What is Sustainability?
Updated: Mar 11
I have recently completed my MSc final Project in Sustainability and Responsibility from Ashridge Business School. Sadly we are the penultimate graduates of this unique course. Of course we hope and expect it to show up somewhere else in some form or other, rather like when it moved from Bath University to Ashridge 14 years ago.
The question “what is sustainability?” and “perhaps you could explain?” asked of me at the weekend by a Jungian analyst, is one I am keen to keep on exploring and to try to answer from the heart, using language that makes sense. My project aimed to do that too, and my way of life seeks to be an expression of this fundamental question.
Sustainability, for me, is simply love of earth and life in the face of the greatest story of our age, which is about impending ecological meltdown. How to make this love work is another question and the one that needs addressing.
So here goes with a drop in the ocean!
First and foremost – I am with the Jungians when they see that the problem is in us. The sooner we recognise that the better, then we can stop projecting evil onto the world at large, the evil corporates, the money grabbing lawyers, the power hungry politicians, the bully-boy oil and gas companies. If we could own our own power drives, greed and carelessness instead, we would go a long way towards preventing ourselves meeting it in the outside world so powerfully.
Second it helps to think in wholes. The individual as a component part of the wider organism: humanity and the world. ‘We’ are an extension of ‘I’ and ‘they’ are an extension of ‘we’. We as individuals are part of a bigger whole …and we matter! The idea of discounting or overriding our individual needs and responses in favour of the collective good – whatever we perceive that to be – needs to be viewed with suspicion. We need instead to bring our whole own selves to the table. If we do not, we can be sure the group will be missing something, and it might, just, be important.
Likewise we need to make space to really hear other voices – especially the quiet, unloved, unacceptable and rejected ones. What are we missing by editing these out or not hearing them? What has been edited out in the past to bring us to where we are now? What makes it to the table and why needs careful attention.
Finally, one thing we can be absolutely sure of: the old ways aren’t working.
Chris Seeley, who sadly died before she was able to actually tutor us – but who I met and have been strongly influenced by – says on her website that:
“The issue we collectively face is one of imagination as much as one of ingenuity, of living into radically different ways of organising ourselves as much as solving problems. How might our lives and organisations evolve in ways that are neither reduced to doom and gloom hair-shirt narratives of less, nor reliant on the unrealistic mantra of business-as-usual-because-technology-will-save-us?”
This is a nice example of ‘both and’ thinking rather than the ‘fool’s choice’ of either or (see Crucial Conversations by Patty, Grenny, McMillan and Switzier). And Chris Seeley and our other talented and committed tutors have used art, poetry, gesture, story-telling and connecting with the earth as ways of moving beyond our limited intellects and thinking. Not to disparage thinking – but it does have its limits.
So – what is sustainability? Well in the broadest sense it has our survival at heart. How can we stop destroying the world, the animal kingdom and each other so very fast? We need to look within, to wake up to ourselves and to other channels and to bring that wakefulness to bear on how we work – always and ever in relation with others.
What this means for businesses and organisations is a wider question and one I hope to investigate in later blogs. For my money, and as a brief forethought, it means learning to work together in new and more conscious ways. It means turning things on their head, making time for conversation and hearing each other–the now business branded social capital (see Margaret Heffernan's TED talk). It also means accessing and valuing unusual channels of wisdom – investigating the artful, the playful even the silly and rejected. It might mean engaging fringe stakeholders in our community (see Hart, S. L. (2010). Broadening the corporate bandwidth. Capitalism at the crossroads: Next generation business strategies) and accepting that whether we are in Sustainability or Oil and Gas, we are part of a bigger system that needs to take responsibility and wake up