Visualizing Sustainability

One of my colleagues from the Marlboro College MBA in Managing Sustainability sent me this very interesting link. It’s a collection of visual presentations relating to sustainability or subjects closely tied to the basic concept by Samuel Mann, Associate Professor at Otago Polytechnic, in Dunedin, New Zealand. The collection at the link contains some 270 items. Mann continues to add to it and has issued an open request to send him more examples.


The number of entries is a bit overwhelming in conveying a relatively concise, common picture of what sustainability means. Many spring from the triad of the UNCED (Brundtland) notion of sustainable development. I picked two at random to show what kind of objects Mann has collected. The source of each one is included as a link next to the diagram on his web page.

Ranging from the very simplest Venn diagrams to mazes of interconnected linkages, none seem to me to convey the the underlying meaning of sustainability. The word, sustainability, has been around long before our present concern with the state of the world showed up. It has no normative sense and refers to no values. Sustain, the root, springs from the Latin, sustenere, meaning to uphold or to hold up. That the upholding continues over time is implicit. If no time were implied, the object or quality being momentarily upheld could topple in the blink of an eye.

Sustainable, the adjective, refers then to something that can hold up something else. Sustainable development refers to development that can continue for some extended time. Sustainable business refers to a business that can continue to operate over time. Another implicit context for the adjectival form is that what is being upheld continues even in the face of changing conditions. The critical aspect of “sustainable” is that it only modifies a noun and it is the noun that is being upheld over time.

Sustainability is the ability to sustain something. Note that what is to be upheld is not a part of the definition. I am going on and on here to make the point that none of the 270 diagrams Mann has collected gets it right. We have to look to values or outputs that the something produces to make sustainability concrete. Sustainable development tacitly points to the values of standard economic development, almost always equivalent to growth in wealth. Sustainable business is harder to parse. What do businesses produce that we might want to uphold for a while? Disagreements about the social role of business require that the phrase sustainable business always be further defined. But it should be clear that “sustainable business” has nothing to do with the state of the world. Ironically, [sustainable] business as usual is invoked as a cause of planetary unsustainability, the opposite use of the root.

Sustainability, to have some meaning in terms of our desire to have some system produce something we want continue for a while, requires that we name two things: the system and the output. The world as a whole is the system we should be referring to as it is the ultimate source of life. The moment that sustainability is taken to refer to a subset of the Planet, we flirt with danger because we cannot predict the behavior of the entire system by our knowledge of any of its parts. The second need is to name what quality or material output we want the system to produce. Wealth alone is not enough. Environmental health is not enough as human being is defined by the presence of qualities like dignity, freedom, or the comprehensive term I use, flourishing. The proliferation of visual ways to portray sustainability shows our cleverness in using pictorial devices to convey meaning, but, in this case, the meaning is by no means clear, and, I believe, mystifying rather than clarifying.