Designing a ‗Big Wheel‘ for Civilization

Everyone who has ridden a tricycle understands the fact that

three wheels are more stable than one or two. In fact, a

three-legged stool gives greater stability than one with four

(or more) legs when the surface on which the stool sits is

not perfectly level.

We also have learned that the simple balance of three

applies not only to working with the laws of gravity, but to

all aspects of life, hence the triple bottom line of sustainable

development. What is harder to understand is why humans

have so much difficulty applying this basic scientific fact

through better balanced public and private policy.

Our current predicament is reminiscent of a comment that world-class architect and sustainability pioneer

William McDonough commonly makes in his presentations as he circles the globe with a Cradle to

Cradle design message of hope for a future civilization where “waste equals food.” Having witnessed his

presentations in person and on video numerous times, we still chuckle with the audience at the irony as

McDonough delivers one of his standard lines to illustrate the situation in which we find ourselves. “If we‟re so

smart,” he snidely remarks, “why did it take us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage?”

Our Past Cycles of History

The truth, as McDonough well knows, is that humans do not have a good

record when it comes to building sustainable civilizations. Civilizations

throughout time have made the same errors which have caused their downfall.

According to research, such as documented in Jared Diamond‟s book


History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they

tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn’t come as much

of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs,

and hence peak vulnerability.

After telling the stories of particular societies that collapsed, Diamond asks


What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward:

take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the

past, and they are even more likely to do so now.

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