The Concept of Sustainability: Internal Diversity and Points of Conflict

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by: Michael Hoexter

Sustainability has become one of the virtues with which almost every intelligent person and organization wants to associate themselves.

The notion of ecological balance or ecology was superseded by “sustainability” largely through the work of the UN’s Brundtland Commission, whose report on sustainable development called “Our Common Future” was published in 1987. Sustainable development was summarized as:

…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Though a very elegant formulation, we are still trying to figure out what this would entail as applied to our very complex societies and economies. Scientific advances in both how we measure our predicament and how we can solve it make a continual process of clarification and revision necessary in coming up with a relevant sustainability concept or set of concepts.

As the concept of sustainability has gained currency, moving from the realm of political idealism and academia to that of economic and political reality, how the concept manifests itself has also become more diverse and different aspects of sustainability has emerged. The operationalization (deriving practical level measures and recommendations) of the concept means necessarily becoming more specific and breaking down the enormous task of creating a sustainable society into roles for individuals and organizations. These differing points of emphasis within sustainability often overlap and can often work together harmoniously but there are also points of dispute and tension. Here below are my takes on what are the major salient aspects of sustainability as a concept. Individuals and groups will of necessity gravitate towards a subset of these tendencies depending on their own interests and motivations.

  1. Balanced exchange between humanity and nature – focus on equilibrating energy and matter flowing between human society and non-human/pre-human ecosystems. The ideal state would be a “fair” or balanced exchange between humans and non-human nature.
  2. <!–[if !supportLists]–>(Holistic) Systems Thinking – Ecology developed as a science that studied feedback loops and cycles in nature, in particular through study of the ecosystem concept. Ecology emerged as political issue when authors like Rachel Carson started to notice the “feedback” of our activity on non-human nature. Subsequent developments in scientific modeling have discovered further complexity and non-linearity in natural and artificial systems in what has become “complex systems theory” or so-called “chaos theory”.
  3. <!–[if !supportLists]–>Long Time Horizon/Responsibility to the Future – Extends time horizon beyond the current generation to future generations. Effects investing and consumption behavior.
  4. <!–[if !supportLists]–>Efficiency/Conservation – Conservation of natural resources and the three R’s – reduce, recycle, reuse are all about doing more with less. Efficiency is the most accessible aspect of sustainability for many modern corporations and governments.
  5. <!–[if !supportLists]–>Fairness/Equity – Sustainability has become to signify an aspect of we would think of as a “good society” and inherits conceptions of what comprises a good society. There are wide variations between people on what is a fair and equitable, variations that will inform future disputes about what is sustainable or can be linked to sustainability.
  6. <!–[if !supportLists]–>Biomimicry and Biophilia – Sustainability and the ecology movement that inspired it are based on theories about how biological systems do and should operate. Some study biological systems for clues about how we might create our own artificial systems while others seek to connect to and raise the value of biological systems and their non-human representatives.
  7. <!–[if !supportLists]–> <!–[endif]–>Linking and Re-Valuing the Local and the Global – Sustainability as a concept emerged in an era when the most powerful political entities have been national governments and transnational corporations. Advocates of sustainability push into the forefront what has been left out of consideration by “traditional” late 20th century thinking within the public and private sectors which focused on a mid-level of abstraction between local and global.

On any given occasion or in any given organization or individual, not all of these aspects of sustainability are given equal time or emphasis. I would venture that there are three main tendencies which are now exhibited when sustainability is discussed.

Operational Starting Point #1: Economic sustainability

This definition of the word has come to be applied to a firm or organization in isolation: can the organization continue to survive in the current economic system? Does income exceed expense? Without economic sustainability any firm is not going to last unless it is massively subsidized by a larger or richer entity. This simple economic definition is important for long term sustainability of a green or sustainable capitalism but is in and of itself more a part of conventional accounting and corporate finance.

As we have learned, a firm or economic entity (could be a government, town, etc.) can sustain itself at the cost of the local or global ecosystem by enjoying various economic and ecological subsidies. Whether this can continue is based on the ratio of subsidizing to recipient economic entities. The more eco-system unbalancing entities that there are the less sustainable the whole society can be. The only aspect of sustainability compatible with this operational definition is

Operational Starting Point #2: Ecological Sustainability

This definition is the heart of sustainability in the strict sense: does an organization or social entity of some description have a balanced relationship with the surround eco-systems and social systems? If there is an imbalance does it contribute to the social ecological services (sanitation services, reforestation/preservation etc.) in sufficient amounts that help it overall to have a net zero balance or even a restorative effect on the natural ecosystems on which it depends?

How one arrives at the accounting of a “net zero balance” and of “social ecological services” is something that would need to be worked out for a wide variety of organizations and industries. A complex combination of energy and matter flows through all human organizations for which there has been no consensual scheme to define, evaluate and count emissions, products, and consumption.

Other important points to operationalize within ecological sustainability include what constitutes a “long-term” time horizon, long enough to be sustainable? Do sustainable solutions necessarily mimic biological processes? Must we like or love biological processes more to become sustainable? Are local solutions always better than regional, national or international solutions?

It is easier to start with certain key, “make or break” issues like greenhouse gas emissions and the concept of “carbon neutrality” is the closest thing we have to a potentially accountable goal for sustainability. Still the drawing of boundaries around an organization and its sphere of influence will most probably be an area of contention. Is an organization carbon neutral if its supply chain is not? Are carbon emissions being displaced outside the firm? These are all questions that will need to be answered and for which there will be multiple answers.

Within simple ecological sustainability there are no specifications for how relationships between people will be organized. A sustainable society could be very hierarchical, even dictatorial or highly stratified with a class of scavengers who provide “social ecological services” as already occurs in some urban settings in the US and in garbage heap dwellers in developing countries. Robert Costanza, the ecological economist has outlined three potential social arrangements that could yield an sustainable outcome which he calls Ecotopia (resource constraints, social just, moderate government intervention), Big Government (central control of resources in a condition of scarcity), and Star Trek (technological innovation and resource abundance).

Operational Starting Point #3: Ethical Sustainability

Ethics concerns how people should act and most ethical rules have focused upon relationships between people, though ethics with regard to the treatment of natural systems are also possible and desirable. Ethics is a rule based approach to human conduct and can be as minimal or as demanding a set of rules as can be constructed. Ethical usually refers to our “highest and best” set of rules which means a more demanding standard of conduct than the law requires.

Once could have a set of strictly environmental ethics but in common usage “ethical” investment and consumption includes also how people treat other people. It is this wider notion of ethics as encompassing both the relationships between people and the relationships between people and the environment that I am referring to in the notion of ethical sustainability. Ethical sustainability draws heavily from Aspect #5 above (Fairness/Equity).

There are however conflicts about how large a set of ethics one needs to have a good society and the range of applicability of ethical standards. Among the sets of ethics that people do not agree upon are disputes about how much of a role government has in the economy whether or not one considers issues of sustainability. In addition there are other ethical disputes about the role of government in regulating social life as well as disputes on what are “good” social relationships.

While I have outlined some of the fault lines within ethical sustainability, there are obviously substantial rewards in espousing ethical responsibility. Sustainability is about claiming leadership and ethics are part of the cultural high ground that leaders must occupy (or at least appear to occupy). Ethics are the short form of the wisdom of a society and sustainability being the latest addition to our cultural wisdom would naturally be joined with other ethical rules.

Instead of a Conclusion

Sustainability is a diverse concept with many constituencies and many tendencies. As you can see above, there is something like a smorgasbord of different organizing principles within the conceptual framework of sustainability from which individuals and organizations can choose.

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Operationalizing sustainability means pursuing a combination of these paths to get down to practical, operations level concepts that can be measured yet remain related to the conceptual, holistic framework from which they were derived. The closest to a widely accepted partial operationalization of sustainability is “tons of carbon avoided” which is in itself insufficient and, in my opinion, needs further focusing. Nevertheless, more measures like these need to be formulated to create a fuller picture of what sustainability will mean in a more detailed way.

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