Pathways to Sustainability: Different paths or different destinations?

I’ve been working and living ‘for sustainability’ for years, so why is all the attention that the Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh is getting making me so uneasy?

Many years ago I wrote a guide to sustainability for businesses, called The Triple Bottom Line (that was cutting edge in those days). In it, I made many of the same arguments that I imagine are being promoted at the Forum on Natural Capital: the dependence of humans, and therefore business, on the natural world, and that the use and protection of these resources needs to be accounted for in decision making.

Copies of the guide were sent, if I remember correctly, to the directors of the top 100 companies in Scotland. I suspect in most cases it went straight in the bin. Now, many of those same companies and others from around the world are attending this event, and the First Minister of Scotland making much the same points in his keynote. Judging by the tweets and news coverage there’s great enthusiasm.

The success of the forum is in some ways a dream come true for my former self. So why the sinking feeling? Among friends and colleagues I’m well known for seeing both sides of an argument, for seeking to find, not necessarily compromise, but ways forward that respect differences. But increasingly I’m coming to the view that it’s time to come off my fence and start walking.

The sustainability compass

I’ve often used the metaphor of the compass to discuss the possible paths to sustainability:

The compass points to ‘sustainability’ and if different definitions of, and approaches to, sustainability are somewhere between the red lines — north west and north east — I’m fairly happy. We may argue about what angle those red lines should be, but broadly we’re travelling in the same direction.

Our compass becomes more accurate as we approach our goal — our understanding of sustainability evolves, and we develop new approaches — and we can correct the course.

Because it’s impossible to know now what sustainability will look like — exactly which of the several promising paths we should follow.

I’m now questioning this metaphor — or rather thinking that it’s more complicated, and revealing, than I had realised.

In the fog

Link to source

Imagine you’re lost, you’re in the fog on featureless moorland. No sun to guide you, no clear valleys or hills, no river, just endless rolling moorland. You find an old compass; much of the lettering is worn; paint on the needle has flaked off; and the needle no longer swings freely on its pivot. But it’s good enough: you can make out North, which is your destination, and with a tap every now and then the needle swings to point you to home.

You set off full of hope. Because of obstacles along the way and the sticky needle your path is rather a zig zag, but you are heading for home. But eventually, aching, footsore and bewildered you enter an unknown landscape, a landscape of devastation and doom. This is not home. You sit in despair staring at the compass that has let you down. And then it strikes you — the needle, having lost its paint, is completely symmetrical. You must have been travelling south, away from your destination — you’ve been guided by the wrong end of the needle.

Two destinations?

I wonder if this is the point I am at on my journey: the crystallisation of instincts and evidence that while there are many paths to sustainability, there are not one, but two destinations — and they are polar opposites, exactly like north and south.

What those two destinations are, I’m not sure. But I think there are two options:

North = Unsustainbility; South = Sustainability

or perhaps:

North = a form of ‘environmental sustainability’ that is technocratic, anti-democratic and socially inequitable; South = a sustainability where people and the rest of the natural world flourish.

Making sense

I should admit now that I’m writing this post in the heat of the moment, as I try to get these ideas down to make sense of them. But I’m putting them out here in the hope of getting some feedback that will help me develop my ideas, and add flesh to these bones by way of evidence and arguments.

Which values? Whose system?

So, what are the characteristics of these two destinations? I think there are at least two fundamental, but related, distinctions:

  • The dominant human values that are being appealed to and reinforced: ‘greater than self values’ such as care for others and the natural world; or ‘self enhancement values’ such as the pursuit of power, status and wealth as ends in themselves.
  • Whether the economic system is under democratic control and used carefully along side other policy instruments in the service of people and nature; or whether the economic system continues to become increasingly unaccountable, with all other concerns subordinate to ensuring endless growth that is logically required to sustain the current economic model.

I’ll not expand these points at the moment, but to explore them further: on values, go to Common Cause, and on the economic arguments you could start at the Nature Not For Sale, the counter conference to the Forum on Natural Capital.

Who’s on which path? And where are they going?

There are several implications and questions that arise for me from re-thinking my metaphor of the ‘compass of sustainability’; those foremost in my mind at the moment are:

  • If there really are two, mutually exclusive destinations, we need to understand which paths lead to which destination. It might not always be obvious.
  • That those people following the path to what I believe to be ‘unsustainability’ or ‘unjust-environmental-sustainability’ may well share my passion and commitment to tackling the problems we undoubtedly face.
  • We should try and understand each others assumptions and goals.
  • But most importantly, heading towards north in an attempt to ‘engage’ people and organisations, when we need to head ‘south’, while it may lead to some common ground in the short term, may well make it increasingly difficult to turn them, and oneself, around and head towards the opposite pole.

And no I don’t, off hand, have ‘the answer’ to re-orienting global society towards this ‘southern sustainability’. But to mix another metaphor, I do wonder whether we’re in a hole and should stop digging — and work out where we really want to go?