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Insights into what sustainability really means

By Xavier Waterkeyn

Futurist Ross Dawson recently spoke about Building Financial Sustainability at the Vicwater Financial Sustainability Conference.

Ross opened his speech by telling us what we have long suspected. The word “sustainability” has been so overused, misused and abused that it has substantially lost its meaning. He wants us to reclaim this lost meaning of sustainability and to remind us that questions about what is “sustainable” REALLY mean, “Can we keep doing this indefinitely into the future without everything falling apart?”

Ross reminds us that even the very concept of “indefinite sustainability” is very difficult because we don’t live in a steady state world. Reality is constantly shifting under our feet and this sort of dynamism is going to keep us constantly on our toes, so for a system or an organization or even a way of being to be sustainable, it’s going to have to change constantly with an ever-changing reality.

It’s more realistic and practical to talk about paths to sustainability, that sustainability isn’t a destination so much as a road.

The contexts in which we’re going to have to look for paths to sustainability include:

  • Business and Finance: where the dominant emerging trend is that between high-performing organizations – which can seize change and can continue increasingly add value – contrast with low-performing organizations that resist change and subsequently create less value or increasingly destroy value over time.
  • Climate and the Environment: in which, spite of divergent opinions, a consensus is forming that mean global temperatures are rising and that human activity is a major contributing cause. How will we manage sustainability in a world of rising sea levels and interruptions on the water cycle and their impacts on human habitation? What should be done? What can we do?
  • The Social Sphere: In a world of increasing population and urbanization, how will we manage an ever-increasing influx into urban fringes with their inevitable disruption to communities? How will we find work and meaningful contribution for all these people? If the increase of urban riots is a symptom of underlying frustration, inter-cultural tension, divergence and fragmentation how will we manage that? How will we maintain our communities? Some societies seem to be better at coping with change than others. What can we learn from them?

Whatever answers we come up with, we have to face the fact that we’re living in a world of increasing friction between people and the environment and competing needs. Our challenge is about how clever and creative we can be of managing to keep everything together without things falling apart. The higher the Humpty-Dumpty of our civilization sits, the further he can fall.

All these frictions and instabilities will inevitability influence financial and economic sustainability. If we fail to design sustainable solutions in a context of escalating and accelerating change, change will be thrust upon us anyway, and we might not like what we get.

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