“Sustainability as Usual” Isn’t Good Enough

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By Kathia Castro Laszlo, Ph.D
The recent ecological disaster caused by the BP oil spill shortly after Earth Day is a reminder of the gap between the sustainability talk and the sustainability walk. The past 10 years of environmental awareness and activism have led to needed attention and some changes. Good intentions such as moving “beyond petroleum” made it into corporate slogans, but when it comes down to practical commitments, responsible action is less attractive than doubling profits.

In the eyes of consumers and business people, green products and services are the solution to the world’s problems. They aren’t.

Green lawn care is great and carbon offsets are wonderful, but they are not fundamental change.  They are the next wave of consumerism and materialism, a little bit less bad, but still contributing to environmental and social problems. Many well intentioned social entrepreneurs are going out with new ideas while grounded in the traditional business mindset. This fundamentally unchanged “business as usual” mentality, disguised with a bright shade of green, is fueling limited solutions that exacerbate the problems they were hoping to address. Take for example energy bars wrapped in foil and shipped from developed countries to feed hungry children in developing nations. The carbon footprint, the waste, the limited nutrition, and the dependency on aid created by this “solution” are far from a systemic approach that would include restoring ecosystems to create right livelihood and a reliable food supply to feed people and nurture the human spirit to revitalize those communities.

Real solutions will only come about if we can get beyond “sustainability as usual” and reexamine fundamental questions about how we relate to the world, and to each other. We need to mind the gap between what we say and what we do, we should not be willing to continue to live fragmented lives.

To succeed as good global citizens, cutting edge organizations will need to look beyond complying with certain eco-efficiency standards or to the achievement of a green certification. That may be a good beginning, but the creation of thriving organizations and communities takes more than that.  It requires that every aspect of the process, and not just the product, be sustainable – in a holistic way.

Perhaps the biggest change will come with the realization that we can never be fully “sustainable” – that sustainability is a never ending journey, a learning process to explore what it means to be fully human in an interconnected world.

In our research, Dr. Alexander Laszlo and I have come to call this perspective on sustainability, beyond market solutions and green products, the human dimension of sustainability: the emotional link between what happens in the world – in this planet – and our personal choices that enables the evolution of our consciousness and our cultures.

Sustainability, from this perspective, is systemic.  It begins when we are able to understand our place in a web of economic, social, cultural and ecological systems – relationships that have always been there but that we have ignored in our single minded focus for profit and economic growth.  It encourages diversity as a key condition for a viable system, and embraces the responsibility to live in ways that allow others to live as well.  Sustainability involves waking up and assuming our personal and collective power as leaders to shape our present and our future. It signals the time to stop the consumerism machine that has dictated what we should have or desire. It is a call to start listening to ourselves, to engage in deep conversations to understand and honor what brings meaning and joy to our lives, and to pay attention to the way we affect and are affected in everything we do.

John Elkington frames the move beyond “sustainability as usual” quite simply:  “we must now raise our collective sights from technologies and business models—important though they are—to psychological, social, and even civilizational change.”

So where do we begin? Right where we find ourselves: in the communities and organizations where we work, learn, play and live.  Moving toward more just, peaceful, healthy and viable futures for all will require collaboration and shared leadership:  people willing to stand for the principle that cost effective decisions that damage the common good are not profitable.  We are reaching a point where the public will demand nothing less.  From an organizational systems perspective, the true challenge presented to leaders committed to fostering sustainability is the ability to manage the tension between different interests and design processes that leads towards a collectively desired future.

Kathia Castro Laszlo, Ph.D. is the co-director of the MA in Leadership of Sustainable Systems at Saybrook University and co-founder of Syntony Quest.

Saybrook University is a Triple Pundit partner. TriplePundit continues to work with Saybrook University as a partner this month. We'll be hearing from faculty and students in Saybrook's innovative Organizational Systems curriculum.

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16 responses

  1. Brilliant article. The reality right now, I think, it that we're still in the “baby steps” part of solving these problems, and for that reason, I don't fault people and companies who are still celebrating 'green lawn care', or what-have-you. Still, someone needs to keep the pressure on people who are in the lead, who are in the position to be future leaders, and who are able to make big decision, that the real solutions lie much deeper!

