Sustainability now, 1.0

Sustainability is, in a very basic form, a principle that demands we take responsibility for our actions now, so that future generations may also survive. Our actions now shouldn’t impede future needs for resources and opportunities to flourish. It’s an industry in its own right, though always interlocked with all other areas of our makings. Sustainability as an overarching principle is rarely seen to have its own functionality unless adapted and put to use in other areas.

Typically, sustainability is given a triple bottom line division, or the three pillars of sustainability: ecological sustainability – the nature, our one finite planet and it’s earthlings from fauna to all of the flora; economic sustainability – the economy on a micro and macro level that is in this modern world a major source of our wellbeing, the lifeline that is a cash flow; and finally the socio-cultural sustainability – which unfortunately is the underdog of the three, with loose–if any–definitions or strict concepts, though it should be easy enough to understand what is a social/societal sphere as a cultural one in our existence. These too, then, should be sustained and sustainable.

Not to argue with the overall aim of the principle that calls most of all for responsibility and equity in our actions, but as professionals of sustainability there is some frustration to the typical triple bottom line of sustainability, the major problem being that though they should be intertwined, they can actually function too well independently, or even against each other. As sustainability is supposed to be coherent and wholesome, this is a weak point in sustainability 1.0, which is why we want to start a movement around the philosophy of the science of sustainability, and redefine the areas or definitions where we should practice the principle of sustainability. It’s devastatingly easy to push through a change in the name of economic sustainability, overruling the ecological and the socio-cultural aspects. It is just as unfortunate to have something seemingly socio-culturally sustainable, while disregarding its economic viability. The scales, the magnitudes of these typical pillars can be disproportionate, and thus the triple bottom line has to be, to some extent, ruled dysfunctional.

Sustainability 2.0

Context, process and aim are the true functional pillars where sustainability should exist and be taken as the mode of how we conduct things. As we exist in this context, as anything we make and do is a process, and as most of it has an aim. The point of redefining the pillars is that the three new ones feed into each other; this better describes our actions as they truly are and empowers everyone, every sphere and every institution to play a part in sustainability. Though, we do need the old pillars for now to explain and reflect the new set of three. And why a set of three? In all philosophy of existence, one can see and interact with three elements a physical part of something, the abstract part of it and the tension between these two.

In Sustainability 2.0, context stands for nature, the planet, its resources, but also the social context we live in – the zeitgeist, the culture, the societal level, and our own personal context – the part of life we live, the local that has the connection to global, and so on. It describes the setting to our being. The process is simply what we do, make and shape this all to be, no matter if it is a business and has a clear connection to economy, it is what we make our lives to be–the process of living, we could say–and every single task within it. And finally, the abstract part of this trinity, the aim, is what we strive for, which in this case is the essence of sustainability and compared to the old pillars is most represented in the socio-cultural one, but truly exists in all of them.

Why they all better feed into each other is embedded in the idea that they are the outcome of the same thing, which is that if the aim is to be sustainable, it urges us to have a sustainable process, for the process affects the aim and vice versa. Also, if the context is desired to be sustainable, we must have an aim of sustainability, and so the process has to be sustainable. Not to say that the equation is yet foolproof, so it should be tested in all of the possible orders. When the process is sustainable the aim is too, which makes the context sustainable. If the context is sustainable it can only mean that the process was too, so the aim has been as well. And so on. One cannot have one element sustainable, without making the other so too. These definitions also demystify where the real, in-action, sustainability lies. It’s not solely in the hands of people involved in economy, nor in the hands of the rulers and policy makers, nor does the responsibility lie on the tree-huggers that alone understand the importance of our nature. It belongs to, and it should be functional to, us all. In all areas of life.

So, to replace the typical pillars of economy, ecology and socio-culture, which can–and unfortunately often do–easily contradict each other, we urge the community of people working with sustainability to consider Sustainability 2.0 as a model to be used in the planning, design, execution and assessment phase of your fields of sustainability. As I tried once to condense this to a sticker-size manifesto: “Sustainability as an overarching unity is not found through    disciplines, but in understanding the nature of it in creating solutions when shaping the existence by assessing the process, the context and the aim of what’s to be done.

Janne J Salovaara

Current president of A Sustainability Community Ry (Registered Association)

Helsinki, 2nd of October, 2014