Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Besides providing concepts for much improved production systems, industrial ecology can also guide a transition to sustainability by changing key cultural beliefs and norms. More efficient production cannot alone alter unsustainable patterns of consumption. Sustainable consumption requires a shift in cultural values and beliefs. Extending the ecological metaphor that shapes the field to incorporate complexity can interrupt and shift what are now normal, but unsustainable, practices.
The lecture marks my return to the faculty I spent a year visiting with following my retirement from MIT.
Sustainability and its derivatives fall into the same class as a few of the key concepts underlying liberal democracies everywhere—like equality, freedom, and liberty—that are explicitly written into the founding documents of the United States. Such terms have been called “essentially contested concepts” (ECCs), signifying that there is an ongoing, never- ending dispute about both the meaning and the degree to which one can attain whatever is named by the concept (Gallie, 1956). I recall a recent allusion to some 300 or more definitions regarding sustainability. Sustainability is confused or conflated with “green” in many places. It is used more-or-less interchangeably in this publication and others focused on the notion of “sustainable development.”
The very way we think about the world and create the reality that grounds and justifies our actions leads to unsustainability and impedes a move to sustainability. But virtually every answer to every question we grapple with comes out of our view of reality. In a sense, we are stuck in the system that has creates our dilemmas. Until we begin to dwell in a new, sustainability world, we will have lots of questions but few answers that seem to fit. If you can discipline yourself to live inside of the questions that are surely raised here, then you will be able to slowly discard the old tried, but no longer true answers and replace them with new effective ways to build a sustainable future.
And that's the thing about consumption: It's essentially a myopic, self- centered pastime. Addictive consumption submerges our concerns about ourselves, others, and the Earth. The things we buy and use become extensions of ourselves; we use them mindlessly, with little awareness of why. The challenge for business should be to reverse this pattern by offering goods and services that, beyond merely adding to our possessions, actually restore and maintain our ability to care and flourish.
Management literature today abounds with stories about the business case for sustainability. Yet, the author suggests, much of business's efforts in the name of sustainable development at best only temporarily slow society's continuing drift toward unsustainability. Indeed, he argues, that the term "sustainable development" has become an oxymoron. The problem really stems from management's failure to see unsustainability as a deep-seated systems failure and to appreciate the extent to which radical thinking and action are required to embark upon a sustainable trajectory.
Over time, the business community has gotten in the habit of ignoring the source of the problem, and now it risks gradually losing the ability to think deeply about it in order to produce the right kind of solutions. Drawing on systems dynamics, philosophy, psychology and social theory, this article seeks to answer a critical question: Can anything be done to radically transform the way that businesses work?
It is ironic that I am writing this column on the philosophy, theory, and tools of eco-efficiency, because I expressed my skepticism concerning the subject at the meeting that is the source of this special issue. The concept of eco-efficiency was first described by Schaltegger and Sturm (1989) and then widely publicized in 1992 in Changing Course (Schmidheiny 1992), a publication of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Since then it has been accepted as the key strategic theme for global business in relation to commitments and activities directed at sustainable development. The WBCSD describes eco-efficiency as “being achieved by the delivery of competitively priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life cycle, to a level at least inline with the Earth’s estimated carrying capacity.”
Management literature abounds with articles making a business case for "sustainability." Business pundits trumpet the great opportunity for enterprises to find the few places they profitably can bundle social goods into their markets. Socially responsible investing has become the latest mechanism to use the power of the market, in this case the financial markets, to punish the "bad" guys and reward those firms that are doing the "right" thing. One problem with all of these practices is that they have little or nothing to do with creating true sustainability. In most cases, they will only temporarily slow down the process of environmental degradation and global social inequity. In short, the best that most businesses today can claim is that they're doing less harm than they might. But halting the environmental degradation and growing social inequity between the world's haves and have-nots will require fundamental change in the way that businesses and societies work.