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The Past and Future of Sustainability

By Bill Baue | SustainAbility | June 18, 2007

CREDIT: Mike Rosales (CC).

Sustainability is an ancient concept, best articulated in the Gayaneshakgowa, or the Great Law of Peace of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy: "In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." This concept was reawakened two decades ago through the publication of Our Common Future, popularly known as the "Brundtland Report." This report, named after Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, chair of the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development that authored it, coined the term "sustainable development," which introduced a slight twist on sustainability.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," the report famously states in its oft-cited quote. The next sentences may be equally important, though less known: "Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth, it recognizes that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which countries of the global South play a large role and reap large benefits."

"Economic growth always brings risk of environmental damage, as it puts increased pressure on environmental resources," the report continues. "But policy makers guided by the concept of sustainable development will necessarily work to assure that growing economies remain firmly attached to their ecological roots and that these roots are protected and nurtured so that they may support growth over the long term."

The report thus strung a tightrope between environmental stewardship and economic growth (a debatable linkage), and entrusted policymakers to walk the line (a questionable assumption.) Indeed, some questioned whether economic growth of the type guided by "developed" country policymakers might be antithetical to environmental balance nominally advocated by the Brundtland Report.

"[T]op-down management, misguided by an unrealistic vision of development as the generalization of Northern over-consumption to the rapidly multiplying masses of the South has led to many external failures, both economic and ecological," said Herman Daly, considered the father of ecological economics, in his retirement speech from the World Bank Environmental Department in early 1994.

The Brundtland Report, which inspired the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that resulted in the Climate Change Convention and in turn the Kyoto Protocol, acknowledged that many "of the development paths of the industrialized nations are clearly unsustainable." However, it held fast to its embrace of development toward industrialized nation living standards as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

"The principles of sustainability, involving the prioritization of intergenerational equity—in addition to what you might call interspecies equity—seem to me to operate at a higher, almost civilizational level, than sustainable development."
"If large parts of countries of the global South are to avert economic, social, and environmental catastrophes, it is essential that global economic growth be revitalized," the report stated. "In practical terms, this means more rapid economic growth in both industrial and countries of the global South, freer market access for the products of countries of the global South, lower interest rates, greater technology transfer, and significantly larger capital flows, both concessional and commercial."

The notion of sustainable development established by the Brundtland Report helped popularize the concept of sustainability, though the two ideas differ (despite the fact they are often used interchangeably.)

"Most people outside the field of sustainable development have never heard of Our Common Future, but it helped create the field—and push the related concepts into the political mainstream," said John Elkington, chief entrepreneur of SustainAbility, the UK-based think tank and consultancy he founded about the same time as the launch of Our Common Future. "I don't consider the terms sustainable development and sustainability synonymous."

"The principles of sustainability, involving the prioritization of intergenerational equity—in addition to what you might call interspecies equity—seem to me to operate at a higher, almost civilizational level, than sustainable development," Mr. Elkington told

In other words, sustainability takes a longer, broader, and more interconnected view than sustainable development.

Over the past 20 years, the Brundtland Report has helped fuel many advancements. These include wider use of the language of sustainability, better understanding of the underlying science of sustainability, technological improvement (such as cleantech), and uptake of the sustainability agenda by financial markets. However, true sustainable development has been achieved "to a very limited extent indeed" since the publication of the Brundtland Report, according to Mr. Elkington.

"Demographic trends have been moving against us—and, as the development of countries like Russia, India, and China demonstrates, our economic models haven't changed that much over the past 20 years," Mr. Elkington said.

Going forward, Ms. Brundtland has the opportunity to effect perhaps greater change, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed her as a Special Envoy on Climate Change last month.

"Climate change is the most dramatic example of a sustainability challenge—in terms of civilizational resilience and survival—that currently faces us, so it is absolutely appropriate that she play that role," Mr. Elkington said. "But the nature of the challenge is very different to producing a report, and Norway is a peculiar country in world affairs, so not at all clear that her skills as Prime Minister are directly transferable—even were that the intention. We must wait and see!"


To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its founding, SustainAbility published Raising Our Game: Can We Sustain Globalization?, projecting the future of sustainability over the next 20 years. The report proposes four potential scenarios (based on a card game metaphor) for how the future will unfold depending on how business attends to social and environmental sustainability. Each scenario corresponds to a card suit (Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, and Hearts) on a matrix with environmental wins and losses on the horizontal axis and social wins and losses on the vertical axis.

