Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Any movement toward sustainability-as-flourishing requires a change in the cognitive structure of the actors involved, as individuals or as part of an organization. If they do not change the beliefs that underpin their normal practices, whatever their “business” is will go on unchanged, continuing to produce the unintended consequences that constitute unsustainability. In the model of human action I believe is the most meaningful in describing intentional behavior, responses to familiar situations arise out of past patterns that have been assessed as satisfactory or effective kept in the ready. These become “ready-to-hand” in Heidegger’s terms, that is, they are pulled out of the actor’s toolbox without consciously thinking what to do. They are not the result of some conventionally rational process.
The same process is posited by Humberto Maturana, but from a biological perspective. Actors acquire cognitive structure in the process of acting. Maturana calls this “structural coupling.” Learning is a continual process of building structure. Giddens’s structuration model for collective action is essentially the same. Normal behavior springs from a set of beliefs and institutional forms. Both Maturana and Giddens describe a dialectic process where present actions arise without “thinking,” and simultaneously reconfigure the cognitive structure to reflect any changes in the situation. In general, the world changes over time so that the existing structure includes only responses historically matched to the past. If the present is still sufficiently familiar, these historically embedded structures will provide adequate response; they are still “ready-to-hand. Business will go on as usual. But new, modified structure will be created as the actors reflect on the outcomes.
As long as the existing structure contains “ready-to-hand” or “normal” responses to the perceived world providing the actor’s context, behavior will not change. Unsustainability can be said to arise because the actors’ perception is limited to their immediate world. As long as the outcomes fit their intentions, business-as-usual will continue. But what if the normal for them produces unintended consequences that arise outside of their perception. Nothing will change. And that is the primary reason we are inexorably moving toward a variety of social and environmental tipping points. Actors may become aware of such changes in the world beyond their own spheres of normal activities, but such knowledge will not change the cognitive structures that drive everyday behavior.
Nothing will happen until the normalcy is interrupted to an extent that the embedded ready-to-hand patterns of behavior no longer work or become so unfamiliar that no such responses are available. In this case the actors become stymied and at a loss for what to do. Their immediate contextual world emerges from the shadow of transparency into their consciousness. If they choose to continue to follow their immediate intentions, they will inevitably begin to reflect on what has happened. They may, of course, abandon their present course and “kick the can down the road,” and move on to another set of intentions. No learning takes place in this case and whatever problems linger as a result will be no closer to solution than they were in the first place. (Washington, pat attention to this!)
Now with this more general discussion of behavior, let’s think about the issues that are central to my writing and this blog: the persistence of unsustainability and the absence of sustainability. Why are we still pretty much in the same place regarding sustainability today that we were a couple of decades ago when this issue first entered our consciousness? You do not have to take my word for this. A quick scan of the Web will produce dozens of articles with this question. For me, the answer is plain: as long as unsustainability is an unintended consequence within the context of business’s perceptions, nothing will change except incrementally as Giddens and Maturana would argue. And as long as sustainability-as-flourishing is not present in the cognitive system of the actors, nothing will be done toward this end.
The creation of a Chief Sustainability Officer or the issuance of a “sustainability” report will do little or nothing to change the fundamental normal behavior. The best that can happen is business-as-usual will become business-almost-as-usual, and the momentum towards a tipping point may be diminished. But even this cannot overcome the macro-economic drive for more growth on a global scale. If we are to be serious about sustainability, we must do what is the unthinkable in most firms and other organizations. We must introduce breakdowns deliberately. Without this, no learning toward sustainability or any goal that has been persistently out-of-reach is possible.
Breakdowns, that is, interruptions in the flow of normal behavioral patterns, are conventionally held to be the result of poor management and are to be avoided. They are seen to be the result of routines that no longer work or have been poorly applied. The more radical production systems, like the Toyota system and lean manufacturing, in general, understand that breakdowns are opportunities for learning and incorporate processes to this end. But standard management courses fail to recognize the generality of this as an essential learning process. In these systems, the context is plain to all the actors; it happens in front of their eyes. But the context for unsustainability is out there in the external world. In normal times, it is out of the consciousness of the actor community. The vision of sustainability-as-flourishing is similarly absent. This view has yet to enter the consciousness of business or of society at large. Sustainability means, unfortunately, the reduction of unsustainability. Unfortunate because this faulty perception blinds all the actors from getting down to the root causes. Root causes, as in some forms of production systems, are those that resist further questioning. Asking why again cannot produce any further answers.
If the goal is to shift to producing sustainability-as-flourishing from what goes as sustainability today, two critical steps must be taken. The normal operations of business and other institutions must be interrupted deliberately to create a possibility for learning beyond incremental shifts in the ready-to-hand resources. This step is the central theme on Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, and many others. The interruption must allow for reflection, but not unguided reflection. The context for the learning needs to be made present; this is step 2.
The breakdown can be designed to expose the roots causes and to introduce new beliefs or even new practices directly. New beliefs will slowly work their way into routine patterns. Introducing new practices directly is faster. The key beliefs are those I have stressed in Sustainability by Design and in the forthcoming Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. Connectedness and care are central. I have written about my work over the past year or so with the Fowler Center at the Weatherhead School of management. It has focused on the role of spirituality in business (and other institutional settings). The main role is to embed a sense of connectedness and, consequently, care. Additionally, notions about complexity are key to understand its relationship to our several worlds (work, home, and so on) and further how to design our coping/adapting actions within those worlds.
Reflective practices are becoming more common in business today, but not explicitly aligned with sustainability. Insofar as they center the individuals involved, they will move them closer to authenticity and thus toward flourishing, but, without a conscious tie to sustainability, they will have only minimal effects on the organization. Only those organizations that take on sustainability-as-flourishing as an integral part of their mission, beyond efforts to reduce their load on the Planet, will be able to move significantly toward this goal. The existing habits are too deeply engrained in the culture to allow a superficial learning process to make a lasting and meaningful change. Without such a commitment, so-called sustainability programs will barely make a dent in cultural foundations. It will hard for any enterprise to get the process started against a call for more efficiency. Efficiency implicitly is a call to make every minute count evermore towards the bottom line. Deliberately stopping the processes to learn is countercultural, but it is essential to stem the tide of unsustainability and put us on the road to flourishing.