Michael Ben-EliThe Sustainability Laboratory, with permission
In December 2021, the Eva Haller Salon had the honor of featuring Michael Ben-Eli, a close colleague of Buckminster Fuller, to lead a discussion about his holistic, systems-based approach to sustainability. Ben-Eli’s innovative approach is on display in the work of his Sustainability Project, below, which is nothing short of revolutionary. But before we get into radical and innovative solutions to the question of sustainability, who is Michael Ben-Eli?
Michael Ben-Eli is the founder of The Sustainability Laboratory, established in 2008 to develop and demonstrate ground-breaking approaches to sustainability practices that produce positive, life-affirming impacts on people and ecosystems in all parts of the world. As the author of the widely acclaimed Five Core Sustainability Principles (below), he has inspired leaders in business, government, and local communities, and works with youth to accelerate a peaceful transition to a sustainable future.
The prevailing definition of sustainable development--taking care of current needs without jeopardizing future needs, is lacking. It is ambiguous and offers little clear operational guidance. Our current civilization is in a dangerous, vicious cycle, marked by an old way of thinking and doing things, blocking necessary change. These conditions require second order change, a deep transformation: The Sustainability Laboratory is working to demonstrate examples of what change that transforms the system itself—our way of being in the world—might look like.
At the Eva Haller Salon last December, Ben-Eli was interviewed by Elizabeth Thompson, former director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Thompson noted that Ben-Eli’s approach to sustainability had been deeply influenced by Fuller, the design science pioneer, with whom Ben-Eli collaborated early on in his career. The two pioneers worked on research involving advanced structural systems and the management of technology and resources for the advantage of all people and all living things.
Ben-Eli explained the severity of the challenge of creating a sustainable world in A Note From the Founder on his website:
In the Sixties, when Fuller was advocating his World Design Science Program, there were just over three billion people on the planet. There are now nearly seven billion, and another two billion people are likely to be added by 2050. There is absolutely no precedence for managing a peaceful, harmonious existence of nine billion people on the planet. The adverse impacts of rapid resource depletion and the reality of whole ecosystems overwhelmed by waste byproducts generated by human activity are alarming, yet they continue unabated. Broad-based awareness of the issues and recognition of the need for change are expanding rapidly, and today, there is a worldwide flurry of activity by individuals, groups and organizations of all kinds, all addressing one aspect of sustainability or another. Yet many key components of the biosphere continue to show serious signs of stress. Why? It appears that the world is trapped in a syndrome whereby a dominant but no longer relevant mindset--deeply embedded in the culture, in most existing institutions, in the established ways of doing things, in the very fabric of civilization itself-is unable to produce effective new solutions from within its existing frame of reference. Most current efforts are simply not conceived of at the level required for comprehensive transformation.
The required change is profound, Ben-Eli said, “It has to cover all key dimensions of the human experience, including our mental models, assumptions, and approaches to technology, the economy, governance, and the way organizations work. And, most importantly, it must include how we interact with each other and with other species in the biosphere, and what our most sacred, fundamental values are.”
The Sustainability Lab
Said Ben-Eli, “Humanity is facing an unprecedented challenge, one that ultimately changes the way we manage human affairs.” Ben-Eli’s work at The Sustainability Lab demonstrates how the solutions must come from outside the old ways of doing things that brought us to the brink of crisis in the first place: “Even the term ‘sustainability,’ a relatively recent addition to our lexicon, has been widely and indiscriminately used to the point of trivialization.” Instead, The Sustainability Laboratory claims that when used as an organizing principle, sustainability takes on a whole new meaning:
We hold that the ultimate objective of establishing the concept of sustainability as an organizing principle is to foster a well-functioning alignment between individuals, society, the economy, and the regenerative capacity of the planet’s life-supporting ecosystems. This alignment represents a particular type of balance in the interaction between a population and the carrying capacity of its environment. It is this specific balance that must be the focus of a meaningful, operational definition of sustainability.
The work of the Lab is based on a proactive, holistic, and impactful science-based approach that is multidisciplinary, multi-institutional, and multi-sector, and seeks nothing less than to produce a vehicle for advancing effective sustainability in the service of humankind.
Dr. Ben-Eli is leading the development of the Lab as a world-wide network of advanced research, development, and education centers, based in different ecological zones.
Project Wadi Attir’s herd of goats and sheep out grazing in the regenerated farmlands onsiteMichael Ben-Eli, with permission
During his talk at the Eva Haller Salon, he spoke in some detail about the Lab's flagship project, Project Wadi Attir in the Negev desert, where in collaboration with a Bedouin community and researchers from local academic institutions, the Lab transformed a piece of desert into a thriving and rich ecosystem. The project, he said, “is dependent on understanding and enacting a self-reinforcing diversity, integrating soil, land contours, the right plants, atmospheric conditions, and many other elements of the environment: Designing for ecosystem diversity is key.”
The Lab teaches four interrelated areas of competence for catalyzing deep change, including how to approach development projects, technological innovations, green economics, and education. Most development projects, for example, are sector or issue-specific, while the issues are comprehensive and multifaceted, requiring a whole systems approach. Governments, organizations, and businesses are beset with fragmentation: “The world today is a complex system, but we deal with it as a trivial and mechanical device: following the principles of Newton and classical science is simply not enough,” he told MY HERO.
MY HERO asked Dr. Ben-Eli to tell us more about his theory of change:
First off, change defies prediction, so we need to cultivate people who are able to map the bigger picture and understand the variables and interactions in the system – this is key to identifying the leverage point for change.Taking a holistic view― not yet a part of mainstream thinking― is absolutely essential. We need to educate people to be more comfortable with uncertainty and to use the design approach, focusing on designing for preferred end-states, rather than on problem solving, in order to bring about substantive change.
