Oh Sexy Sexy Sustainability.

Sustainability is NOT a sexy word. Why not? Well its daunting, it just sounds like work! It is complicated, and lets face it – after a long day of doing whatever it is you do, you just don’t want to put time and effort into something un-sexy like sustainability. No thank you! I am sure there is a multitudinous of other reasons that the word sustainability doesn’t have you jumping up and down for sheer joy.

But what if it was a sexy word; a sexy, fun, energetic, get people engaged word? The possibilities would be endless! Can you imagine a world where politicians sold policies based on how great they were for society, the environment and the economy? Can you imagine a world where nations got together and worked towards their sustainability goals because it was in their best interests to do so? Can you imagine communities coming together to share in community action, engagement, and prosperity – all in the name of sustainability? What if sustainability, not money, sold? The possibilities would be endless!

So what needs to be done? What can we do to make sustainability a fun, sexy word? What is needed for sustainability to gain public traction and become the object of discussions? Whatever it needs it can’t be a quick fix, like a community BBQ in the name of sustainability, but something long lasting – that gets into the psyche of all involved. Whatever it is it needs to fundamentally change the way that people interact with and think about their spot within the social, environmental, and economic spheres. This needs to be done so that sustainability doesn’t go out like a fade, and doesn’t exist like homework that should be done, but instead expands into a space like the air where it is not only logical, but intuitive. It needs to become a habit.

But how do we do this?

Conceptual and System Boundaries

Systems. There is so much to say about systems. Many people hate systems. They hate the complexity, they can’t see the connections, and they simply can’t be bothered. Understanding systems is not easy, but it is very interesting.

I once had a conversation about changing “the system”. My companion insisted that change must occur from outside “the system”, while I maintained that change must occur from within “the system”. I still keep this view, and I keep it because of the idea of system boundaries.

Have you ever seen a fly try to get out of a closed window? It buzzed around unaware that there is a pane of glass in front of it? That fly had a conceptual limitation. It was unable to understand that there was glass there. As humans and individuals we have many conceptual limitations (so stop laughing at the fly), one of which is our conceptual limitation of system boundaries.

People have this weird affinity with breaking things into components, have you ever noticed that? We love to break things down into their pieces, assess them, then stick them back together again. Systems are no different. But the problem is, where does the system end? There is a social system, ecosystems, economic systems, political systems etc… but where does one system end and another one begin? How do you break it down? The answer is simple – they are all part of the same system. Everything in this world is part of the same system but in order to understand it all better we draw boundaries around the pieces we wish to look at and call those pieces systems.

Where the boundaries exist does not necessarily mark where the system ends but where we are unable, or unwilling to understand the system any further. System boundaries in many ways are actually conceptual boundaries.


Some of the most monumental changes occurred when those perceived boundaries are shifted. This shift does not occur outside the system, but within it. From inside the system we are better able to see how the boarders of the systems overlap, and reassess where the boundaries should be drawn. By doing this we do what no one else has done before because we dare to look at and influence parts of the systems that no one else recognizes. This is why change must occur from inside the system – it requires an intense and intimate knowledge of the system. So while everyone is asking how change can be made, and what sort of change should be made – why don’t you ask yourself what is the system and how can the system be changed? Why don’t you look at the perceived notions you carry and dare to redraw your assumptions?


After all, if everything on earth is in the same system – you can’t really get outside of the system, can you?

What is Sustainability?

What is sustainability? This question is far more complex than you may realize. If you google the term sustainability you are likely to come up with the most widely used definition, the one used in the 1987 UN Brundtland Report, which is:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This isn’t the only definition for sustainability; it isn’t even the easiest to understand. However, I believe it is well worth the time to investigate it – because it is the most influential definition. There are three key concerns with the Brundtland definition and together they render the word sustainability so utterly useless that many scholars have suggested simply not using it. These issues are: the ambiguity of terms, the lack of direction, and the tense association.

