftermaths of complex systems
inevitably rise, we label these as “unintended consequences”. From observation,
in the reductionist world, unintended consequences are always someone else’s
problems to solve. In the world of complexity, no such easy alibi can be
invoked. Hence, sustainability is lined up with the concept of progress. 16
Sustainability and progress, examined through the lens of the reductionist
model of modernity, represents, as described by Byrne, “the ultimate
destination on a directed linear causal path”. The adventure along this road is
fed by the philosophies deep-rooted in reductionist science such as a pointless
techno-optimism, suppression of risk and uncertainty, blind hope in efficiency
and positivistic and materialistic theories of science and reality. By this
dogma, the expansive scientific reality, paradigm shifting implications such as
the double-edged nature of technology, including its deep-rooted increased
tendency for disruption and susceptibility, are essentially rejected. From my
angle, technology stands between humanity and the world, and in that
separation, something is absent, leading to the creation of a clear and visible
barrier on our path to sustainability which hinders our progress. 17 Byrne
makes the point that “Essentially our modernistic goal of controlling the
uncontrollable only serves to exacerbate the problems we have created”.
Technology becomes a device that safeguards us from the disorderliness of human
experience and the responsibility of our actions. 18 From the words of
Ehrenfeld “The root cause of unsustainability is that we are trying to solve
all the apparent problems of the world, large and small, by using the
modernistic frame of thinking and acting that has created the meta-problem of unsustainability”.
In my perspective, humanity has concluded that technological gadgets are the
answer to meet the needs of both humans and the world, alleviating us of the
responsibility to reflect on those needs and act appropriately. Furthermore,
with information technology, the situation becomes worse as our most
affectionate and confidential communications become mediated by technology. Human
life as we know it is essentially social, however, the richness and vital
functions of relationships fall and disappear into the abyss of the mindless
use of social media. By my reckoning, nowadays, technologies that have
developed such as Linked In, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are modifying the
aspect of friendship from the element of relationships to the quantitative count
of how many so-called “friends” one is connected to. From my view, the crucial
input of key relationships to our ability to flourish becomes hidden. Slowly,
as humans we become detached from the world that we would guide towards
sustainability. 19 To venture outside the limits of reductionism and grasp a
model of complexity, Byrne describes how Ehrenfeld “steps into the breach and
proposes a definition which envisages sustainability in qualitative terms as an
emergent system property.” From my view, complexity refers to a system whose
elements are multiply attached, that it is impractical to anticipate how the
system will act when bothered. As discussed previously, sustainability becomes
possible when we first identify what it is that we are sustaining. 20
Therefore, Ehrenfeld proposes the property of flourishing which is described by
Ehrenfeld as a “dynamic quality changing as its context changes”. 21
Flourishing is “the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human
beings, the rest of the “real material” world, and for the out-of-the-world,
that is, the spiritual or transcendental world”.  This idea of sustainability strongly places it
outside the limits of reductionism and alternatively inside the dimension of
values, ethics and philosophical discussion, described by Byrne through the
words of Ehrenfeld as “an entity built “not just on technological and material
development, but also on cultural, personal and spiritual growth””. 22 From
my standpoint, in relation to contemporary scientific concepts of reality, this
idea makes sense once a complexity informed theory of science is acknowledged
and stretches outside the limits of what Byrne would describe as “a narrow
reductionist materialism”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.   
Evaluation

Upon evaluation of the six chapters of interest in the
book “Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Transitions to Sustainability”,
personally, my understanding of the worldview has changed. I believe that the
method to solving the issue of unsustainability, nowadays, is fixed in a
mind-set that prevents our aim of sustainability from surfacing. From my
standpoint, this book has opened my eyes to humanity’s addicted nature of
solving day to day problems through a reductionist frame. In the past, I have
always envisioned the future as being bigger or better. However, from reading
the book, I have come to realise that such a path will always keep us
deep-rooted in the past. To break free from the past, we must think in an
entirely different manner. The modern idea of sustainability, as sustainable
development, is not a view for the future. It is purely an adjustment of the
modern process of economic development that its advocates claim, theoretically,
need not cause the awfully catastrophic consequences of the past. Sustainable
development is essentially instrumental. It suggests unique means but tired
ends. At best, our present sustainable development strategies can hardly endure
the forces of unsustainability: a condition of the world that is rare to
provide either the biological backing for human and other life or the humanistic
and social underpinnings that make life purposeful. In our world today, few
companies have addressed the main cause of our addiction to consumption, that
is, unsustainability. Alternatively, the predominant mindset devises
technological fixes, such as eco-efficiency. It is a case of shifting the
burden, or focusing on the syndrome rather than striking the dilemma at the roots.
In my opinion, the fundamental condition usually reasserts itself in further
astonishing ways, where our capacity to change is crippled by the deception that
humanity is addressing the problems, when in reality, we are not. Therefore, I
have concluded that we, as humans, need a thoroughly different way to envision
sustainability and to consider and act about it. We must establish a
fundamentally unique model of sustainability. Sustainability can only surface
when we embrace a new story that will change our behaviour so flourishing presents
itself in action. Personally, I feel sustainability is ultimately a story about
a world of flourishing and care. I feel that as a society, we are attached to
fixing our problems through a reductionist frame. Sustainability is a holistic approach
that takes an equally holistic position to attain. Reductionist solutions will
not satisfy. If we take for example, greenhouse gas emissions and their
relationship to global warming, the presently favoured policy is through
emissions trading and carbon taxes. These instruments are constructed to bring
about a minimisation of global emissions that gradually slows down, but does
not stop, the accumulation of solar-energy-trapping gases.

Relying on these “solutions” deviates attention away
from striking the issue at its roots. In my professional practice as a Process
and Chemical Engineer, it will potentially be my role in the future to provide
innovative renewable energy sources that will disjoint this problem.

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