Sorry, Nathan, but I Really Do Disagree.

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My last post drew upon an article in Greenbiz by Nathan Shedroff. Nathan wrote me to ask why I had disagreed with him. The issue is sufficiently complex that I want to devote another post to it. I have copied the guts of Nathan's rejoinder. Part of my response was a reaction to the "funny" headline in Greenbiz, but that's not the real reason.

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.

I see I do need to clarify my response. I agree with Nathan that sustainability is such a serious matter that it should not be necessary to cajole companies into action. The issue revolves around what is meant by sustainability and what kinds of action? My disagreement is that firms (and just about everyone else) do not know what sustainability means, and so they cannot take the requisite steps. What Nathan is talking about are actions to reduce the impacts that firms make in the production and marketing of their offerings and in the use of those offerings by their customers. I am always careful to speak about such actions as reducing unsustainability, and it is critical to do it. But these kinds of actions cannot produce sustainability, which means that the earth's environmental and social systems have attained a level of homeostasis that permits all life to flourish.

As long as we are depleting our resources, we must ultimately rely on innovation and technology to compensate for the negative changes in the Earth's systems. Maybe we can achieve this end for materials, but not for fossil energy sources. When all the oil, gas, and uranium is gone, we will have only energy from the Sun to support us. Companies that continue to ignore this limit to social life on Earth do not know, contrary to Nathan's claim, what sustainability is and need to be educated and cajoled or more than cajoled into changing and deepening their understanding.

It is a serious misuse of the terms, sustainable or sustainability, to connect them with improvements in the environmental or social performance of firms. Their efforts toward this end will be inevitably thwarted by growth and thermodynamics. And by believing they are doing the "right" thing, they will only make matters worse in the long run. Nathan does understand that consumerism must end, but how can that happen when firms survive today only by feeding the consumers' hungry mouths, and where growth is a central foundation for the success of a firm and the economy of which it is a part?

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. Surly, 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.

As I have just written, sustainability is not "simply a matter of degree." Sustainability means getting the whole system back to a state where it can function to produce flourishing. It is all or nothing. We will attain a state where life can continue to flourish or not. It will take structural and cultural change, far beyond the reductions of impacts that Nathan and all others talk about when addressing sustainability. Business will have to be a major, but not sole actor, in bringing about such changes. If they focus only on using the conventional tools and strategic devices for "sustainability" that have been currently accepted as "state of the art," they will not only be disappointed in the results but will continue to point us in the wrong direction.

I would not disagree if Nathan and others would re-label the efforts they now associate with sustainability to something like reducing unsustainability. I know that's a mouthful and not easy to market, but it is what they are doing, and should continue to do with any more cajoling.

Nathan does neat things with design.