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Beyond Efficiency & Substitution

Deep Sustainability: Beyond Efficiency & Substitution


John Ikerd


The quest for sustainability has evolved from the futuristic vision of a handful of environmentalists a few decades ago to become the watchword of corporations and government agencies as well as virtually all nonprofit organizations. Most advocates of sustainability still agree with the United Nations Brundtland Commission’s definition: “Sustainable development meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs as well.” Sustainability, in general, is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. There is general agreement also on the essential ecological, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability. With its growth in popularity, however, sustainability has lost much of its original significance as a fundamental challenge to current ways of working, living, and thinking.


Over time, institutional commitments to sustainability have been systematically redefined to accommodate the ongoing mission of business and government organizations. For government agencies, this means doing only those things for sustainability that do not conflict with the bipartisan commitment to continuing economic growth. For corporations, this means continuing to maximize economic returns to their investors or stockholders. Attention to sustainability has become a public relations necessity which sometimes assists in, but is never allowed to detract from, the pursuit of corporate profits and economic growth.


Institutional commitments to using limited resources more efficiently and substituting renewable for non-renewable resources are generally limited to those situations that promise increased profits as well as greater sustainability. Opportunities for doing well financially by doing good for nature and society exist but are too few and too limited. Furthermore, resource efficiency and substitution, while necessary, are simply not sufficient to achieve sustainability. Sustainability will require looking deeper, beyond the current shallow or instrumental approach to sustainability: beyond using efficiency and substitution as a means of sustaining profitability and economic growth. Ultimately, sustainability will require that we radically redesign our entire economy and society to accommodate a new and evolving understanding of the ecological, social, and economic reality.


Deep sustainability is rooted in a fundamentally different worldview: a different view of how the world works and the place of humans within it. Deep sustainability explores the ethical, philosophical, and spiritual roots that must sustain the healthy growth of ecological, social, and economic integrity. Humanity has been distracted from the path to human betterment by centuries of spiritual neglect, misuse, and abuse. The continuing quest for ever-greater wealth and never-ending economic growth has taken priority over social and spiritual development of humanity. Deep sustainability requires new ways of thinking, knowing, learning, and being in the world: ways that are essential for authentic human progress toward a new and better world. Deep sustainability is about moving beyond unsustainable economic growth to sustainable growth in social and spiritual betterment. Sustainable lifestyles, communities, economies, societies, and ecosystems all emerge, grow, and evolve by nature, from the roots of deep sustainability.


Deep sustainability will result in fundamentally different approaches to business management, governance, and economic development. Businesses will be managed for the true economic bottom line, giving priority to business ethics and then social responsibility rather than maximizing short-run economic returns. Government policies will create an economic environment in which businesses that are resilient and regenerative by choice, will not have to complete with other businesses that exploit and extract. Thus economic viability will not need to be sacrificed for the sake of ecological and social integrity. Government policies in general will give sustainability and quality of life priority over economic growth. Market economies will function efficiently, but within the context of a socially equitable and just society that respect the basic laws of nature. Nonprofit organizations will focus on missions of sustaining the health and productivity of nature and society rather than simply sustaining their organizations


The results emerging from the worldview of deep sustainability will be fundamentally different from those of contemporary society or instrumental sustainability. The social and ethical values of deep sustainability will motivate people within societies to join together through systems of governance at local, national, and international levels to make the long-term personal and impersonal economic investments necessary to sustain the health and vitality of nature and society, upon which the sustainability of economies ultimately depends. The results will be renewal and regeneration rather than continued degeneration. Nature and society will be healed and restored rather than depleted. Healthy natural ecosystems and societies will move toward greater abundance and quality of life rather than continue on the path toward lifelessness and entropy.


Investments in society will include a universal commitment to basic ecological, social, and economic rights: The right to a clean, healthful, and productive natural environment; the right to basic education, health care, social equity, and civil justice; and the right to dignity in employment, if able, and to sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and economic necessities to support a healthy, active lifestyle, regardless of ability to contribute to the economy. Perhaps most important, deep sustainability affords equal rights to those of both current and future generations.


Instrumental sustainability, while a step in the right direction, will not be sufficient. Slowing the rate of degradation and delaying resource depletion may be necessary to provide adequate time for radical rethinking and redesign but will not be sufficient to avoid an ultimate state of ecological, social, and economic collapse as the earth’s ecosystems approaches entropy. Economic incentives simply will not provide the motivation for the ecological, social, and economic investment essentials of long-run sustainability. Neglect or denial of the essential social and ethical dimensions of quality of life will not allow for continued human flourishing or societal betterment. The only worldviews consistent with authentic sustainability are those consistent with the worldview of deep sustainability.  

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