Back to Basics 1: What Does Sustainability Mean?

dickinson possibility

I write occasionally about my classes at the Marlboro Graduate Center where I teach in a distance-learning-based MBA program in Managing for Sustainability. I am not altogether happy with the name as I tell the students and others that you cannot "manage" sustainability; you can only attain and maintain it. Manage has too much connection to control in suggesting that one can make a machine, system, or organization behave strictly according to some model. But this MBA program has, like only a handful of others, a curriculum and vision that is open to the idea of sustainability in the way I write and talk. While I teach there, I am reminded that it has been a long time since I went back to some of the basic ideas in my book and other writings. So I am starting a back-to-basics thread: posts that will show up from time to time.

Sustainability is a badly abused and misused term. It's almost always misused because those who speak it and act in its name do not understand what it means. It's abused when it is used by agents that know they do not understand it, but attempt to fool their customers and stakeholders in thinking that they do. The most important characteristic about sustainability is that it refers to nothing in particular. It is a generic property of some, often complex (more about this in another post), system describing the capability of the system to continuously produce some desired or interesting output over a reasonable length of time. It gathers meaning in a practical sense only when that output is named.

Sustainability is not customarily used for systems that are entirely machine like, for example, a mainframe computer. We might say these exemplars are durable or reliable but it would be very unusual to describe them as sustainable. Systems like this are amenable to being controlled when we believe we know how they respond to changes in inputs and environment (within limits). Sustainability is used in cases where the system is producing some desired output, but in a way we cannot describe using the kind of models and rules we can for machine-like systems. These rules and models may be very complicated, that is, hard to unscramble, but this is not the same as complex.

Sustainability carries a normative reference to whatever thing or quality we are interested in or, more importantly, care about and has no practical meaning without naming the output. Sustainability, except in an abstract, academic context, is meaningful only when something about the system being observed matters to the observers.

Since we cannot manage or control the (complex) system with confidence that it will respond to our interventions designed to change the outputs or to counteract perturbations affecting its workings, sustainability always comes wrapped in hopeful garb. We can do X or Y, but only hope they will keep the system going as we wish it to. Some operators and managers, mistakenly, put confidence limits around the expected behavior. This is not possible for complex systems. Another way to describe this is to say that sustainability refers to a possibility that the system will start or continue to act as desired.

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--

Emily Dickinson (#657)

Further since we cannot attribute the interesting outputs to known rules and laws, we say that they emerge from the working of the system as a whole. They are "emergent properties." We can speak about the sustainability of a relationship between two people, using love as the output to be observed, or the sustainability of a masterpiece to produce beauty. Note that the output needs to be observable to count. If it were of no interest to anybody, sustainability would never arise as a concern. Also notice that in cases of complexity, the interesting output is generally some immaterial quality, subject to the assessment of the observers. The Mona Lisa is beautiful only so long as it evokes a response deemed, by cultural consent, to mean beauty.

The financial system of the United States is complex in the sense I describe above. It has some machine-like characteristics, but it is complex in its entirety. Those who learned how to reduce the system to a set of rules made a lot of money, but in so doing that they undid the internal set of relationships that had made the system sustainable for quite a long time. The machine stopped operating and the money stopped flowing for most. Some people continued to keep their buckets under the right spigot and kept getting richer.

Complexity showed in the loss of a few important emergent properties--security, confidence, and trust. When the system collapsed, that is, moved into a disconnected regime where the behavior was distinctly different, these normative outputs disappeared. Although the machine has been fixed to a degree, these very important societal qualities have not fully reappeared.

I can't remember anyone using the term, sustainability, with reference to the financial system collapse, perhaps because so much concern was riding on the material output, money. So, what is it that is so interesting or matters so much that lots of people are talking about sustainability? It's not clear, judging from the dither and fuzziness in so much of what is written or spoken under the umbrella of sustainability. That's going to be the subject of my next post in this series.

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1 Comments

Bill Ferguson said:

Dear John:

I am a well qualified sustainability executive with international experience seeking an opportunity to serve an NGO or enterprise in developing and implementing their sustainability program.

Your assistance in connecting me to such a party would be of great benefit to all. Thank you.

Bill Ferguson


Stuart William Ferguson, PhD
609-651-1025