Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I got back from my quick trip to Cambridge University yesterday. Recovering from jet lag is always easier coming back from Europe than going there. The conference was focused on “Integrating Industrial Sustainability.” I have posted a link to the talk below. The conference title gave me the theme for my talk, one that runs through my book and most of what I write about. The way sustainability is used in the title makes it sound like it is all about keeping industry going in the face of new threats from a failing Earth. For some, I do think that is how they do, in fact, interpret it.
From others, I heard a desire to contribute to the improvement of the conditions of the Planet, or, at least to keep the world from more deterioration. But, as I have so often said, that is all about reducing unsustainability, not about creating some positive vision of the future. And further when different speakers used the word sustainable or sustainability, no clear understanding of what they were referring to came across. It becomes clearer each time I listen to a group such as was assembled in Cambridge that the goal of their efforts is to stabilize the socio-environmental system to enable continued growth. I heard, I almost always do, an uncritical acceptance of growth as equivalent to progress and the engine of the machine that turns out human well-being.
There is an unspoken or barely mentioned assumption that eco-efficiency in some practical configuration can overcome the increasing burden on the Earth and its human and non-human inhabitants created by the workings of the economy. One speaker referred to the now old IPAT identity where Impact (I) equals population (P) times affluence (A) times a technological factor (T), akin to eco-efficiency. Alternatively the last factor can be replaced by its reciprocal expressed as innovation. The speaker tacitly assumed that so much innovation will show up such that the impact of growing population and increasing affluence will be reduced even below today’s excessive levels. Pure navel-gazing and wishful thinking. Material consumption, for example, has been reduced on a per GDP unit basis in some places, but is still increasing absolutely.
Nobody mentioned an important feedback loop that tends to reduce the result of eco-efficent gains: the rebound effect (Jevons paradox). Eco-efficiency tends to improve economic efficiency in general, creating bigger capital surpluses to re-invest in production, and indirectly in continued (economic) growth. Unless these investments are explicitly made in production that creates much lower social and environmental externalities than the units that created the surplus, societal and global unsustainability will continue to grow. And since avoiding the internalization of externalities is a fundamental financial strategy, this is not likely to happen without a deep restructuring of the basic role of industry.
One speaker gave an excellent recap of the Toyota Production Systems, highlighting two of its key processes, kaizen and yokoten. Kaizen is the more familiar, referring to the (continuous) learning/improvement theme central to the system. Yokoten can be translated as sharing, referring to the central role played by the community. Problem solving at Toyota is a community process. The speaker stressed that whatever community is to be involved must have a common language and context if positive results are to come. That commonality comes from yokoten, a set of processes designed to afford all entering a process with a common background of the problem context and the language necessary to describe and work on it.
Much of what I do and write is aimed at a broad system of yokoten, a sharing of meaning of sustainability, the context in which it fails to appear, and what we know about why. My concerns about lack of a common understanding of sustainability are reinforced by listening to the Toyota discussion. The TPS is the most emulated production system in the world and is the parent of lean manufacturing more broadly. It has been applied with variable success all over the world. After the talk, I have a better sense of why it has not worked so well. Almost all the practice has centered on kaizen—the system of continuous learning, but without a similar stress on yokoten. Both are essential to success in getting the system to produce the desired quality routinely.
In the sustainability sphere, yokoten is largely missing. Everyone is using the word differently to the point that many who have a sense that there is something very important here are frustrated and speak of abandoning their efforts. We are quick to jump directly to kaizen, centered on eco-efficiency as equivalent to quality in the TPS. Mistake #1: efficiency is a means, quality is an end. Mistake #2: leaving out yokoten as an integral and explicit part of the process.
When I attempt to demystify the word sustainability and offer a meaning consistent with the reality of the word, expressed through its dictionary definition, I am feeding yokoten. I found an alternate description of this process, interestingly, from another Asian source, Confucius, that I discussed a few posts ago on August 10th. I’ll repeat the money quote here.
If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language has no object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.
Pretty good analysis of what has happened today and why our global efforts to reduce unsustainability are “pointless.”
Mistake #3: failing to adopt kaizen as the central operating system. The more I have learned about kaizen, the more it fits a pragmatic framework—a framework I have promoted as essential to creating flourishing or any emergent quality. Kaizen, whether implicitly or explicitly (not knowing its origin and evolution, I cannot tell) acknowledges that the system to which it is applied is complex, epitomizes the kind of pragmatic framework necessary to work effectively within complexity. Here’s a quote from my Cambridge keynote:
The famous Toyota Production System is pragmatic at the core. It rests on continuous inquiry, a focus on root causes, and broad participation in truth seeking. Pragmatic truth is understood as being contingent and fallible. The appearance of unintended consequences or breakdowns is expected: the methodology is designed to make them disappear. When everything is working, quality emerges as if by magic.
When I return from conferences like this or, often, after I have read about the sustainability efforts of companies and others, I am encouraged by the attention being given to the subject, but discouraged by essential inadequacy and misdirection of the concomitant efforts. I am not at all optimistic that these efforts will work. The positivist, analytic way we design things and solve problems simply does not fit the world we operate within, not matter how hard we impose it onto that world. I remain hopeful, however, because I believe that we know deep down that we need to change the structure on which the modern culture works and have, at hand, a framework to guide our efforts toward that end.
Here is the Cambridge conference UK Keynote.pdf.