The Brundtland definition is confusing. The words are too ambiguous to be of any use. For example what do they mean by a need? And whose needs are they addressing? The ambiguity of the definition means that the term sustainable can be applied to almost anything and still be true to the original concept. This mass labeling reduces the value of the word much in the same way that an inflated currency looses its value.

Although the Brundtland definition has a certain cheerful disposition about it, it does very little to actually tell us what actions are sustainable. There simply is no direction given. As such scholars from around the world have tried their hands at not only defining sustainability, but also making suggestions on how to obtain it. There are many different models, theories and methods* which do nothing to help sort out the confusion and allow for the word sustainability to be applied to almost anything. If a company wishes to be sustainable it only need to look long enough for a sustainability model that matches its current practices, no change required.

Finally, but equally important, the Brundtland definition exists in two tenses, present and future. It makes reference to action being completed now and action to be completed in the future. It talks about sustainability as if it is both something to be and something to achieve. In short sustainability is both an adjective and a verb. Take a minute to realize how confusing that is. You can work towards sustainability, while being sustainable. Sustainability is something to strive towards, but innately impossible to reach. How dismal is that?


So why don’t we just reject the word as the scholars suggest? I cannot answer to society as whole, perhaps they have just grown fond of it as it rode the buzzword wave. However, I can speak for myself.

The word sustainability, with all its ambiguity and misgivings, gives me hope. I am hopeful that we can come together around this common goal of sustainability and address the issues that we have today in our communities and world. I am hopeful that we can look realistically at what our limitations are and innovate solutions to our largest problems. That together we can work towards both a better today and a better tomorrow. Sustainability to me is hope. Hope in ourselves, hope in each other, hope in the world at large. To me sustainability is a complex, multifaceted, concept where in lies a lot of potential. Of course future posts will talk more about the unique challenges and qualities associated with the concept but for now I believe it is worth while to take a moment and realize what it means to each and everyone of us on an individual level. Only in this way can we come together to overcome our own misgivings.

– Sarah

* The model for sustainable development that I base my own ideas around is the four pillar model of sustainability. This model is widely used and relatively comprehensible. It looks at the interactions between society, environment, economy and political realm in order to better understand inter-dependencies and inequities. Another often used model is the principles of sustainability model.

Interconnectedness in an Age of Independance

It wasn’t until Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring was released in 1962 that the scientific community came to fully recognize the interconnected nature of the world. However, this connection has been felt and understood by every organism in the world for millennia. Every major religion takes detailed notes on how we are to treat those connections, and every species is aware of what it must hunt, and who hunts it. As the song goes, “It’s the circle of life”.

In today’s turbulent, individualistic, and technology driven society we often loose sight of those connections. By doing so we disconnect ourselves to our humanity. We disconnect ourselves from each other. Not long ago, and in some places still today, people could not exist independently. We had to rely on one another the way that fingers rely on a hand in order to function*. In most societies today that is no longer the case. Now we can live independently: buy our supplies without ever leaving our homes, live, work and play at home alone or at best in very isolated, fleeting communities.

We also loose sight of the planet, creatures, and resources that sustain us and that we affect. We see them as objects to value, rather than living beings. I often find it odd that meat eaters so seldom wish to see a dead animal, saying it is gross – but it isn’t! They put that same “gross” thing in their mouths only a few hours later! We have become so disconnected from the world and each other. How are we to act responsibility, and secure our children’s futures, if we cannot face our actions?

The age if independence is a marvel in human history. Never before have we been able to advance so far in such a little amount of time. But I don’t believe our technological wealth has to come at the expense of our social interactions, our overall understanding of the world, and our mental well being. The quest to unite the circle of life, and make it whole again, is about reinstating those connections so that we can prosper, along side the world, in a more effective and sustainable way. The Whole Circle Project aims to give insight into sustainable issues, and resources. Please follow if you are interested in a more prosperous, sustainable future – and as always all comments are welcome!

– Sarah

* This metaphor is attributed to the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. – I highly suggest it.