Our responsibility to future generations is set as the main principle of Sustainable Development concept introduced by Brundtland Report in 1987. Since then, this term, along with a plethora of related concepts, firmly settled in virtually all languages and became an often used word for the topics of environment or climate change. And yet, do we actually understand what it is? What does sustainability really mean to all of us? Or, arguably more important, what does it mean to global industry?
If one types “sustainable development” into any search engine, it would bring back a lot of sources adorned with the following 3-way diagram:
It is hard to pinpoint its author, but one may argue that this is the most commonly used presentation of the Sustainability concept. It describes its three pillars: Economy, Society and Environment. They are linked together, forming sub-concepts of Viable, Bearable and Equitable. Only if all three factors come together, it is possible, the diagram argues, to reach the level of sustainable development that would be socially equitable, economically viable and environmentally bearable.
The idea definitely seems to be valid, with rational arguments to support it. No wonder it became a dominant way of thinking across many parts of our society, deeply rooted in governmental policies and industry regulations. It is frequently pictured in various popular science resources, business CSR reports and, somehow, achieved the status of an axiom – a statement that is taken to be true.
Even more than that, for some, the mere idea that environment has to be on equal footing with economy is not acceptable. Online pollster YouGov published survey results it undertook in US in 2015, asking general public a simple question of priority. The results, perhaps unsurprisingly, were extremely partisan across political affiliations, but, what is crucial, whopping 35% of interviewed thought that economy is more important than environment.
Is it though? Does such approach represent reality, or is it an example of “convenient truth” for those who benefit from it? Perhaps, wishful thinking for millions of less fortunate and depraved, who struggle to provide for their families and have no time for environment?
To answer this question, we should look at the three systems of the diagram. Are they truly equal, albeit interconnected, or is there more to be seen? At the first glance, it seems that in our money-driven world economy is the overwhelming power, which controls our everyday lives, from getting food in a local shop to billion pound interactions between countries and corporations. It is only natural to position everything including environment and society, around economy.
However, some disagree. In fact, majority of credible environmental scientists do along with many leading economists. For instance, American ecological economist Herman Daly argued back in 1995:
“In my view everything depends on which paradigm one accepts: the economy as subsystem or the economy as total system”
Looking at YouGov survey, clash of approaches can rarely be more evident. Arguments from industry representatives, who almost always put profit at the heart of their philosophy, invariably include very generic and politicised points like:
- “comprehensive” corporate social responsibility CSR policies;
- stable jobs for “honest ordinary people”;
- proud support of “national manufacturers”, etc.
At the same time industry usually resists tighter environmental regulations, coming out with something in the spirit of “this would compromise the steady progress of our enterprise” or “that would add unnecessary risks in volatile environment and endanger support for local community”…
Nonetheless, history shows us that, for instance, car manufacturers like GM, Ford and Chrysler, which consistently lagged in environmental innovations behind the likes of Toyota or Nissan, suffered greatly in the aftermath of the biggest economic crisis of XX century. Toyota took over the mantle of the largest car manufacturer from GM, while Nissan introduced the most popular electric car in the world – Nissan Leaf. In fact, out of more than 15 popular electric car models, only two originate in US, with Tesla being one of the brightest examples of “new age” manufacturers, placing economy as a subsystem and not a total system, in the words of H. Daly.
By the way, Tesla, along with several other prominent enterprises, understand that Sustainability is not a thousand year old fundamental science, like Maths or Physics. The concept is not based on ancient defined laws, like gravity or thermodynamics. On the contrary, sustainable development is a combination of many concepts, technological and social changes, philosophical and evidential sciences. It evolves and changes with civilisation, and, what is crucial, as any other human system in existence, it is contained within the infinity of nature.
If proof is needed, one has to answer a rather simple question – do economic laws ever override the laws of nature? Or does the belief that they do reminds one of the medieval beliefs that the Sun moves around the Earth, or perhaps that the Earth is flat? Worth mentioning that these nonsensical notions were supported by virtually all contemporary ruling classes only a few hundred years ago. Scientific advancements and education may have improved our understanding of the world, but centuries’ old experience keeps reminding us that people in charge are not always right or, indeed, know what is better for the future.
Ultimately, whether one accepts it or not, humanity is only a part of the environment. All the concepts, systems and things our civilisation has ever produced, however complex and overarching, are not outside natural laws. Based on this simple fact, generation of wealth cannot be considered an excuse for ever expanding exploitation of limited resources, destruction of habitat, pollution of air, land and water. Especially taking into account outstanding inequality in wealth distribution across the planet.
Uniting all that into equation, would the following concept be closer to reality? Would it be only logical to place economy in the heart of a wider system, serving community being an organic part of global environment?
This concept also expands the understanding of Sustainability as not only “something related to nature protection”, but as a paramount concept of human development. It is based on fair distribution of wealth, creation of robust stable society that is caring about future generations, while using natural resources in a responsible renewable way.
We have to admit that people in general confuse short term concerns with longer term objectives. Indeed, multiple examples highlight that vast majority of people would rather choose to live today and now, without saving for the “rainy day”, hoping it never comes. It always does, however. For instance, most recent data from UK FCA indicates that the amount of people drawing their pensions from private funds early as a lump sum has increased dramatically. This literally puts these same people at serious risk 10-20 years down the road, as life expectancy continues to rise, leaving the elderly without financial means.
Such examples exist virtually in all aspects of our lives. However, nowhere it is more evident than in the challenge of global warming and climate change. Despite serious efforts from many governments, “new age” industry representatives and NGOs, only fundamental shift of sustainability paradigm, described above, can ensure long term development of our civilisation and happy healthy prosperous lives for us and our descendants.