What integrated sustainability really means

What integrated sustainability really means

Image by funkblast via Flickr

For more than 20 years, I've been among those promoting a more integrated approach to sustainability. It's not just about the environment and resources, I keep reminding people. It's about systems: understanding their interconnections, the viability of their long-term trends, their limits.

And sustainable development is about changing systems — for the better.

In my books, articles, training courses, even my songs, I've hit that message over and over for decades. I invented the "Sustainability Compass" to try to make the links between nature, economy, society and human well-being simpler and more intuitive. On very old YouTube videos, you can watch me lecturing government officials on why sustainability is not the same thing as environmentalism, or singing "The System Zoo" to get people rockin' to the beat of system dynamics.

But lately, I've realized that I don't have to work so hard at broadcasting this message. People get it now. I know that, because they are starting to lecture me back, on the same topic.

Preaching to the choir

My work as a consultant allows me the opportunity to talk with senior officials and executives, in many places around the world. Here is what they are telling me lately:

1. "We've gone through a paradigm shift on sustainable development in the last year. It's no longer seen as an environmental thing. It's fully integrated into the way we think and plan around economic growth."

2. "From my perspective, countries now understand that sustainable development is really an integrated concept, and they are trying to figure out how to manage that integration in policy terms, across all ministries."

3. "We don't want to just do CSR and sustainability in a cosmetic way, with some social and environmental initiatives in the community. We want to integrate it into our core business."

Those are real quotes from real people, but the signs go well beyond personal anecdotes.

For example, a recent McKinsey study found that sustainability continues to rise on the agenda of the world's companies and CEOs, with 36 percent calling it one of their top three priorities (and 13 percent calling it their top priority, up from 5 percent last year). This is happening because leaders are "getting it" that sustainability is not about the environment: It's about the long-term viability of their organizations, companies and nations.

Yes, we have massive environmental and resource challenges, and these are growing. But you don't solve big problems like that with "environmental programs." You solve them with major changes in economic policy, social behavior, manufacturing processes and other pieces of our "core business" — corporate, governmental or societal.

 @sage_solar via Flickr

And to do that, you have to know how to drive big change. Increasingly, transformation is the jargon of the day. Promoting transformative and not just incremental change is actually policy in Germany, for example, when it comes to their international work on climate change. I recently worked with a major think-tank there, which had the task of explaining the difference between the two.

How to set the stage for transformation

Dealing with transformative change in complex systems inevitably leads people to wrestle with two other huge, demanding topics: mindsets and capacities. People won't help transformation to happen if (a) they don't think it is necessary and/or (b) they don't think it's possible. People like me spend a lot of our working time communicating both the necessity and the possibility of re-doing and re-building a lot of what previous generations did and built, in unsustainable ways.

But we also are increasingly consumed with the question of capacity. This slippery term does not just mean knowledge or skill -— although heaven knows, we need a lot more of both to do the things that need to be done.

Capacity's original definition has to do with space: how much can something hold? How much can we hold?

The challenges that sustainability works to address are huge — climate change, poverty, youth unemployment, ethnicity-fueled conflict, the health of the seas. These challenges have intellectual, technical, social and emotional dimensions. To address them properly, we have to "hold" all those dimensions in our minds as well as our hearts. We need brilliant insights and solutions, yes; but we also need courage, patience and a whole lot of love.

Improvements on every level

Integrated sustainability is, to my great relief, finally becoming a common notion and even a reality. As I write this, the world (meaning here, the United Nations) is even negotiating its first set of integrated, globally applicable Sustainable Development Goals. Progress never seems fast enough. But I believe that, all in all, we are on the right path.

Whether we will succeed in time is always the subject of great debate among my scientific friends. But I am convinced about one thing: the more seriously we pursue a fully integrated approach to sustainability, we not only increase our chances of creating a better world.

We also increase our chances of becoming better people.

Top image of green gears sculpture by funkblast via Flickr.

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