Taylor Gray, Ph.D.
The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens. I remain focused on developing meaningful and actionable insights from empirical data in pursuit of a better world.
Sustainability has gone mainstream. Not in that it is trendy to talk about sustainability--which it is--but rather in the sense that sustainability is being meaningfully engaged and acted upon by individuals, companies, and elected officials who do not identify as ‘environmentalists’.
Just a few years ago, a bank which developed a sustainability program would be called a ‘green’ bank. Today, all major banks have well-developed sustainability programs yet they are simply called...wait for it...banks. Sustainability does not make you ‘green’, or automatically turn you into an environmentalist. Caring about, and acting on, sustainability is simply--and finally--being normalized.
This is great news...and it is about time!
We have pushed global ecological, social, and economic systems out of balance. Many of these systems are on the brink of irreversible tipping points. To be interested in re-balancing these relationships does not make you an environmentalist, rather it makes you a concerned global citizen.
For me, sustainability is not a target or a metric, rather it is a mindset to ward preserving collective optionality under conditions of uncertainty.
What is Sustainability?
As we have discussed before (here and here), to truly operationalize sustainability we each need to carefully define what we mean by sustainability. We need to be able to spell out what it is we are working towards if we are to ever be able to achieve it.
The closest thing we have to a definition comes from the Brundtland Report (published in 1987 but from work beginning in 1983), which is the shorthand title for the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, organized by the United Nations. Here, sustainability was framed as “[...] meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This is a powerful framing to spur discussion, but it remains relatively inactionable in terms of guiding decisions and motivating actions. The concept of ‘needs’, even only considering the needs of people who are currently alive, is far too subjective to spur meaningful collective action. In all discussions on the topic I have participated in, ‘needs’ have a tendency toward incremental and often myopic expansion. The idea of planning for the needs of people who are not even born yet introduces even more paralyzing vagueness to the equation.
In this framing, what may be perceived as best-efforts by some are perceived as greenwashing by others. How can this be if we are all working meaningfully toward sustainability?
To drive meaningful action--as an individual, a company, or an elected official--we all need to develop and communicate our understanding of what sustainability is. If you define sustainability as X and then use this definition to develop actions A, B, and C, then I may disagree with certain elements of your approach but I would not accuse you of greenwashing or acting disingenuously. Any disagreement we may have would lead to constructive discussion rather than acrimonious stand-offs.
So, to get started, here is my definition of sustainability. This is how I frame my decisions and guide my actions. For me, sustainability is not a particular target or metric--I believe the interplay of all the various systems in question leads to too much uncertainty to be able to explicitly identify a target or metric. I fear investing my time and resources toward a target only to learn, at some point in the still undefined future, that it was not the correct target. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to act now.
Instead, and for me, sustainability is a mindset. It is a mindset that aims to preserve collective optionality when making decisions in a setting of immeasurable uncertainty. It is a mindset that recognizes the weight of path dependence. Every decision we make changes the trajectory of future decisions we are able to make--every step we take changes the next potential steps that are open to us.
Think of moving a King on a chess board. This piece can only be moved one square at a time. Toward the center of the board, a King could be moved to any one of eight squares (assuming no other pieces are in the way). After being moved to one of these squares, there would be another eight squares available to the King for the next move. Of these eight squares now open to the King, five of them were also open to the King during the first move and three of them are newly open to the King, but, and herein lies path dependence, three squares that were available to the King during the first move are no longer available to this same piece during the second move.
So we know that by moving the King we removed the immediate optionality of those three squares, but to know if it was a smart move we need to consider if the introduction of the optionality of three new squares actually enhances the player’s cumulative and longer-term optionality or not.
Sustainability is a lot like chess. Decisions need to be made, and there is a strong path dependence to the choices we make--how we act shapes how we can act. Actions must be taken, and there is immeasurable uncertainty in the systems landscapes of these actions.
This mindset of preserving optionality under uncertainty may sound similar to the precautionary principle, but there are a few key differences, of which I will write more later.
For me, sustainability is a mindset to guide my decisions with the aim of preserving collective optionality. So, what is sustainability to you?
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