Sustainability Re-examined

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Most people believe that sustaining the planet is a good idea, given the impacts that human civilization is having. Business has played a big role in creating those impacts, and has been playing a big role in trying to address them. The problem is that sustainability only looks at half of what needs to be taken into account when thinking about whole living systems. Sustainability primarily addresses reducing impacts and increasing efficiencies. Corporate sustainability programs are wrapped almost entirely around these goals.

But every experienced businessperson knows you can’t make a healthy business by only reducing inefficiencies. The experience of running a successful business teaches that it’s the ability of a business to generate value that is the real source of its vitality and viability. You can only make a healthy business by figuring out what you want to grow, how to grow it effectively, and then defining inefficiency as anything that doesn’t produce what you are trying to grow. What is true of business is also true of the planet.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the sustainability movement’s emphasis on impact reduction has been its focus on managing behavior without growing systemic understanding. We are left with someone else’s version of what we should do to stop the degeneration of the Earth’s ability to support life, rather than a creative atmosphere that encourages each of us to invent new possibilities for ourselves. This “we know what you should do” approach is reflected in everything from LEED guidelines for greener buildings to conservation plans developed for corporations—plans that tell us what to do without helping us evolve who we could be. People may think they mean something more when they talk about sustainability, yet almost every example and effort is an attempt to work on what exists. This leads to mitigation efforts rather than generation of new potential.

If a person does something because someone else tells them to do it, and they don’t fully understand it, there is none of the fulfillment that comes from having been the source of a meaningful contribution. All the person experiences is effort and money spent. Businesses are spending enormous amounts of money on reports, sustainability plans, measurement of impacts, and other well-intentioned efforts. But if they were working on building understanding and action based on how the living systems actually work, and if they were linking these actions to their core business, they would have a greater effect for far less cost.

As far as I’m concerned, a living systems approach would not even work on sustainability. Sustainability has come to mean a return to the way things would be if they were working as “nature” intends them to be. But this thinking leaves humans out of the picture as a contributing and creative member of the whole planetary system—and an important part of nature. A business should be interested in regeneration, the moving of a living system (the business itself along with the larger living systems it is part of) up to a higher level of expression. A business cannot survive without the services a community provides nor the resources and services the Earth provides. And I believe that human beings (and the organizations they create for themselves) are an excellent instrument for doing that work. This interdependency is why communities and the value adding processes of the Earth are stakeholders in the success of a business.

An example of moving a living system up to a higher level of expression was demonstrated by the nation of Costa Rica in one of its forest restoration projects. As the team responsible for the project began to think more deeply about forest restoration projects, they began to see that humans could work with nature and let nature create the forest. Rather than plant the trees themselves, they installed posts where fruits from the desired trees could be set out. Birds were attracted, ate the fruit, and deposited the seeds in a “nutrient bundle.” Result? The forest regenerated itself using the same processes that nature would use. Human ingenuity helped create the conditions for a natural process of regeneration to occur. Businesses too can model themselves after nature to create conditions that set in motion natural processes of regeneration.

Earlier I said that what is true of business is true of the planet. Well it also works the other way around—what is true of the planet is true of business. We have a lot to learn from natural systems about how to evolve our businesses to levels of effectiveness and profitability beyond anything we have imagined. This learning from nature is the real opportunity that lies behind corporate efforts to bring their actions into harmony with nature. In learning how to achieve that harmony lies the future evolution of business itself.

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