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What Is Sustainability?

These days, this word is used by everyone but what do they mean when they say it?

When  I use the term it is based on the practice of Permaculture as defined by Mollison and Holmgren in the 1970s.   You can read Holmgren’s paper originally published in 2003 on sustainability here:  WhatIsSustainWeb.pdf

Mr. Holmgren published a book in 2011 titled, “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability”

Two excerpts from the description on Amazon: David Holmgren builds on the extraordinary success of the permaculture concept and the global permaculture movement to provide a more cerebral and controversial contribution to the sustainability debate, including an exploration of how mainstream concepts of sustainability dodge the critical issue of global energy peak; and proposing ways to live within natures limits while providing a secure future for everyone. 

For anyone seriously interested in understanding the foundations for sustainable design and culture, this book is essential reading.


How is sustainability defined by others?  Here are a few examples

Jeffrey Sacks, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Sachs is the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a professor of health policy and management at Columbia’s School of Public Health and about 79 other badges.

Mr Sacks is strong on Sustainable Development.  I respect Mr Sack but the notions behind those words seem somewhat contradictory.  He is an economist who’s educated within the system and is known to be a Keynesian and he really does have progressive, open minded ideas about how to fix things.  But at the end of the day it comes down to money for an economist, doesn’t it?

“At this advanced stage of environmental threats to the planet, and in an era of unprecedented inequality of income and power, it’s no longer good enough to chase GDP. We need to keep our eye on three goals – prosperity, inclusion, and sustainability – not just on the money.” – Jeffrey Sacks. Source: The Guardian 10-March-2015

I understand that without leaving money in the conversation things quiet quickly for the majority of the population.   But the priorities need to change.  Money is no longer the priority.  Preserving habitats for humans and the entire ecosystem we’re a part of is the priority now.


Al Gore – author, Inconvenient Truth.

I believe Al Gore lost as many people as he gained for the movement when he made his plea for change.  He polarized the conversation to be more politically based than it ever should have been.  I know people who refuse to believe in AGW just because he’s the man they see as the one making the pitch.  At the same time he seems to be getting richer and richer off sustainable capitalism.  Clearly, the example he sets is not exactly inspiring.  Even environmentalists ponder his jet setting, “A” list lifestyle.   It’s not the example I’d recommend for sustability, certainly.

Who would I…?

How about this guy?

Okay so rural life isn’t for everyone but that’s a topic for another day.

About the IMD Global Center for Sustainability LeadershipToday more than ever, society needs committed and creative leaders and leading organizations to promote a world in which economic development can be attained for the benefit of all while conserving the planet’s natural capital and improving people’s living conditions.


Deloitte’s Sustainability Transformation & Sustainability Strategy practice.  Some of the services they offer:  You can Download PDF

  • Sustainability strategy — Developing a road map to address sustainability risks and opportunities in support of business growth objectives, stakeholder engagement and communications, and brand enhancement programs, as well as prioritizing sustainability initiatives through detailed value quantification.
  • Resource productivity and risk mitigation — Identifying ways to address energy, water, and materials risks across the value chain.
  • Sustainable operations and supply chain — Refining operations and the supply chain by addressing diverse issues such as supplier engagement, sourcing and procurement, packaging, closed loop recycling, supply chain transparency, and human and labor rights.
  • Reporting and disclosure — Identifying ways to improve collection and reporting of data in compliance with laws, regulations, and stakeholder expectations.



Almost everything on the web that is tagged sustainable pertains to business, development, and resource efficiency and other actions of that nature.  It’s like “sustainable” has replaced the word “growth” but little of the underlying processes have changed at all.  This is known as greenwashing  when it’s really bad. Some processes are being implemented or changed and it’s a good thing that businesses are doing this, I hope it gains greater momentum because it’s not enough as it is.  And more importantly sustainability/growth still views the natural world as an obstacle to overcome (by improving efficiency, having more data, etc)  rather than it being our one and only habitat that needs to be nurtured and protected.  Nothing is sustainable until that happens.

Corporations have a legal obligation to be profitable.  That will always be the goal of the Board of Directors.  It fits into their business model to be “sustainable” more as a Customer Satisfaction matter than any genuine interest in being in balance with the natural world, and recognizing it as a total system that is currently spirally out of control.  “Out of control” is key because that signals urgency which is missing from nearly all corporate agendas.

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