Institute for the Study of Cultural Evolution (ISCE)

The Institute for the Study of Cultural Evolution and the outline of sustainability that it uncovered were the product of young adults looking at the world with freshly forming minds.

In my early 20s I wanted to do something with my life. The question was, what needs doing?

It occurred to me that if I were to inquire of people who were working voluntarily on issues, or not for profit, that the things concerning them would turn out to be important. Why else would they commit their time and energy to such work?

I joined up with some other idealistic youth to form the ISCE. We spent our time looking up citizens' organizations of all kinds and asked them: What problems concern you? What solutions do you see for those problems? And how do you think that positive change can be accomplished?

In addition to what we were learning directly from citizens' groups, we looked into other material that they suggested was worthwhile.

At its peak, we were twenty young people in three rented houses in Ottawa. Part of our vision was to find land and build what would today be called an Eco-Village, but we were barely paying the rent and after four years, we disbanded.

Piles of notes remained from the study. I went through them, organizing them around similar issues. When that distillation was complete, it revealed the eight point outline central to this web site. It was a year later, in 1975, that a friend looked at the outline and said that it defined "sustainability." The word was not in circulation back then, but "the ability to sustain" seemed self evident and the outline clarified what needs to be considered to sustain humankind in the emerging era.

How is it that a study of voluntary and non-profit efforts would lead to a definition of sustainability? Eventually I realized that long-term well-being is the objective of practically all these efforts. Someone recognizes a problem or opportunity. They talk with people they know and put out messages looking for others who share the interest. Those who respond work together to improve the situation if they can, or at least keep it from deteriorating. If they are successful, well-being is sustained.

Whether the groups were working on issues of environment, development, peace, justice or the potentials of being human, they were all working on aspects of one common goal - sustainability. From this realization arose the Question of Direction. We do not have a confusing list of many possibilities to choose from, the question is a choice between two world views. When we are able to put this question on the table, in a way that cannot be ignored, the answer will be obvious and we might finally get this very competent civilization working to avoid its own demise. We hope you will join us in moving this basic choice forward.

The other interest of the study, how do societies change, yielded the underlying methods around which this web site and our present effort to shift society's goals revolve.

Questioning the Outline

The origin of the questions that invite people to pick the sustainability outline apart dates back to 1994 or 95, when Sheila Copps was Canada's Environment Minister.  I was co-chair of the Canadian Environmental Network's Environmental Education Caucus and had an opportunity at a CEN conference to ask the Minister a question.  I wanted to know if Environment Canada's understanding of what sustainability required was the same as ours.  She didn't answer directly, so I asked again and got another diversion. After the formal session was over I mentioned to an aide that I really wanted to know what Ms Copps' Department means when it talks about sustainability? He said that the Minister was committed to answering additional questions if they are 25 words or less and sent to her office in writing.  With some word-smithing, in reference to the eight point outline, I came up with:

Is this what you mean by sustainability?
If not, on what point or points do we differ?
For what reasons?
Is there anything missing?

Some time after I had sent the questions to her office, I called, still hoping for an answer.  More time, still nothing.  From time to time I enquired about the promised reply. Somewhere around the middle of January 1996, not long before she was shuffled on to another Department and then on to become Deputy Prime Minister, I did get a reply, acknowledging in a round about way that her understanding wasn't substantially different from ours. Unfortunately, with her no longer the Environment Minister, I couldn't follow up with a proposal for educational work around our shared goal of sustainability.

The four questions have proved useful ever since as we've used them to encourage people to think about the eight point outline.

In reply to the questions we've received a lot of agreement with the basic premiss.  One point was made, that led to a change in the wording of item #7. Previously it read that things are not sustainable when they "require resources in quantities that could never be available for people everywhere."  Turns out that a friend on Prince Edward Island was concerned because of the Malpeque Oyster.  People on PEI had been eating the oysters from Malpeque Bay for thousands of years. With a minimum of care, they would always be able to do so, but the oysters would never be available in quantities sufficient for people everywhere.  We changed the wording to: "require resources in quantities that undermine other people's well-being."

The other interesting response was from an individual who was responsible for a million dollar a year sustainability education program in Canadian schools.  The program was a direct response to the Brundtland Commission's call in "Our Common Future" for a "vast campaign of education, debate and public participation."

That the World Commission on Environment and Development was calling for broad public education on the matter thrilled me. I'd been jousting at that windmill for more than a decade. Students could learn a great deal about sustainability simply by reading the eight point outline along with an invitation to pick it apart, the same as we are proposing here.

I arranged to meet with the person responsible for the national school program and explained what we were trying to do. To determine if our approach would be relevant, I asked if their understanding of sustainability was similar to ours.  I didn't get an answer at the meeting.

I would have been delighted with a contract to take the method we'd developed into the schools. I would have been almost as happy for them to take our process and use it themselves, without our getting anything in return.  That is, after all, the nature of non-profit work.  It has to be done, one way or another.  I can always make furniture for money.

Anyway, I didn't hear back about what the program meant by sustainability, so I left phone messages and emails asking again.  I never did get a reply.

Some years later, at a conference, I was offered a seat next to the individual. I took the opportunity to ask him again, directly, was his understanding of sustainability similar to ours?  He told me that he was annoyed that I kept asking and he knew a lot of other people who were annoyed.

Humm.  I'd welcome an explanation for why a question aiming to clarify this critically important issue should be annoying.  All I can think of is that the fossil fuel industry is a source of funding, not to mention the physical (and perhaps political) power that runs almost everything in our society. Could it be that they don't want acknowledgement that things are not sustainable when they "require continual inputs of non-renewable resources"?

Sustainability Cards

Business card size copies of the sustainability outline have been available since the early 1970s. A small business think tank had offered us a free session, to see what they could come up with to help spread the idea of sustainability. Among many suggestions they made was to put the sustainability outline on business cards.

We tried it and the cards have been well received ever since. The message on the side opposite the outline has evolved over time. For many years, we printed people's business cards, at cost, if the outline could tag along on the backs. We produced over 200 sets of personalized cards for various individuals and organizations. To date we have distributed more than 800,000 cards, mostly of the generic types pictured, along with a full explanation, at Seeds for Change.