Birth of Venus Botticelli, 1468 Sustain 6 Adaptation, Sustainability is the new renaissance

The Shattering is how historian William Manchester describes the impact of the Renaissance on medieval Europe, a nightmarish millennia of cultural and economic brutality aptly summarized in the terms  Dark and Middle Ages (its low carbon footprint notwithstanding). “Even Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor (800 CE) was illiterate,” observes Manchester and “after extensive fragments have been fitted together, the portrait that emerges is a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.” In many ways it is remarkable just how long this dark period lasted given the flourishing of classical Greek and Roman civilization that preceded it. Our modern fascination with dystopian storytelling (Hunger Games, The Maiden’s Tale, Don’t Look Up, any zombie movie) likely spring from a collective conscience that beg us not to repeat the dark and middling mistakes of the past. Look, it really did happen. Be careful (see: Covid, Ukraine, Global Warming). 




The Renaissance marks the beginning of the modern world (applause) and while scholars debate the various causes of the Renaissance, the general agreement is that a re-introduction to classical writings (Aristotle, Plato, Cicero) fueled a rising spirit of humanism, an approach to learning that focused on “the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind.” Leonardo da Vinci – painter, engineer, inventor, scholar – reigns supreme as the Renaissance Man. “Learning never exhausts the mind,” da Vinci wrote and demonstrably practiced. This idea that human creativity, rooted in our unique ability to learn, could help us better understand and navigate not only the world but ourselves was revolutionary. This was the shattering.


A quick survey of some key dates of The Renaissance highlight the momentous changes that took place in a mere 69 years:


  1. 1453: Constantinople sacked (Byzantine empire ended); Greek scholars flee to the West
  2. 1455: Gutenberg’s Printing Press
  3. 1492: Columbus’s Discovery of New World
  4. 1503: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: 
  5. 1517: Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
  6. 1522: Magellan’s Circumnavigation of Planet Earth


Wow – what an epic narrative. It is the second of the listed events, the invention of the printing press, that stands out as the key catalyst of the Renaissance. Literacy and the corresponding thirst for knowledge soared as books became more widely available and printed in the local vernacular. Columbus almost certainly read about Aristotle’s theories of a spherical earth (via Ptolemy’s reprinted Geography), a fact that Magellan would later prove. The perception of the world was forever changed along with our role in it. That story is still unfolding today and it is hard to argue that the emerging Age of Sustainability – following the successive movements of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – is not the direct heir of the humanist tradition embedded in the Renaissance.


Humanity’s knowledge and powers have never been greater (or perhaps more terrifying); we can split atoms, fly to the moon, replicate beef in a lab, and harness electricity from sunbeams (thank you Einstein). We are healthier and live longer, and we are more literate, more tolerant and enjoy more freedom than at any other point in history. And yet from our great heights, like Icarus, we flirt with disaster. We have acquired great knowledge and know-how, but have we acquired that elusive Socratic ideal of wisdom? While the Renaissance revealed that the world was finite, it was still seemingly limitless in its size and capacity. Today with a population almost 20 times larger, humanity so thoroughly dominates the biosphere that geologists now refer to our modern era as the Anthropocene, the Human Age. We are literally a force of nature. 


Our fingerprints and footsteps are everywhere apparent as evidenced by extensive deforestation (⅓ of forests are gone, including a gut wrenching 97% of giant redwoods), mass bleaching of coral reefs, a shocking loss of biodiversity that has been dubbed the Sixth Extinction and a rapidly warming atmosphere. Shockingly, we are heating up the entire surface of the planet at what can only be described as an insane rate. Barring no change from our current fossil fuel driven economy, we would hurtle from the current 1℃ of warming to 3.5℃ (6.5℉) within 80 years, easily within the lifespan of someone born today. If that kind of temperature increase happened to a person, they’d be dead. From a day-to-day basis, the changes can be hard to notice, but when we zoom out the emerging pattern – highlighted most clearly in massive and quasi-regular wildfires – is unmistakable. The real danger lies in hidden tipping points where planetary changes accelerate into reinforcing feedback loops that are largely impossible to stop or reverse (see: Snowball Earth, Hothouse Earth). Adaptation, expensive and painful, becomes our primary recourse (Venice as the new Atlantis?). We are not there yet, but the shot clock looms. 



