What is “Humane Sustainable Culture”?

AS A VISION AND IDEAL it is really very simple. Here are some quick definitions:

  • A good life for all life that can be passed on to everyone’s great, great … grandchildren
  • A culture (or society) that is meaningful and satisfying to its members today and that does not need to destroy or deplete its environment in order to be that way.

Yet as simple and almost universally appealing as this vision is,

  • our present global society is, by these definitions, neither humane nor sustainable
  • there is no broad understanding or consensus on how to get from where we are to a humane and sustainable way of life.

Context Institute exists to help bridge this gap and has the mission to “serve as an effective catalyst for signficant cultural change toward a humane and sustainable world.”

When we began our work in 1979, few people thought in terms of “sustainability,” much less “humane sustainable culture.” Today the concept of “sustainable development” has become commonplace in the policy discussions of international bodies like the UN and many national governments. Yet there remains much to be done. We intend to keep “pushing the envelope” and exploring the growing edge of what, over the next few decades, just could be the worldwide emergence of a humane and sustainable future.

For more on how we approach “humane sustainable culture,” “sustainability,” “sustainable development,” and “the sustainability movement,” please look at the following:

And, of course, all of the issues of IN CONTEXT: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture.


By Robert Gilman
from the 1992 UIA/AIA “Call for Sustainable Community Solutions”

What is “sustainability,” and why is it generating so much interest? In its broadest scope, sustainability refers to the ability of a society, ecosystem, or any such on-going system to continue functioning into the indefinite future without being forced into decline through the exhaustion or overloading of key resources on which that system depends.

In the case of society, those resources might be material, such as fuels or topsoil; they might be social, such as educational levels or the sense of fair play; or they might be waste-absorbing natural systems, such as wetlands or the atmosphere.

Given this definition, it is not surprising that there are grave concerns about the sustainability of today’s human societies. Consider just two examples from a long a growing list of concerns:

  • World per capita grain production has been in decline since the mid 1980s due to soil degradation and the loss of farmland, and shows every sign of declining still further in the coming decades. The world fish catch shows a similar pattern as fisheries around the world are over-fished and exhausted. Yet world population, and thus the need for more food, continues to grow.
  • Industrial society is overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, and continues to build its physical plant as if these fuels will be cheaply available forever, in spite of the fact that world oil discoveries peaked in 1962, and every year damage from acid rain and concern about CO2-produced global warming grow greater.

More generally, we are using nonrenewable resources as if they were in infinite supply, we are pouring wastes into the environment as if they could be infinitely absorbed, we are harvesting renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, and we are allowing our numbers to grow as if there will always be “more” – more land, more food, more everything. Our society has not yet comprehended that the world is indeed round. If we persist in this ignorance, business-as-usual will lead humanity (and millions of other species) to a very grim future in the coming decades.

Fortunately, business-as-usual is not the only path open to us. Many specialists in the area of sustainable development are convinced that humanity could have a bright future if the whole world:

  • made use of currently proven technologies and techniques 1) to greatly improve the efficiency of our resource use, 2) to greatly reduce our waste-stream going into the environment, and 3) to maintain and conserve renewable resource systems, like topsoil, fisheries, forests, and water supplies
  • stabilized the human population through such proven techniques as the broad availability of birth control means and enhanced quality of life for women and families
  • stabilized overall consumption of resources through switching, especially in industrialized countries, to a focus on “better” and “enough” (quality) rather than “more” (quantity).

All three of these steps are within our human capability. Our future depends on whether we take them.

If we do succeed in developing a sustainable society, it is likely that it will have the following characteristics:

  • All material processes will be designed to be cyclical. There will be no such thing as waste or pollution, only outputs from one system serving as assimilatable inputs to another.
  • The driving physical energy used by society will be renewable solar energy, either directly or in forms such as wind, hydropower, and biomass.
  • The human population and the quantity of material goods will be stable in size (or gradually declining). This does not imply a static society, for changes in quality can continue unabated; indeed they may accelerate.

The Architects’ Chicago Declaration

What follows is the text of the UIA (Union Internationale des Architects)/AIA (American Institute of Architects) “Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future,” created at the World Congress of Architects, June 1993. The Congress was attended by more than 10,000 design professionals from around the world and had the theme of “Architecture at the Crossroads: Designing for a Sustainable Future.”

The process of creating it went as follows: Context Institute Director Robert Gilman was asked by the UIA and AIA to create a draft declaration in conjunction with a group of four architects from around the world. They distributed a few thousand copies of that draft to the Congress and asked for feedback. Over the next day or so they incorporated that feedback and shaped the final document. The UIA and AIA presidents signed it and then read the commitment part of the declaration to the closing plenary session. Large banners were available after the session for individuals to sign-on to the declaration — which about 3000 participants did.


Declaration of Interdependence
for a Sustainable Future

UIA/AIA World Congress of Architects
Chicago, 18-21 June 1993

In recognition that:

A sustainable society restores, preserves, and enhances nature and culture for the benefit of all life, present and future; * a diverse and healthy environment is intrinsically valuable and essential to a healthy society; * today’s society is seriously degrading the environment and is not sustainable;

We are ecologically interdependent with the whole natural environment; * we are socially, culturally, and economically interdependent with all of humanity; * sustainability, in the context of this interdependence, requires partnership, equity, and balance among all parties;

Buildings and the built environment play a major role in the human impact on the natural environment and on the quality of life; * sustainable design integrates consideration of resource and energy efficiency, healthy buildings and materials, ecologically and socially sensitive land-use, and an aesthetic sensitivity that inspires, affirms, and ennobles; * sustainable design can significantly reduce adverse human impacts on the natural environment while simultaneously improving quality of life and economic well being;

We commit ourselves, as members of the world’s architectural and building-design professions, individually and through our professional organizations, to:

  • Place environmental and social sustainability at the core of our practices and professional responsibilities
  • Develop and continually improve practices, procedures, products, curricula, services, and standards that will enable the implementation of sustainable design
  • Educate our fellow professionals, the building industry, clients, students, and the general public about the critical importance and substantial opportunities of sustainable design
  • Establish policies, regulations, and practices in government and business that ensure sustainable design becomes normal practice
  • Bring all existing and future elements of the built environment – in their design, production, use, and eventual reuse – up to sustainable design standards.

Olufemi Majekodunmi
International Union of Architects

Susan A. Maxman
American Institute of Architects