Is Sustainability Achievable?

Sustainability has become such a buzz word, with practitioners eagerly dropping it into conversation, but non-practitioners easily being confused. Sustainability in business has always been about having enough profit to survive long-term…this is how the layman understands it. But the environmental and social aspects of this word (and mostly the environmental) are often amiss. In my experience, no one seems to have a problem with thinking that economic sustainability is achievable, but start talking about the environment in particular, and you start getting pessimistic critics. I’ve heard some interesting arguments about why environmental sustainability, in particular, will forever be out of reach.

Human nature sucks

Probably the most common I’ve heard is that human nature is basically against environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, I can’t disagree with this. As a race, we have historically shown ourselves to be remarkably short-term thinking, whether in times of scarcity where our immediate survival is pertinent, or in times of plenty where we are subject to greed. Money and the power and status it brings is the most universal motivator, so maximizing profit is the default. Changing this mindset may actually take generations. Given that sustainability principles depend on this change of mindset, it is easy to get discouraged about sustainability even being achievable at all.

Our kids are on their own

Another reasoning I hear is that life is too short and our kids should take care of themselves. Admittedly, I hear this from people who don’t have kids, so I half expect them to change their tune when they do. But there are several business men/women who have started their companies, and then actively make sure that their kids don’t depend on them in the future but instead make their own way. Many already think of their businesses as short term (several have this strategy in mind even before opening shop), not aiming to have the business last beyond their life-times. For someone who thinks like this, and doesn’t even expect their business to be a going concern, environmental sustainability will never be priority.

Let's relocate

A third comment I’ve heard is that man’s technological advances will help us find other planets – so we will end up having more than one Earth anyway. This usually comes from the most pessimistic people who also believe the first reasoning which I mentioned is true. They think we are on a course that is already bad, and which our human nature is incapable of making better. The future looks something like the real world in the Matrix trilogy and in Mad Max…utterly bleak. And in the long run, there’s nothing we can do about it. Instead, let’s make the best of what we have now. And with the exponential discoveries in technology, we will be more likely to be able to relocate to Mars than to save the planet. And when we pair this with the well accepted theory that in 1 billion years, the Earth will be inhabitable, the case for relocation seems even more likely.

In all this, there is a lot of pessimism for human nature and our ability to change as a race. Time and again, both collectively and individually, humans take action only when there is a dire need to move…real change is rarely proactive. This implies that it is only when we, collectively and globally, literally cannot breathe, or find water and food, will we truly take environmental sustainability seriously.  

But you know what? Our success with the reversal of the ozone layer depletion is one small sign that shows that maybe we can turn things around sooner or letter, and that when we work collectively, our efforts will pay off. But the question still remains about whether it will be enough to save the Earth…or rather, to save Man, because the Earth will likely still be here at least 4 billion years after we’re long gone.

What about you? Do you think sustainability, especially environmental sustainability, is achievable?