Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I have just finished proofreading my new book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, written with my former PhD student, Andy Hoffman. It’s hard to be objective about one’s own work, but I think it is very good. In the five years since Sustainability by Design was published, my thinking about sustainability has become clearer, at least to me. I think this new book is more accessible and focused on the moat important issues.
I gave a talk yesterday at the Northeastern University Business School to a small group of the faculty that left me with a sense that little has changed in the understanding and appreciation of the true nature of sustainability in the past five years. Granted that this meeting was not dispositive, sustainability is, if anything, less understood. I hear the same confusion between what used to be called greening, but now gets called sustainability or sustainable something and what I call sustainability. I have a slide that asserts that everyone in the audience who believes that they are doing something or thinking about sustainability is merely doing something to make things (unsustainability) less bad. Nobody has yet challenged me on this.
The distinction is critical. For sure, we are mucking up the world by overconsumption and we need to do something about that. But becoming more eco-efficient won’t change the story. We may be able to slow down the growth of negative impacts, but will not reverse the trend. The global GDP has grown at a rate far exceeding the increase in eco-efficiency over long periods. To keep the mess at current levels, the two growth rates (GDP) and eco-efficiency must be equal. And to reverse the damaging impacts, the change in eco-efficiency must exceed the growth of GDP. Tim Jackson, in his book, Progress Without Growth, calls the belief in decoupling (growth in GDP without concomitant growth environment harms) a myth. Expectations that the so-called information society would grow without the damage created by huge material demands are just that—thoughts. Nothing like this has happened. Per capita indices may be improving, but aggregate damages (the only thing the planet responds to) keep rising. Recent scientific assessments of the rate of climate change have found change is happening faster than previously predicted.
That’s the Planetary situation; the human condition is no better. If the US is to be held out to be the most advanced modern, industrialized nation, one should not look too closely at data related to individual and social conditions. It’s akin to the old saying that if you like sausage, never visit a sausage factory. In spite of the extremely high level of average affluence, we have lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, more prisoners, more homicides, and many more instances of negative measures of well-being. Inequality is highest in the US among peer nations.
If we do nothing more than what businesses call sustainability activities, we will not change the current “unsustainable” conditions of the nations and the world. “Why not?” members of the audience ask. What we want and need is to grow. That’s the solution to all of our problems. The unemployed will find jobs. Our well-being will continue to increase. It’s not just economists talking here; just about everyone takes this as gospel, especially just after an election where promises of growth are aimed both at the left and the right. More wealth for the right (the richer) and more jobs for the left (the poorer).
Wake up and pay attention to the arithmetic as President Clinton advised in his speech at the Democratic Convention. We are living on more than one planet today and are headed for perhaps as many as 5 or so when the rest of the world becomes as affluent as we are. There simply is not enough ocean or atmosphere to absorb all our s—-. We will soon be faced with a Solomonic choice. Who gets the limited resources needed to feed the hungry mouths of the people and the societal machines that provide them with everything they consume?
Everyday, the way into our problems and the way out becomes clearer to me. Without any elaboration (that’s what my books and other writings try to do) to build the case I will make in a few sentences, here is the story in ten bullet points.
Our unsustainable situation is fundamentally rooted in the failure of our most basic beliefs to match the way the world works.
The mismatch results in “fixes-that-fail” that leave the root causes in place, and in ever growing (destructive) unintended consequences. The meaning of sustainability, itself, is misunderstood. It is an “empty” word, requiring an explicit quantity or quality to sustain. All present measures of sustainability or sustainable being used are based on an erroneous world view and are leading us astray.
The institutions that have evolved on the foundation of these beliefs are the proximate cause of the problematic situation. Capitalism itself is suspect, perhaps not at its core, but in the present form it has evolved to take. I am not equipped to take a more critical stance than suspicion.
Trying to design new institutions and modify the existing ones, but based on the same fundamental beliefs, is doomed to failure. When it will collapse is uncertain; it may be far enough off in the future to fool us into thinking what we are doing to cope today is working. Referring again to the language of systems dynamics, we are living out a massive shifting-the-burden or even addictive pattern. It will get increasingly difficult to cope, adapt or mitigate the damage as we continue to work on the wrong problems.