    1. Darren, I agree with you. We need to think “both-and” — baby steps are necessary if we want to learn to run! The important thing is to acknowledge the limitations of some sustainability initiatives and keep the learning and innovative spirit going to expand the boundaries and create systemic solutions that include human, cultural and social dimensions of change.

  2. I like the concepts here. But it all seems pretty huge to me, and somewhat vague. I'd love to see some specific examples of where a 'truly sustainable' society has manifested in history (if it ever has) and how it might manifest today. Clearly it's a long way off, but what does it really look like? What are the big starting points?

    1. If there was a perfect example of a sustainable society, then why would we consider sustainability the greatest challenge of our time? This is a movement that requires innovation and constant expansion of boundaries to be more and more inclusive of multiple stakeholders. The good news is that we are not starting from zero. Experiments on sustainable living abound (for example, have you heard of the village of Gaviotas in Colombia?
      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/16/world/america…). And yet, sustainable communities get the most attention for their technological inventions around energy, water and natural resources. But for any organization or community to succeed in sustainable living, they will need “people skills” such as leadership and emotional intelligence. Learning to engage in deep dialogue and to collaborate, creating a shared understanding of our individual and collective needs and aspirations, seems like a very good starting point.

  3. Thanks for keeping it real Kathia. Thanks for the reminder to keep the big picture, the hardest questions, and the boldest visions at the forefront.

  4. this is nothing but spiritual hypothetical blabber – you speak of sustainability as if it were a religion. Admirable goals but you are in lala land – you need specifics if you think you are some type of prophet

    1. Joe, what do you mean, exactly? I'm not sure it's about specifics. It's about a greater awareness of things. The specifics come later, into whatever it is you specifically do.

      1. I have no desire to be a prophet! :) I'm sharing my reflections and I invite you to consider them as input for your own decisions and choices.

        I appreciate Sue's comment: yes, it is about a greater awareness. It may sound philosophical but we need to go to the roots: we have created unsustainable systems because we have not paid attention to the way we perceive the world and relate. Not everybody would agree that the human dimension of sustainability is a priority. That's ok — as long as we don't dismiss it — because it is an important part of an integrated solution.

  5. Wonderful Kathia. I was reminded of the information in the link below in reading your post.


    I agree wholeheartedly that we have to think both locally and globally. My growing belief is that the true purpose of all governance, at every level from small organization to federal governments, is to maintain the status quo. Thus local, grass-roots community oriented programs are needed — and fast. As FDR is reputed to have said when urged to adopt a new program, 'Now that's a great idea. Go out and get the people to force me to do it.'

    One thing that people still don't seem to get as they watch the news coverage of the oil spill in the gulf is that so far less than 20% of one day's US oil consumption has leaked out so far. We consume 20 million barrels a day in this country. I have yet to hear any of the pundits state that this spill makes them aware that they need to drive less, waste less plastic, use energy more wisely etc. No, only the blame game seems to be going on, without any awareness as to how each and every one of us is accountable for this disaster. There is virtually nothing we do that is not deeply connected to a continuing surplus of cheap energy. Trouble is, as we move beyond peak supply, the extraction gets much more costly (how much did that rig cost to build, operate, and now replace?) and obviously much more risky.

  6. While an undergraduate student in anthropology, one thing I learned really stuck with me: research shows that humans may be “hard-wired” in certain ways, but our large brains give us the capacity to contemplate, choose our actions and learn to change. Whether that means overcoming our impulses or channeling our energy, there are many examples in human history when people have come together to follow a common goal (such as public campaigns to stop littering and to start recycling). I believe there's hope.

    I'm glad that you are sharing articles such as this. Thanks.

  7. While an undergraduate student in anthropology, one thing I learned really stuck with me: research shows that humans may be “hard-wired” in certain ways, but our large brains give us the capacity to contemplate, choose our actions and learn to change. Whether that means overcoming our impulses or channeling our energy, there are many examples in human history when people have come together to follow a common goal (such as public campaigns to stop littering and to start recycling). I believe there's hope.

    I'm glad that you are sharing articles such as this. Thanks.

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