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.
NOTE: This post was originally published by the blog Triple Pundit on May 17th, 2010.