Circling Sustainability

This forum continues to vet the definition of sustainability and how it differs from public perception inside and outside of the United States. For most of us, I would argue that our understanding of its underlying concept and its resulting associations is a stark divergence from its true meaning. This discrepancy is at least partly to blame for our lethargic rate of progress on environmental issues. At least part of the blame rests on the fact that we live in a age where circulating information is incredibly easy, even the wrong information.

A colleague recently sent me this graphic–a Venn diagram that describes “sustainability” as the overlap between three different groups: Environmental, Social and Economic. A quick Google search can find many of its siblings and cousins around the internet. The implication is that a way to achieve a sustainable end result involves the juncture of making people happy, making people money and doing it while making less stuff. My colleague’s question was simple: how accurate is this?

environment economy society sustainability

At first glance, the graphic struck me as a derivation of the People/Planet/Profit mantra that unsurprisingly gains a fair amount of homage from the business sector. It’s a depiction that I have some reservations about given that it presupposes that a core component of all of this is how much money we can make. There are some aspects of the diagram that are very palatable for a wider audience, particularly the paired overlaps between the three main groups. The choices of “bearable,” “viable” and “equitable” describe relationships and emotions that people can easily understand. It is certainly clear.

To start, one thing this is not is a definition of what the word “sustainability” means (a stab at that here). At its best it is a graphic describing how to develop in a more sustainable way when compared to our track record and that could need some serious derivations from how we have constructed the realities that each of those circles represent. Even then, I was wondering how accurate it was at representing what is actually happening in our society in regards to sustainability, let alone whether it was useful as a road map of what we should be striving for. In this image, all of the circles and their overlaps are equal, but are they really? As Americans, are we evenly split between concerns for social balance, economic strength and environmental stewardship? Probably not.

I decided that the diagram could use some revisions. So as a reflection of where we are, this is the diagram I came up with:

economic political social sustainable

With a country that binds the image of success to its GDP rather than societal equity or environmental prowess, the “economic” circle would certainly be the largest. Our tendency to submit to the inertia of the cultural status quo is indicative of its relative importance to us and often the biggest contributing factor to our aversion to change, so I think the social circle is larger than the environmental as well.

The same colleague also pointed out that there is no “Political” circle. Now one could argue that a lot of politics overlap with our social structure, but given the unfortunate truth that a significant portion of whatever sustainable progress we are making comes as the result of regulations at some level of government, I think it deserves its own circle. While Americans may be particularly frustrated at our government right now, I think political issues may still trump environmental ones when averaged over the entire population–leaving the environment as the smallest circle.

Another flaw of the original diagram is the differentiation between the “environment” and “sustainability.” In point of fact, the environment embodies sustainability. There is nothing unsustainable about natural systems and nothing that is good for sustainability is bad for the environment, so I’m not sure there has to be an environment circle at all. Instead, that circle can be the idea of sustainability itself (balance, dynamic equilibrium, inflows of energy meeting outflows). The question would simply be how much of that circle can we manage to overlap with.

Right now, I think the overlap is relatively minor, which brings me to my biggest beef with the base diagram that portrays sustainability as the confluence of all of these forces that we should be shooting for. If something satisfies the goals of the economy, the political arena, the social paradigm AND sustainability then why is that a goal at all? It doesn’t get any easier than that. These things are no brainers. These are things we should be kicking ourselves for not doing already. Forget “low-hanging fruit”–this is the fruit that has fallen off the tree into our hands. Our goal should be moving that sustainability circle farther into the other three.

I am troubled by the latent dangers in using the original Venn diagram as a tool for societal direction. That tiny, central zone should not be the standard we are holding ourselves to. There is no reason to think that the realm of progress is such a small portion of the total opportunity. We should not endorse the idea that the only sustainability measures that we pursue are the ones that do not cause friction with any other part of the status quo. The three-circled diagram strikes me more as conciliatory to the boundaries of an existing system rather than aspirational towards the creation of a new one. After all, it was the old system that has got us to this point in the first place. The tenants of sustainability should migrate beyond the green circle to frame the entirety of the system. There are degrees of balance that can encompass each circle, all of the circles and all of the circles interactions with each other so that the growth of one does not have to come to at the cost of another.

What I came away with is that this diagram is more of a depiction of the current perception of sustainability in a capitalist, first world society rather than an accurate description of what the mentality is supposed to convey, let alone what we should be trying to achieve (we’ll need another diagram for that–more to come).

The comparison between the diagrams drew a parallel to a Robert F Kennedy speech given at the University of Kansas at Lawrence in 1968 where he questioned our means for critiquing our country and benchmarking its progress:

“We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the Gross National Product. For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. The Gross National Product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads… It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America – except whether we are proud to be Americans.”