"[The Hearts scenario] is the future that the Brundtland Commission pointed us toward," the report states, as it balances environmental sustainability with social development. It projects a scenario where a pandemic slows global transportation, forcing simultaneous attending to human health and curbing environmental impacts. The crisis inspires creative destruction and innovation that ultimately leads to true sustainability.

The report acknowledges that the "concept of sustainable development has stood the test of time since it was first injected into the political mainstream in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission," though the marriage between sustainability and development has always contained tension.

The beauty of the SustainAbility report is that the Spades and Clubs scenarios play out the potential consequences of over-weighting environmental sustainability at the cost of social stability, or over-weighting development in ways that compromise environmental viability. In other words, the report illustrates the pitfalls of unbalanced sustainable development.

"In the Clubs world, social equity is traded for a degree of environmental quality—albeit enjoyed by a sub-set of the global population," the report states. "Think of the evolution of a new sustainable energy platform where billions are priced out of the emerging green market."

"By contrast, in the Spades world social equity broadly trumps environmental sustainability, whatever we may intend," the report continues. "Current forms of development and consumerist lifestyles spread, but at a growing cost to the environment."

The SustainAbility team, led by founder John Elkington, excels at distilling complex trends, listing various series of discrete elements. Defining globalization, they list four drivers (open markets, technology and connectivity, developing country prominence, and the growth of multinationals), as well as seven attributes (capital revolutionaries, maquila planet, growing divides, multiculturalism's discontents, climate insecurity, governance vacuums, and "blessed unrest," the concept recently coined by Paul Hawken to describe the movement forwarded by environmental and social justice organizations.)

Continuing the numbers game, SustainAbility posits six dimensions encompassed in the four future scenarios, encapsulated in the acronym G.A.M.B.L.E. (growth, acceleration, mainstreaming, barriers, leadership, and equity.) SustainAbility's party line on economic growth is a bit hard to nail down. On one page, the report notes that "economic growth has major sustainability consequences."

On another, it maintains that "[c]urrent economic growth is unprecedented—and the potential opportunities are huge," no doubt causing some readers to cringe at the notion of sustainable development as a cash cow and others to welcome a business case for sustainability. However, SustainAbility distinguishes between capitalizing on the opportunities presented by sustainability, and actually achieving sustainability.

"Many companies have set in place programs to address the environmental impacts of their business, but few have made the necessary investments to ensure that their business models and operations are environmentally sustainable," the report states.

Discussing the Hearts scenario, the report predicts that "[e]conomic growth will continue but will need to be contained within a 'one planet' agenda." It later fleshes out this explanation: "if we are to have any chance of bringing our global economy back onto anything like sustainable lines, concepts like WWF's 'One Planet Business' will be critically important."

Advancing this line of reasoning, SustainAbility tempers its stance on economic growth, coming down more on the side of caution.

"The modern environmental movement was powerfully shaped by its limits-to-growth roots," the report states. "Current evidence of planetary 'overshoot,' with our needs outrunning the capacity of the planet to provide, confirms the dangers we face in globalizing a flawed, unsustainable economic model. Even our current resource use already exceeds the regenerative capacity of the planet by 25 percent."

"You could even argue that today's economic model is an economic tumour on the planet," the report continues. "Of our four scenarios, only Hearts is built around increasingly sustainable economic and business models, but both the Clubs and Spades worlds would need to see energetic experimentation on—and investment in—new technologies and business strategies."

The report ends with seven recommendations, or "new rules" of the game for businesses in the age of sustainability. For example, SustainAbility urges 21st Century leaders to "think around corners" (or plan for the unexpected), find true South (recognizing that the Northern orientation of so-called developed countries is waning with the rise of South-South trade), and to lobby—for sustainability. Exemplifying this last rule is the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), whereby ten major companies are pushing Congress to set a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions.

While the Brundtland Report was instrumental in injecting environmental and social consciousness into the political mainstream, it fell short of achieving substantive advances toward true sustainable development. Hopefully, the SustainAbility report will inspire leaders to shoot for the Hearts scenario.

This article republished from with kind permission.

Read More: Business, Development, Economy, Energy, Environment, Sustainability, Global

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