The Paradoxes of Sustainability

flocking birds

I have been gingerly backing away from using the word, sustainability, for some months. The reasons are several fold. First, the word has become little more than jargon and is no longer an effective call to action. It means too many things to too many people to enable the kind of coordinated action it takes to combat growing unsustainability. This problem could be alleviated by a concerted effort of everyone concerned about the state of the world to come to some consensus about the meaning. Easier said than done. A little history of “sustainability” activities and programs reveals such diverse purposes behind corporate, individual, public, NGO, and other efforts that coalescence into a relatively coherent body of aims and activities is unlikely. That’s my conclusion, but it is shared by others. After writing a couple of books focused on “sustainability” in hopes of initiating such movement towards a consensus, I have given up—given up trying to get everyone to pull together, but not, by any means, giving up my efforts to work around that obstacle and provide an alternate approach.

Now for the second reason at the heart of the paradox. Virtually every program, project, strategy, or policy to combat unsustainability is an essentially technological fix, some form of eco-efficiency. Doing better, that is more efficiently, sounds great; who doesn’t want to do whatever they do better? In this case “whatever they do” is to grow or sustain some condition essential to the actors’ missions. It is to keep on chugging, hoping that life can continue on the trajectory it has been for some time. For many, it is to become wealthier in broad material terms, whether they are rich or poor. For others, it is increasingly just trying to hold on to what they have in the way of the means to provide for themselves and families. For some it is a hope that the myths of growth and upward mobility—the American Dream—will come to them. Sustainability and eco-efficiency are a metaphor for the status quo whether it be couched in terms of the process of growth or expansion, or in the maintenance of some level of well-being.

A simple lesson in systems dynamics, as I have shown in Sustainability by Design, demonstrates quite convincingly that our culture exhibits several basic archetypal behaviors: fixes-that-fail, shifting-the-burden, and addiction. Fixes-that-fail is the pattern characteristic of repeated attempts to solve a problem by attacking its symptoms. Applying a tourniquet can stop bleeding, but cannot cure the injury. In many cases, treating the symptoms produces something unintended. Addiction is related to fixes-that-fail, but, in this special case, the unintended consequences produce a new set of problems that grow to be more serious than the ones being addressed. Eventually, the secondary issues overshadow the original symptoms. Shifting-the-burden is like addiction, but without the development of a new problem. By only continuing to treat the symptoms repeatedly, attention is drawn away from consideration of the root causes, and the actor is stuck in an eternity of fixes-that-fail.

Our initial focus on sustainability was triggered by observing the symptoms of unsustainability: signs of a deteriorating natural system and immoral human conditions. The fix proposed was sustainable development: continued growth, but better growth. The specific framework was to be a portfolio of technological solutions, big and small, ranging from recycling to nuclear fusion. We have been at this now for many decades with little effect. The symptoms are still there and, in many cases, getting worse. Our Western political economies are all built on a materialist foundation of growth. The cost of reducing global poverty, one of the primary targets of sustainable development, has been accelerating deterioration. Growth won’t and can’t solve the problem it is largely responsible for. An interesting twist on Einsteins saying, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

One straightforward use of “sustainable” refers to a renewable resource when we talk about sustainable yield as a level of exploitation that permits the resource to regenerate at the same rate of exploitation such that the stock remains relatively constant. We have far exceeded such levels regarding the capacity of the globe to absorb our wastes. Fisheries are collapsing. This use of the term seems out of place when it comes to describing the global system where no more growth is possible without depleting its resources.

This brings me to last paradoxical aspect of sustainability. If the globe were producing the conditions we set as our vision for humanity and other life, we could not guarantee that it would sustain itself. Well-being or any other quality of life, say flourishing, is just that, a quality, not a quantity. We err when we try to metricize it and reduce it to a number in the name of managing it. Flourishing is a systems property. I flourish when the conditions of the system are right for it to happen. It, like many other properties of complex systems, such as the planet, is emergent, appearing like magic. Flourishing, like the flocking of birds or schooling of fish, is a kind of ordering that occurs when the individual elements (the humans) of the system follow the right rules. I am trying to figure out what the rules might be. Maybe flourishing might come when everyone is caring for their nearest neighbors, both human and non-human, similar to the rules that produce flocking.

As I keep reading about what is being done for sustainability, I become more convinced that the efforts are misdirected partly due the paradoxical nature of the word itself in the context it is being used. I came home from a meeting today in New Jersey where I gave a talk about my book and the idea of flourishing. As in just about every similar situation, I get peppered with questions and comments about the need to measure flourishing so we can manage our way to it. Sorry folks, we just can’t. Organizations should know this from experience, but this idea of measurement that so many managers carry from their MBA education trumps reflection and more pragmatic approaches. Real unintended problems that persist in enterprises are just like unsustainability. They almost always follow fixes-that-failed. Numbers don’t help. It takes reflection and observation that the firm or organization has boxed itself out of. That’s when the consultants are brought in. They aren’t any smarter, but they are not boxed in and do not try to manage their way out of the bad situation. Unsustainability is just the same only many times more complex. Maybe my work might be more accepted if those struggling with unsustainability would think of me as a consultant. Anyway, it’s a lot cheaper to buy my books than hire the Boston Consulting Group.