North Star

The sustainability movement has disappeared. Where did it go?

GreenBiz collage via Shutterstock

Some years ago, I purchased "Sustainability.Today" from a website supplier. I thought it would be a good name for a news service and social media channel about the global sustainability movement.

But I never used that web address, and now I plan to let it expire. The reason: The sustainability movement, which I have championed for most of my adult life, seems to have disappeared.

This is good news. At least, partly.

The sustainability movement had been fading for some time. I am not sure exactly when it winked out of existence, because many important elements of the movement are still around us: this website, GreenBiz, is one example. And many pioneers and leaders are still doing important work: Paul Hawken leading "Project Drawdown," Hazel Henderson leading Ethical Markets and writing columns, Hunter Lovins and Karl-Henrik Robert and John Elkington and many other pioneers still lecturing and promoting transformative ideas.

And most of the movement’s initiating institutions are also still active. The Club of Rome, for example, publishers of 1972’s "The Limits to Growth" (one of the sustainability movement’s founding texts), released a comprehensive call to arms in 2018 called "Come On!" under the leadership of then co-presidents Anders Wijkman and Ernst von Weiszäcker — both legendary sustainability leaders in their own right, both still going strong. (Notably, they recently stepped down, making way for the club’s first female leaders, Sandrine Dixson-Declève and Mamphela Ramphele.)

So, the movers are still with us. But the movement — which I experienced as a global, loose-knit but somewhat bounded community, with a common sense of purpose, organized around a set of ideas related to systems thinking, living within limits, and transformative change — is practically invisible. How did this happen?

The short explanation: The movement won. Or rather, the movement half-won. Here is how I see it, and having just read Stephen Hawking’s final book, "Brief Answers to the Big Questions," I hope you will forgive me for adopting a cosmological metaphor.

If the half-century after "The Limits to Growth" could be compared to the first moments after the Big Bang, then the period from 2012 to 2015 — specifically, from the United Nations global conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro ("Rio+20"), to the adoption of 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals three years later — can be likened to the much briefer phase, shortly after the Big Bang, that astrophysicists call "inflation." For reasons science is still working out, the very tiny early universe made an astonishingly sudden leap in size, and the small patterns that were coded into it at that moment of rapid expansion ultimately gave rise to the gigantic pattern of stars and galaxies we see today.

Those early patterns are discernible to the trained astronomic eye, but the rest of us simply live in the resulting universe — just as most people working in sustainable development now live in the expanded universe of the SDGs, with all the national reporting processes, integrated modeling tools, school curriculum programs, SDG-adapted business management schemes and so much else that quickly filled our world after 2015.

Suddenly mainstream

To be clear, the early sustainability movement hardly can be credited with the whole of the 2030 Agenda’s ultimate form. Several movements came together there. The sustainability movement, as previously constituted, was very strong on ecology and economics and relatively weaker on alleviating global poverty or advancing human rights.

But in fact, most of the movement’s action agenda — such as promoting the idea that caring for the Earth and its people is everyone’s responsibility; that we need to run our countries, cities and companies using a more integrated systems approach; that living sustainably on this planet will require accelerated technical innovation and other transformative changes, as well as good planning and reporting mechanisms — were swept up into the inflationary expansion that we now call the 2030 Agenda, adopted by all 193 nations in September 2015.

The sustainability movement’s tenets suddenly became so mainstream, and the universe of sustainable development grew so large so quickly — spreading through thousands of national and local governments, businesses, cities, universities and professions — that the sustainability movement itself began fading from view as a separate entity and ultimately disappeared. No one talks about it anymore, because it has been absorbed into this much, much larger entity.

That’s the "half-won" part of this story. One of the sustainability movement’s principal objectives (and something I personally worked on and wrote books about over many years) was to stop being seen as a marginal concept and to become the "new mainstream." Mission accomplished.

(I promoted this idea most forcefully in a short book from 2013 called "Sustainability is for Everyone." Although its message was aimed at sustainability professionals, telling them to get better at communicating sustainability to the mainstream, it ended up being used by those professionals as a short introduction to sustainability — for mainstream people. To my surprise and delight, it sold tens of thousands of copies.)

Now admittedly, the SDGs are far from universally loved, adopted and enacted. There are many well-known political and financial obstacles to their implementation, some countries have backtracked on earlier commitments, etc. But despite the obvious hindrances, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs changed the scope and the scale of sustainability work forever, expanding it by several orders of magnitude, virtually overnight.

