The Right and Wrong Way to Think about Sustainability

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Those who follow me know I am backing off from using the word “sustainability” because it has become merely a jargon word with little or no meaning or a euphemism for continuing to do the same thing as before with perhaps some slight improvement. I observed this usage primarily in business, but it is everywhere. In a couple of words, institutions have moved from “business-as-usual” to “business-almost-as-usual” when “business-not-anything-as-usual” should be their cry. While I have avoided using sustainability lately, I am aware that it does have an important place in our vocabulary and I need to make clear what usage I am criticizing.

Sustainability means the capacity of a system, simple or complex, to maintain both itself and the outputs it provides. The outputs can be material as in widgets, money, wheat, or salmon, or immaterial (emergent) as in liberty, beauty, or flourishing, the last being my favorite emergent property. The most important system around is the Planet, without which we wouldn’t be around at all. We are here in the first place because Earth has a particular combination of properties that enabled a bunch of molecules to coalesce and eventually evolve to become human beings and all other forms of life. Both the Earth and its life forms have changed over geological time. Life appeared maybe four billion years ago, and humanoid species maybe 4 million years ago. Pinpointing the exact dates is very hard.

As the Earth evolved, so did life. It adapted to changes right up to the present. Today the Earth can be said to sustain human (and other) life. Some species didn’t make it all the way, and went extinct because the conditions changed too fast for them to adapt or were hunted to extinction. Some are not extinct but cannot be harvested any more in their natural habitats in quantities sufficient to provide stable food supplies. These situations are not “sustainable” in a systems sense. The local ecological system has collapsed. That’s why I put salmon in the above list, but could have used many other important marine food sources.

We are facing the possibility that the Earth’s environment may change faster than our species can adapt. We, unlike the dinosaurs or mastodons, have the technological power to adapt by changing the environment rather than ourselves. But we don’t know how successful any changes we make will be in the long run, or how much more damage the changes themselves may cause. We cannot replicate all of nature’s sources in a way that will support the entire global population. We should because we are the ones that have driven the species to near extinction, helped along by climate changes that we have caused.

Many, perhaps most, efforts to restore deteriorating or deteriorated fisheries and other natural systems have failed primarily because we do not know enough about how their systems operate. Our interventions are incomplete and may even be counterproductive. Now stop and think about the big system that all such little systems are part of, Planet Earth. If we cannot keep our fisheries sustainable, how can we begin to talk about keeping our world sustainable with a straight face. The reality is that we can’t! Some may think they can, but they are generally only fooling themselves either on purpose or out of ignorance. It’s OK to use “sustainability” in theoretical terms like I am here, but not when thinking that you are doing something to bring it into being, for two principal reasons.

The first is that almost everyone talking sustainability or sustainable X is referring to some form of sustainable development because that’s where all this began, but sustainable development is only distantly related to the sustainability of the Earth system, if at all. Actually the two are feuding relatives. Sustainable development (the wrong kind of sustainability) is fundamentally about growing the Earth’s economy; sustainability (the right one) is all about keeping the Earth system running more or less where it is today, and sees continuing growth as destabilizing at some point, maybe last week. The right one is or should be focused on the system, not on the economy or any other part.

The second reason is that sustainability applies to the system in its entirety, not to any of its parts or mechanisms. As individuals or members of some institution, say work, we are all parts of the system, and are all interconnected. What I do here and now gets woven together with what everybody else is doing, and the sum total is what counts, that is, what influences the system and keeps it sustainable or not. What I do does matter, but not by itself. When companies act, they act as independent nodes in the global system, and their actions must be integrated into the whole set of actors, globally, to discover the impact of the system. The fundamental problem with sustainable business (the wrong kind) is that companies think they are making the whole system more stable by doing better, becoming more eco-efficient, using less resources to produce the same output. That might be effective, except for one small detail. They are always trying to produce more and more.

Yes, they are more efficient, but their higher volume outputs get added together (remember we are all part of an interconnected system) and continue to destabilize the Earth system, that is, make it less sustainable in systems terms. A contradiction in terms! But that seems obvious, doesn’t it? We all know something about disappearing fisheries and other systems. Some of us have read Jared Diamond’s books that explain similar disappearances in history. So what’s going on? I believe that this is due in part ito our deep immersion in reductionist thinking. Systems do not fit into our framing of problems. We are always looking to put boundaries in place so we can use our reductionist (partial) formulas and rules. We know we can’t do that with complex systems like the Earth or any large fishery. Another possibility is we live in a culture of individuality. We are all individual actors, free to go about our business without worrying about the cumulative, systemic effects. Competition among individual firms is the right way to operate. The invisible hand will take care of the system.

Well, it won’t! One step toward developing a coherent effort to combat growing instability (unsustainability) is to get on the same page (coherence, right) with the words we use. I stopped using sustainability because it conveys exactly the wrong message. Ironic, but what is being done in its name is undermining the deeper concerns people have about the future: “Is the Earth’ life support system sustainable?” That the word, “sustainable” should come to imply growth is even more ironic, for growth is much of the problem. So I have stopped using “sustainability,” as I have written, because it conveys the wrong message, not the one the word really means. I’ll end with a wonderful tale I have used before.

When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,’ that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained his reason: “If the namers 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.”

Not much has changed in 2500 years. Words become pointless when bent to serve one’s interest rather than bring reality to the problems at hand.

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