Sustainability: getting orientated
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Philip Sutton
Director, Policy and Strategy
Green Innovations Inc.
Tel & fax: +61 3 9486 4799
15 November 2001
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by Philip Sutton.

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When we talk about sustainability what do we mean?

Sustainability and sustainable development are increasingly being discussed in the community.  But often people do not make an effort to be clear about what they mean.  So our discussions can become quite confused.

At it’s core, "sustainability" is the ability to maintain something over time.  

But what is the something?  If we talk about sustainability, are we talking about sustaining the environment OR the society OR the economy OR the firm or organisation we work for OR something else OR some combination of these?  The concept of sustainability can legitimately be applied to so many different things that we really need to qualify the term almost every time we use it: so we should speak of ‘ecological sustainability’, or ‘social sustainability’ or ‘economic sustainability’ or ‘organisational sustainability’ or when these are combined ‘holistic or triple bottom line sustainability’.

As people have become engaged in pursuing the achievement of sustainability they have started to focus on how to do it.  And this practical orientation has given rise to a trend to define sustainability in terms of  what needs to be done.  Over time, this shift has morphed the core meaning of sustainability for many people.  Lots of people will now tell you that “sustainability = the integration of social, economic and environmental issues” – even where these are traded off against each other.  So the idea of maintenance as the core meaning for sustainability is displaced by the idea of integration (with trade-offs).  But maintenance and major trade-offs are mutually exclusive.

This morphing of the meaning has come about due to a confusion of means and ends (objectives).  The objective of sustainability is maintenance while the means to this end might be (amongst many other things) an integrated grappling with issues in the social, economic and environmental arenas but without any major trade-offs.

Another direction in which the meaning of sustainability has morphed is to treat it as a kind of post-modern label for everything that is good and wholesome.  Treated this way, sustainability becomes a substitute for earlier aspirational goals such as heaven-on-earth or socialism or progress.  This meaning emerged, I think, because many people have started to use the terms sustainability and sustainable development interchangeably (that is, as synonyms).  But sustainable development is not the same as sustainability.  Sustainable development is a compound concept that combines concerns for continuity (sustainability) with concerns for change (development).  

So "sustainable development" is the change process in society and the economy that enables the achievement of sustainability and the effective pursuit of genuine progress.

It may be appropriate to see sustainable development as a suitable comprehensive aspirational goal for society, but it is certainly not appropriate to see sustainability as such a complete goal.  People are motivated, quite reasonably, by more than just maintaining / saving certain environmental, social or economic values (the focus of sustainability).  They are also motivated by novelty and by the desire for genuine progress.  It is sustainable development that combines the pursuit of sustainability and genuine progress.  

Genuine progress is a process of change that enables human needs (individual and social, for current and future generations) to be met more effectively or more fully, without major trade-offs affecting people or nature.

Except for people or societies that are very poor, progress is the icing on the cake.  So, those of us who have the good fortune not to be poor can afford to take a relaxed attitude to genuine progress.  We can see the journey as being more important than the destination.  And indeed we can recognise that there is logically no final destination for genuine progress.

But sustainability is a different beast altogether.  People are concerned about sustainability because something that we value might be lost.  There is a process of decay, degeneration, decline or threat at work and there are irreversibilities to be faced (absolute in many cases [eg. wild species] or practical where reversal of loss is very difficult or very long lasting).  With the risk of irreversible loss comes the need to address the preferred end state for effective action and the need to consider the necessary scale and speed of action.

When we deal with sustainability we cannot afford to have an open-ended attitude.  In the case of sustainability, the 'destination' is definitely more important than the 'journey'.  But a sustainable state is not a place, it is a condition……just like health is a condition and not a place.  There are a huge range of ways to be sustainable but it’s imperative that we actually achieve one of those configurations, otherwise we will not achieve sustainability and something that we value highly will be lost.

Sustainability as health and security - for whatever is to be sustained

What does sustainability look like when we apply it to individuals? Our personal sustainability is ensured if we can avoid:
(a) extended processes of decay/deterioration/degeneration (eg. illness) - that is not reversed 
(b) *risk* of abrupt loss 

So personal sustainability is ensured through a combination of maintaining adequate health and security.

If you have health and security then you are free to get on with life - for a long time.

This can be extended to society or the environment. There is no single ideal or fixed sustainable society or environment, but any society/environment that claimed to be sustainable would have to have achieved:
* ecological health & security - if was ecologically sustainable 
* social health & security - if was socially sustainable
* economic health & security - if was economically sustainable.

If we want 'triple bottom line' sustainability at the macro level then we need to work out what is needed for ecological, social and economic health & security at that level. And that society/environment is only sustainable if that adequate level of heath and security is *achieved*. Working forever 'towards' is not enough!

Other related material

Sustainability: Woolly, feel-good & unachievable? Or a vital goal for practical action?

Sustainability: What does it mean?

Ecological sustainability

Author:  Philip Sutton
First posted:  21 October 2001
Content updated:  15 November 2001
Format updated:  22 October 2001
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