There is, fortunately, a zeitgeist of change. Building upon a rich environmental legacy established in the 20th century (National Parks, EPA, Earth Day), today’s Sustainability movement is remarkable for its breadth and ambition. Its power, like that of the Renaissance, rests heavily on science which can be denied or manipulated for only so long (“And yet it moves,” Galileo said when forced to recant his orbiting earth theory). In 2016, almost every country on earth signed the City of Love & Light (Paris) Agreement seeking to limit the now conclusive warming to well below 2℃. Despite the agreement’s gaps, it is a big achievement that involves global coordination towards a lofty planetary goal that, surprisingly, is achievable. The success of the goal is driven by 2 powerful forces. 


The first is technology, primarily in the form of solar pv, wind turbines and batteries that are in the beginning stages of disrupting the entire energy industry due to their low costs and modular nature that allows them to be deployed anywhere and everywhere. The continuously falling costs of these technologies exhibit classic “learning curves,” similar to Moore’s law regarding semiconductor production: a doubling of capacity/deployment reduces the cost by 30% due to myriad small improvements ranging from materials and design to logistics and engineering. This learning curve has now been happening consistently for decades and the implications are seismic. In the past 10 years solar pv costs fell by another 80% and now represent the cheapest energy source on earth; similar trends exist with wind and batteries. The end game, perhaps most clearly identified in Tesla’s meteoric rise, is becoming clear even to more casual and skeptical observers. The medieval-run Koch Industries’ recent big jump into batteries further hints at where this is all going. 


This growing confidence in the technology is fueling a powerful evolution of communication and messaging that has moved beyond a traditional environmental framework that focuses on “saving the planet” and “sacrifice” to a broader – and smarter – effort that focuses on how these changes can positively impact our daily lives. There are tremendous associated co-benefits of decarbonization including energy savings, clean air and water (9 million people die annually due to associated air pollution), healthier food and energy security. These are tangible items that people can easily identify and rally behind. In a telltale sign, the Mar-a-Lago based Trump presidency extended the ban (via executive order) on off-shore drilling in the Florida Gulf for an additional 10 years. It was not climate change (“a hoax”) that motivated him to do that. There is a clear lesson here – oil and water just don’t mix. 


By the same token, coal and the air we breathe also don’t mix. It is the clear link to air pollution that has put coal on the path to extinction in the U.S. Electrical generation from coal has fallen from 40% to less than 20% in the past decade despite the U.S.’s vast coal reserves. No new coal plants are being built and in the next decade we will see the virtual elimination of coal in the U.S. And this will happen without federal legislation. 


It is the pressure of private markets that is driving this change. Similar dynamics are starting to play out with natural gas, the internal combustion engine and our industrialized and inhumane system of animal agriculture. Who really wants a highly flammable “natural” gas (methane) that has a combustion by-product of carbon monoxide running through their house? Who will really miss $5 per gallon gas and the regularly occurring wars that come with securing its supply? Who doesn’t claim to think about going vegetarian every time they catch a glimpse or whiff of a slaughterhouse? Fixing climate change can co-solve for a lot of these big problems and pain points. We need to exploit this principle even more – sell the benefit not the feature.


This combination of technology and messaging has repositioned sustainability into an aspirational and yet still achievable goal that says in effect “Yes, the world can be a better place.” Perhaps it’s a naive sentiment but the growing economic reality suggests otherwise. In many ways the sustainability movement has matured – has become aware of itself – and is effectively being established in the processes and routines of people, businesses and governments. The rapid rise of B and Benefit corps combined with the Business Roundtable’s recent update of business purpose that moves beyond shareholder primacy to include social and environmental responsibilities reflect this powerful change. Milton Friedman is not dead but his grasp has grown weaker. 


Sustainability has long since ceased to be a “buzzy” word. It is perhaps overused and even abused (greenwashing), but the term “sustainability” is an excellent one. Derived from the Latin sustinere, meaning to “uphold” or “support,” sustainability is progressive yet comfortable, expansive yet defined and just vague enough to support a wide array of hopes and dreams – both liberal and conservative. Al Gore has referred to this current period as the Sustainability Revolution, while futurist Tony Seba believes we are moving from the era of extraction to an Age of Creation where “humanity is on the cusp of the most profound transformation of the system of production in human history.” But the transformation is more nuanced than just a system of production. Something in us is changing too. We have a story to tell and a role yet to play. We are the heirs of da Vinci, Gutenberg, Magellan and the humanist spirit that embraced their creativity, ingenuity and daring. While we are as flawed as they, we nonetheless pursue a similarly bold vision, a shattering that can justifiably be called a new Renaissance. Humanity is still young but we are learning and that alone is the most important thing of all. 


Steve Quirk

Sustain 6, CEO and Co-Founder

Sustainability is the new Renaissance

By Stephen Quirk

Sustain 6 CEO

April 18th, 2022
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