Star treatment

And in this new, huger universe, the hardy few who drove the sustainability movement in its early days seem to me (astronomers, please forgive me) like a small cluster of stars suddenly surrounded by a vast field of galaxies. Which means those first stars are hardly noticed. Their formative influence on the resulting shape of the sustainable development universe is increasingly difficult to see — unless you know where and how to look.

I truly wish more people knew who Donella Meadows was, for example, and how her important influence can be seen all around us in the world’s sustainable development programs and policies. I am astonished by how few people working in this newly enlarged field have even heard of her. But then, we all have urgent work to do, so I accept that the world does not have time to look back with nostalgia on sustainability history and its brilliant pioneers. (Donella herself, who died in 2001, was a modest soul who would not care in the least whether she was remembered. See my essay, "The Brightest Star in the Sky: A Tribute to Donella H. Meadows," originally published in the Journal of Ecological Economics in 2001 and reprinted in my book "Because we Believe in the Future," 2009.)

But many pioneers are still very much with us. In the three years since the SDGs were adopted, I have watched some of the people involved in creating the sustainability movement grapple with this new reality — and find new roles for themselves. Some have specialized: Paul Hawken, a leading guru of sustainable business in its broadest since the 1990s, is a highly influential climate change activist, to pick just one example. Others have picked similarly specific causes to champion, such as the renewable energy transformation, community resilience or the health of the oceans.

Meanwhile, a small family of newer concepts, whose origins can be traced to the intellectual foment of the early sustainability movement (at least, as I experienced it), occupy their own spotlights on a much grander center stage. These include "Planetary Boundaries," "Donut Economics," "Science-Based Targets" and "Circular Economy," to name just a few. The rock stars of sustainability today are the communicators of these more specific, often interconnected, and frankly more practical concepts. (The early sustainability movement, just like the early universe, was always a bit fuzzy on the details.)

Others who strongly identified with the early movement, including myself, find themselves in government, business or academic positions where they have responsibility for administering, managing or teaching the "new mainstream" of sustainable development. The core questions on the table have shifted from "How do I get people to pay attention to this?" to "How do we continue integrating sustainable development into our rulebooks, procedures, cultural habits and incentive structures?" Progress in transforming large systems may be slow, but it now has an official mandate. Change is happening.

The other half

Which brings me to the other half of this story — the not-so-successful half of the movement. The half that has not yet won.

The primary reason that the sustainability movement was always aimed at mainstream acceptance is because the world — the very large, mainstream world — appeared to be heading over a cliff. Unfortunately, that still appears to be the case. And in some ways, the pace at which humanity is heading towards the precipice is accelerating, not slowing down.

If you are reading this article, you are probably familiar with the recent indicators: CO2 emissions rising rapidly again after a few anomalous years of stabilization. Deforestation of the Amazon on the increase again. Oceans filling with plastic. A recent slowing down (even a reversal in some places) of our remarkably successful efforts to lift people out of poverty. Armed conflict increasing after years of decline. Human rights increasingly at risk. And journalists, academics and NGOs finding that their freedom to tell the truth is threatened in more parts of the world.

That’s a tough list. If the sustainability movement has been so successful at integrating itself into mainstream policy and decision-making on a global scale, why is our world still heading in so many wrong directions? How should we relate to this sobering fact?

In my own work to promote sustainability, I have often been called an optimist. But that was always inaccurate: I am a person who chooses optimism, who promotes the cultivation of an optimistic mindset, because I believe it supports the necessary hard work and is therefore a vital condition for success. (My first book, "Believing Cassandra," originally had the subtitle "An optimist looks at a pessimist’s world." But that was the original publisher’s idea. For the second edition, I had it changed to "How to be an optimist in a pessimist’s world" — a more accurate reflection of my message.)

I do think the sustainability movement already has achieved something truly wonderful and remarkable. Its central ideas, championed by a generation or two of pioneers scattered all around the planet, have found their way into a vastly expanded playing field, comprised of international agreements, national policies, corporate strategies, school lesson plans and so much more.

But there is one big goal left to achieve for all of us working in this universe we call sustainable development. And accomplishing that goal is going to take far more than any small movement, fighting for mainstream attention, could possibly hope to achieve. It’s going to take millions, if not billions of people, all pulling in the same general direction.

We still have to save the world.