Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sustainability Means More Than What You Might Think

Sometimes "buzz words" take on a life of their own. Definitions become distorted, or hijacked by someone with a profit motive, or manipulated for personal gain.  I happen to believe sustainability is a big deal, but it is hard to define what it means in certain contexts. Too often I see/hear "sustainability" used interchangeably with "environmentally friendly;" or even worse, I my opinion, separating the collective spheres with descriptions such as "this business plan is an economically sustainable proposal."

I might be parsing words here, but the sustainable diagram offered as a graphic in a ton of literature (and I share with you here) offers a definition that shows all three spheres of social, ecological and economic.  It takes all three spheres, and not simply because ideas sound good in threes.  Sustainable ventures require all three "pillars of sustainability," otherwise it is something other than sustainable (perhaps viable or equitable even).  The word venture isn't haphazardly chosen either.  Venture implies action across time.  This is critical -- it's oxymoronic to say "this is sustainable for the short-run."  In fact, some of the earliest definitions of sustainability offered by the Brundtland Commission (back in 1987) understood long timelines as a critical consideration.  The Commission's famous one sentence definition is:
"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Sustainability's definition is, almost 25 years later, still being refined. So here's my contribution:

There are key components of sustainability that I think can easily get lost in the definition, and while they may seem elementary, I want to be sure that these components are realized.  The three spheres of sustainability always concern:
  • time
  • need
  • activity (or exchange)
Socially, sustainability requires communities to build "Social Capital."  This means over time, and into the future, communities build bonds that foster cooperation and a respect for common goals and essential needs for themselves and future generations.  It spawns culture and friendships that build families and priceless experiences of life.  Social capital is exchanged as volunteering ideas, a helping hand, knowledge, experience, laughter, writing, blogs, movies, music, performance, etc.  Social Capital isn't intended for personal gain.  It's built up as a collective experience for those who are connected as neighbors, friends, distant pen-pals, or random acquaintances.

Ecologically, sustainability requires natural systems to operate in ways that maintain the physical health that we cherish.  Health for ourselves and health for other life.  Life is connected in a series of interdependent relationships that we have yet to fully understand.  This system has a life-supporting capacity that either can be deteriorated or invested in (this is known as Natural Capital).  There are many series of exchanges and activities that go into the clean conditions of our water, air, and food that are essential to our life and the life of future generations.

Economically, sustainability requires our own activities and exchanges between ourselves and our natural environment to not disrupt the exchanges previously described.  In fact, if it can support the richness of the previously mentioned activities, that is even better.  It is one thing to expect a business venture to respect our society and our planet, but to support those in a rich, creatively engaged kind of way.... I'd consider that Sustainability 2.0.

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