Ben-Eli on Education
An educational nonprofit, MY HERO was especially interested in hearing Ben-Eli's views on education. He had stated on his website: “In order for change to occur in education, the new [sustainability] paradigm must become part of people’s most innermost consciousness. Broad-based sustainability literacy is an essential component of the necessary transformation.”
“Most importantly,” he told MY HERO, “We need to teach people not to be scared of the impossible: it is the only thing that is worthwhile.” As it exists, the educational system focuses on telling you what you can’t do: inherent human creativity is being squashed. “The existing system apparatus is educating for what it needs, and thus perpetuates itself,” he says. In essence, it’s ultimately a problem of purpose and values.
There are big challenges in education, Ben-Eli said: “There’s a lot of dogma, so students need to be exposed to systems and sustainability thinking about people in connection to the environment, and to develop an instinct and an intuition that directs appropriate behavior in the world, building on ancient wisdom traditions and the deeper meaning of the term 'sustainability.' It’s a different way of looking at the world.” He also noted the importance of a robust practice component with actual development projects, which is exactly what the Lab is doing in its summer program, the Lab’s Global Sustainability Fellowship Program.
As part of its educational initiative, The Sustainability Lab is working to provide sustainability training programs for future leaders in business and government, special programs for students at all levels, and dissemination of material on sustainability for the public. Ben-Eli told MY HERO that the Lab is still piloting its summer program, which is geared to graduate students from all disciplines. In its last (pre-pandemic) session in 2018, the Lab had 18 students from 17 countries. There's great demand for the program: without advertising, the Lab received 267 applications from 67 countries for that summer session. Dr. Ben-Eli’s hope is that through the program, future leaders will be better informed. Creating leaders for our future that understand sustainability is a major goal that his work shares with MY HERO.
The Lab’s Five Core Principles, described on the Lab’s website, are central to the Lab’s work and its sustainability training. These are principles you cannot violate if you wish to achieve an enduring sustainability state: The Five Core Principles relate to five key domains: the Material Domain, the Economic Domain, the Domain of Life, the Social Domain, and the Spiritual Domain.
THE FIVE CORE PRINCIPLES:
THE MATERIAL DOMAIN
Constitutes the basis for regulating the flow of materials and energy that underlie existence.
The First Principle: Contain entropy and ensure that the flow of resources, through and within the economy, is as nearly non-declining as is permitted by physical laws.
Provides a guiding framework for creating and managing wealth.
The Second Principle: Adopt an appropriate accounting system to guide the economy, fully aligned with the planet’s ecological processes and reflecting true, comprehensive biospheric pricing.
Provides the basis for appropriate behavior in the biosphere.
The Third Principle: Ensure that the essential diversity of all forms of life in the biosphere is maintained.
Provides the basis for social interactions.
The Fourth Principle: Maximize degrees of freedom and potential self-realization of all humans without any individual or group adversely affecting others.
- THE SPIRITUAL OR VALUES DOMAIN
Identifies the necessary attitudinal orientation and provides the basis for a universal code of ethics.
The Fifth Principle:
Recognize the seamless, dynamic continuum
Of mystery wisdom, love, energy and matter
That links the outer reaches of the cosmos
With our solar system, our planet and its biosphere
Including all humans, with our internal metabolic systems
And their externalized extensions —
Embody this recognition in a universal ethics
For guiding human action.
“This blueprint is informed by Cybernetics,” Ben-Eli explains, “a discipline which provides the necessary conceptual framework for understanding how complex systems work, how they function, adapt, and evolve: interaction, interdependence and collaboration are key to achieving the impossible."
On Climate Change
In spite of growing awareness and expanding discussion, the damage afflicted by un-thoughtful human activity continuous unabated. Ben-Eli said to MY HERO,
In April 2022 alone, we witnessed the biggest damage ever to the Amazon Rainforest. How much time do we have to turn things around? Are we moving fast enough?... Current efforts to change are focused on the wrong things. Rather than focusing on just emissions – ameliorating symptoms, we need to exit fossil fuels: the main engines of climate change are the oil and gas industries and the current economic accounting that does not take into account the value of critical external factors (externalities).
Ben-Eli asks what could be, rather than focusing on a crisis that paralyzes us, numbs us, overwhelms us: leaving us powerless. In a recent interview with Voices for the Future webinar series, he asks: “What kind of world do we want to create?” His answer? “It depends on what we do now.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Michael Ben-Eli brings together experiences in systems theory, cybernetics, and decades of work synthesizing strategy issues with multinational enterprises, manufacturing companies, financial institutions, health care and educational organizations, government agencies, NGOs, and international multilateral organizations.
Dr. Ben Eli graduated from the Architectural Association in London and later received a Ph.D. from the Institute of Cybernetics at Brunel University, where he studied under Gordon Pask.
The Mission of The Sustainability Laboratory:
At The Sustainability Laboratory, we work to address urgent sustainability challenges facing the planet by creating and demonstrating effective tools for catalyzing radical change:
To act as a catalyst for accelerating the transition of world society and its economy to a sustainable basis by researching, developing, demonstrating and facilitating the adoption of breakthrough sustainability practices, thereby expanding prospects, and producing positive, life-affirming impacts on people and ecosystems in all parts of the world
LINKS for more information:
The Sustainability Laboratory: http://www.sustainabilitylabs.org
The Eva Haller Salon Series: /evasalonseries
Voices for the future with Michael Ben-Eli: