John R. Ehrenfeld: “People do not even know what they mean by sustainability”

"The world, the ultimate source of goods, is finite. Eventually we will exhaust the resources necessary to support human life." - John R. Ehrenfeld

“The world, the ultimate source of goods, is finite. Eventually we will exhaust the resources necessary to support human life.” – John R. Ehrenfeld

A month ago, Andy Hoffman and I were throwing a book party to celebrate our combined efforts in writing Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. With a few hitches here and there, I can say I am flourishing in real life. Without being smug, I can say, that at any moment, I feel complete and satisfied that I am taking care of myself, others and the world.

But I can hardly say the same for the world out there. People do not even know what they mean by sustainability, as I judge not only in their words but, more importantly, in their actions. Sustainability always carries a sense of continuing to create or maintain something. Without specifically naming the something as I do in calling out flourishing as the goal, the cry for sustainability is a cry for maintaining the status quo. Two questions naturally then arise. What characteristics of today’s world? Who decides which ones?

Let’s start with business. What would business want to sustain? Very simple question in this domain: growth. Growth both in the overall economy and for each firm. Growth drives strategy. Virtually any initiative taken by a company is aimed at producing growth. Eco-efficiency or CSR are only means to that end.

How about global planners? The same thing. Sustainable development is a growth strategy, like business. The same means are to be employed: eco-efficiency and wealth redistribution, that is, CSR on the global scale. On the national scale, political leaders and their advisors want, guess what, growth. They are less concerned with eco-efficiency than with political efficiency, exploring policies that will grow their share of the electorate along with enlarging the economy. How about individuals? Their call is for more. Poor people need more wealth to compete for sustenance in the economic zero-sum game. They are less concerned about growth than getting a bigger share of what there is now.

Science has become “big” science where the conversation has become grow or die.

Other institutions? Entertainment: growth. Stars want to be bigger stars. Sports is at least as much a pure business looking to grow as it is a form of diversion. Universities: growth to pay the ever increasing salaries of presidents and faculty. Bigger and bigger research budgets to support ambitious faculty and businesses looking to exploit that research. Science has become “big” science where the conversation has become grow or die. NGOs are, perhaps a little less driven by growth, but they too want to grow their programmes and to pay their presidents and directors more. There are certainly exceptions of organisations looking for more quality than quantity, but they are hard to spot.

This should not be a surprise. Organisations are nothing but people doing their things. As I just noted, people want more, and to get more for everybody the pie must grow. It doesn’t usually work out that way. Some grow disproportionately as the pie grows. As we all have heard repeatedly “The richer get richer; the poor get poorer.” Power always gets in the way of fairness in the game of sharing. So if individuals want more, collectively that become translated into calls for collective growth.

What’s wrong with this basic idea, other than the unfairness that it breeds? If the source of growth was an infinite pot of goodies, nothing in theory. But this simple economic model has several serious, probably fatal, flaws. One is, of course, that the world, the ultimate source of goods, is finite. Eventually we will exhaust the resources necessary to support human (and other) life. In some areas, we are already doing that. But there is another flaw that keeps getting ignored or denied. The metabolism of living or economic activities produce toxins that eventually stop growth and even life.

Now, humans have smarts and tools available to them to cope with a finite world, but even these have limits, too often ignored in the hubristic behaviour of modern societies. Climate change is the most evident sign of this. The greenhouse effect is a fact of physics, not an invention of political liberals. While questions about the details of the effects of increasing greenhouse gases remain in the eyes of the sceptics, there is no question about the direction we are going and the ultimate effects of our activities. We have recently passed 400ppm of carbon dioxide, a level that has already begun to affect the planet.

Humans have smarts and tools available to them to cope with a finite world, but even these have limits, too often ignored in the hubristic behaviour of modern societies.

Growth is not the right thing to sustain, certainly in those parts of the world that have already benefited from this modern notion. Since the affluent countries are the big consumers of global resources, their demands for growth exacerbate the situation. Anyway, sustaining growth is not the same as sustaining something or some quality; this form of sustainability is process oriented. Calls for sustainability aim at maintaining the context for growth, keeping the world available to us as a source of growth, but without much concern for that world beyond its ability to support growth. I suggest we keep the yeast example in sight.

We evolved as a species that cared about itself and the world. Our unique powers of consciousness enabled such care. If an organism is not aware of its existence, it is unable to take intentional action toward itself. It can and does survive, but it does not do that through caring actions. Care entails intentional acts that require consciousness. Flourishing is the term I have used as a measure of both the quality and completeness of one’s actions. Actions are, after all, what makes us human beings. Sustainability should be about maintaining flourishing.

This is an adapted blog post by John R. Ehrenfeld. You can view the original here.


flourishingThis astonishing book invites you into a conversation between a teacher, John R. Ehrenfeld, and his former student, now professor, Andrew J. Hoffman, as they discuss how to create a sustainable world. Unlike virtually all other books about sustainability, this one goes beyond the typical stories that we tell ourselves about repairing the environmental damages of human progress.

John R. Ehrenfeld is a long-standing and influential voice in the sustainability debate. He was Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment. From 2000–2009, he served as Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. He continues to do research, write, and teach, most recently at several emerging MBA for Sustainability programmes.

Flourishing is out now. To find out more about the book, please head over to our website.

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One thought on “John R. Ehrenfeld: “People do not even know what they mean by sustainability”

  1. Sustain has two distinct meanings.

    1. To keep steady or constant by supplying the necessary, food, materials, thoughts, inspiration, books, hopes etc., so that the current venture does not become smaller.
    2. To keep up with the same rate of growth, as for a country which is trying to increase its GDP by 3% annually. If this drops then it is not being sustained.

    This reminds me of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who had to run (most unqueenly) in order to stay where she was (and not go backwards). So it seems to me that when it comes to economics and politics and good government we hare being a bit too liberal when we use this word.

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