We have to stop thinking about the world only in mechanistic terms, as a system that we can come to know and manage through technology and technocracy (scientifically based institutional rules). We think there is only one way of knowing, science, and only one set of truths about the world. The “only” is important because our present system of knowing is not wrong; it is incomplete and insufficient to guide our human efforts to sustain life on the Planet in a state we deem normatively satisfactory.
The more powerful way to think about the world is as an organic, complex system in which we humans are simply about seven billion nodes interconnected to each other and to the rest of the world. Because it is complex, we can never come know precisely how it is working at the moment and, thus, are unable to manage it as we believe we can (see the preceding paragraph). The reality of the world (the set of meanings by which we operate) is created in and through language, and is historically situated, changing as our experiences change. If we start to think about the world in this manner, we will design new effective institutions to guide our societies. I believe that we will and should explicitly introduce pragmatic methods in place of our present deterministic ways of design, decision, and operating. We can never avoid unforeseen problems and failures, but in a complex world, pragmatism can lessen the likelihood of fixes-that-fail patterns. Immense and daunting changes to be sure, but absolutely necessary!
We have to stop thinking about ourselves as Homo economicus, creatures driven to acquire material goods as a measure of well-being. Said another way, we have to stop thinking that the main motivators for human live are the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. These ideas arising during the Enlightenment are, like our mechanistic understanding of the world, incomplete and inadequate, but also are incorrect, so that the “only” qualifier does not apply here.
Our actions in the world take place in the flow of language—a manner of living together in a coordinated flow of consensual action—not a collection of words and grammatical rules as commonly understood. Humans also exist in the flow of emotions, body dynamics that specify what we can and cannot do at any moment in our relational behaviors. Emotions represent our attunement to the world, a general description of how we respond to our situations. The most primal and fundamental of human emotions is love, but not merely romantic love.
Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance. Love does not legitimize the other, love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation. (Maturana and Nisis)
The shift in thinking about what it is to be human is profound but can be voiced in a word or two. Being human is all about care, not need. Care and love are naturally connected. Our interconnectedness to the world means that we better pay attention to it and take care of it. We cannot simply view the world outside of our bodies as simply an independent resource for giving us pleasure and avoiding pain. Our actions inevitably and necessarily interact and change the human and non-human world. Our humanness is not expressed in insatiable demands, but in a continuum of actions to make sure the targets of our care are satisfied. Satisfaction lies outside the body in the world, not inside as we are told by psychologists and economists. We are part of that world so we will experience satisfaction whenever we perceive that the world outside is taken care of. Whenever that happens we will be in a state of existential completeness, which I (and others) call flourishing. The attainment of this human condition will and should become the primary measure of the success of our societal institutions in place of the economic measures used today to indicate well-being.
Closing the loop back to the beginning of the brief explanation, flourishing is the right and relevant reference to use for the semantically empty word, sustainability. Hence the origin of my definition of sustainability: the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever.
This is a brief and dense itemization of the story of sustainability, but the essential points are all here. A warning. If you are serious about sustainability, then you have to take in the whole story. You cannot be selective, as present day businesses and other institutions are doing. It’s all or nothing. This doesn’t mean that you abandon the parts of the present paradigm (belief and institutional structure) that do continue to work. 2 + 2 will still equal 4. It does help to slow down the destructive momentum of today (but not at the expense of neglecting the real problems). But you cannot work from within this old and effete paradigm when you set out to make sustainability-as-flourishing show up. You will look like an alien to those still comfortable in the status quo. So stick in there. You have the right stuff; they do not. Rational arguments will not convince anyone. Different paradigms do not connect rationally one to another. You may be able to convince others that the old paradigm is the problem, not the solution. That’s how science advances. But you (and anyone else) will not be able to argue that the new one (sketched briefly above) is the way to go. You will simply have to plunge in and wait for the results to come. They will be the legitimating evidence. Each of the elements sketched out has already been “proven to work,” but in much smaller contexts than that of the sustainability problematic. So you will not be simply hanging out there.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake)