Sick of Sustainability--Wrong Picture

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Greenbiz is one of the best websites to go to to keep on top of what the business community is doing and telling about sustainability. I could easily write more than a few posts a day responding to the news, information, and misinformation to be found there. Most posts would be boring, with my usual complaint that few if any of the articles or the firms they picture get sustainability right. There are lots of references to environmentally friendly or green products, and sustainable businesses. If it takes a healthy environment to allow businesses to persevere over long times, then it will take more than green products to do the job. But Nathan Shedroff writes of being sick of sustainability, with the headline: "Are You as Sick of Sustainability as I Am?"

It seems that everywhere you turn these days, sustainability is the hot topic. While this is a good thing -- and a needed one -- people are already getting green fatigue.

When I am sick over the way sustainability is talked about, I suffer from remorse pangs, worst nightmares, interrupted dreams, and other illnesses caused by unhealthy visions of the future. But that's not the reason that Nathan Shedroff is sick of sustainability. He wants to stop talking about it, believing that business is already on board, equipped with all the tools it needs to do something.

I don't understand his point. The fact sustainability is a "hot topic" doesn't mean that businesses know what it is all about and are acting correctly. I believe business hardly knows what sustainability is at all. Maybe subliminally, but not strategically. If anything we should be sick of all the posturing and activities coming forth in the name of sustainability.

As designers, engineers, project managers and other developers, we need to understand the four categories of impacts: financial, ecological, social and cultural, and put them into our processes -- now. it's not an option we sell to our clients or managers. It's imperative. It's not a bargaining chip to bargain away to lower the budget. It's standard -- and mandatory -- operating procedure. Only then can we make the strides we so desperately need.

Companies got serious about corporate social responsibility when they perceived that, in spite of many legal obstacles to the contrary, they really do need the public's "license" to operate. It's that perception that motivates business to voluntarily report on their socially responsible programs and activities. What these same firms fail to see is that they also require a license from Mother Nature to operate over long periods. Unlike the public's license which comes in the forms of laws and legal opinions, it is not written on a piece of paper. In fact, it is nowhere to be found, but it is there all the same. Nothing companies do is friendly to the environment. The only way possible for them to avoid disturbing the natural world would be to completely recycle the materials we have already extracted from the earth, using nothing but solar energy in the processes. I can't think of any company that is doing that or even thinking about doing that, but many still call themselves or what they do sustainable.

This is why we shouldn't have to cajole businesses, governments and customers to prioritize sustainability. It's just good business, good governing and good living to become more sustainable. Ultimately (and the sooner, the better), this should be the "given" it deserves to be and no longer a "nice to have," but expendable, option.

We do have to cajole businesses, but not to prioritize sustainability as they define it. Sustainability is used by Shedroff and others to mean activities that are less unsustainable, greener, friendlier, but not capable of producing sustainability in an absolute sense. Greenbiz is a carefully written and edited source of information about business and environment with some social responsibility thrown in, but fails to raise the critical point, except on rare occasions, that doing better is not at all the same as producing the conditions required for sustainability to come forth.

It's not about competitive success. I'm not at all sure competition as we know it is compatible with sustainability. Sustainability is a systems outcome, achieved only when all the parts are working cooperatively in harmony. Competition is fundamentally a zero-sum game which without laws to prevent monopolistic practices would end up with a handful of winners running the corporate world. The US economy is now the most unequal large economy on Earth, the result of competitive personal strategies overwhelming systemic coordination for the benefit of all.

But Shedroff does get one critical point right.

Besides, we have more important things to focus on: We need to kill consumerism.

Too bad it is only a tag line to yet another article about the greening of business.

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2 Comments

David M Carter said:

Well said, John. I couldn't agree more.

This weekend I attended the annual Association of Environmental Studies & Sciences conference. As a psychology practitioner, I was pleasantly surprised by the dominant focus on human behavior, economic and political systems, and sustainability. I was expecting more coverage of natural science and ecology.

The bottom line of the conference for me is that environment scientists know how bad the environmental problems are, and are tired of continually spewing forth scientific data to support it. They want to collaborate with psychologists, economists, philosophers (quite a few there), and others to both address unsustainable activities, and envision a flourishing future for all life on Earth.

One expert attempted to use metaphor to single out the greatest challenges we face. He called the myth of economic growth - something "green" business fails to recognize as untenable - as the 2,000 lb elephant. He called over-population the 800 lb gorilla. And he called institutional consumerism the six ton whale. It seems no one could agree on which of the three should be the gorilla, elephant, or whale. At least, everyone acknowledged that all three were in the room. And, they were not welcome.

Nathan said:

John, I don't understand your point or why you disagree with me that sustainability should be an accepted and assumed "given" in how we do business instead of, still, a question to ponder.

I never stated that business is doing all they can or knows all they need--quite to the contrary. What I tried to describe is that organizations of all types have what they need at their disposal to start moving in a more sustainable direction--and even have a significant, positive affect--but simply aren't yet. They lack the will, not the knowledge to act upon. And, they shouldn't. What I'm tired of is convincing business leaders that sustainability is a successful strategy that is in their own best interests. I'm tired of seeing supposedly smart people shown the obvious by leading experts only to have them discount it or waffle simply because it wasn't taught to them in business school.

By all means, there is a difference between being "more sustainable" (which is what I was discussing) and being 100% sustainable (which, I'm not sure we can even ever achieve). But, this is simply a matter of degree. Surely, you're not arguing that organizations and individuals should do nothing in this regard until they can leap to 100% sustainability on the planet? We can't (as individuals, organizations, or societies) move from where we are to "absolutely sustainable in every way" without moving through "more sustainable." If a jump from where we are to the ideal is the only acceptable path then it is a path that will never be taken by 99% of humanity.