Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Meaning of Sustainability According to NEXUS

The Meaning of Sustainability According to NEXUS

It is our opinion that the term sustainability in and of itself is very simple. Its root, sustain, simply means to maintain, keep in existence, provide for, or nourish. We believe its not necessary to cake a bunch of additional complexity onto the word itself. When one applies this concept to the real complexity of the real world, it actually demands that this simple idea remain simple, and be added to a systems-based worldview (seeing the world as a complex set of interconnected and interdependent systems).

So the question then is what are we applying this term to; what are we talking about sustaining? This is not only where confusion, but also debate can enter into the concept. Many out there equate sustainability to environmentalism. Given our systems worldview we believe this is too simplistic, and somewhat misses the point. An Eco-centric perspective not only misses the fact that environmental crises tend to most directly and profoundly impact the most vulnerable members of human society, but also that economic, social justice, and environmental systems are inextricably intertwined in many other ways. You don’t achieve, let alone sustain a desirable condition within one without addressing the others. This is our version of the Triple-bottom-line concept (people-planet-profit, or equity-ecology-economy, etc.). Typically displayed as a Venn diagram, we believe the following model for the triple-bottom-line is more accurate:
Nested-Systems Model of the Triple-Bottom-Line
© The Sustainability Nexus, 2011

This nested-systems model better reflects reality, in that in terms of Earth’s living systems humans are members of life on Earth; economy is a human system, created with specific purpose for our own civilization. Humanity existed and could exist without an economic system, though not in any semblance of civilization. Many would also argue that the current economic system is utterly failing in its purpose with regard to many members of society, and the polarized debates around this blame various factors. Likewise, life on Earth would go on without humans, by SOME measures more successfully, because the way we currently meet our needs tends to degenerate other living systems.  

Inputs and outputs flow across all of these lines, and sustaining a version of this system that is repeat-ably and indefinitely maintainable is what we believe the high-level, larger concept of sustainability is about.

What this means to us is that we’re seeking to support people and organizations that are deliberately and explicitly striving to contribute to some aspect of that outcome. Because short-sighted (single) bottom-line only decision-making ultimately hurts even profits, and because the other two bottom-lines more directly represent the systems that support human and other life, and our happiness, we seek to support social justice and environmental performance organizations and individuals, or other “traditional” businesses that better account for these other two bottom-lines.  

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