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Getting Real

Forget the 3 Ps. Here’s a better way to articulate the 3-legged stool

If you must use a triad to describe the legs of the stool, try this one.

Blueprint of a 3-legged stool

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

As a sustainability person, I like to speak of the "three Ps." But in my case, it stands for "Please, please, please!" — as in "Please, please, PLEASE stop using 'People, Planet, Profit.'"

I find the use of "planet" to be particularly problematic. Yeah, I know most mean it as shorthand for the entire ecosphere. But it does invite the counterpoint that the planet will survive with or without us, no matter what we do. (For an astronomically long time, anyway.)

For sure, "people" are part of that ecosphere, and this is the pillar with which we should lead in our conversations, both because our mission is  to reconsider how the human race conducts itself in this world, and because communicating impacts of decisions on humans is how we communicate meaning and urgency. But using it begs the question "Which people"? And sorry to say, the answer among decision-makers is too often "Me and my buds."

But the one that really sets my teeth on edge is "profit." Including it in a statement of worldview implies that a "healthy profit" is morally equivalent to "healthy people" and "healthy planet." Depending on your philosophy, you may feel that a market-based economy driven by the profit motive is the best economic model for a sustainable future. But even if you do, you are describing profit as a means to managing resources. it cannot be an end in and of itself, miring us in the status quo.

Often, the pillars are treated as alternatives (competing for funds), categories (for reporting) or just completely orthogonal stovepipes (with separate organizations aligned to them).

Actually, I’m not in love with the idea of separating our mission into three categories at all, overlapping or not. They are all part and parcel of one system. Not that that’s how it was originally meant (I think), which is that we should understand the impact of every decision on all three dimensions.

But it isn’t always used that way. Often, the pillars are treated as alternatives (competing for funds), categories (for reporting) or just completely orthogonal stovepipes (with separate organizations aligned to them).

Yet, to make the scale of change we need, we must understand that we cannot make true systems change by partitioning our goals.

When speaking with students, I often describe the triple bottom line as three legs of a stool; if you try to move one leg while leaving the other two in place, you won’t go anywhere. If you try to move two legs, you’ll get somewhere, but not very far. But if you lift up the whole thing, you can go anywhere — even upside down!

Still, it can be easier to communicate using three simple pillars. If you must have a triad, I suggest "Equity, Ecosystems, Economy." 

  • Equity means getting to a system with no throwaway resources, of course, but also no throwaway people, communities or businesses.
  • Ecosystems seek thriving biological systems, of course, but also urban ecosystems, economic ecosystems (sharing economy, bartering, foodsheds, etc.), and the larger systems that connect them, such as the circular economy.
  • Economy addresses all types of capital — human, natural, social, financial, intellectual — including fair use and just allocation. 

Systems are broken. It’s scary, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity to build entirely new ones. Language isn't the fix, but let’s at least not use it to narrow our horizons. Instead, let’s use words that expand our vision of the possible.

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