The 8 Dysfunctions of Sustainability

An excerpt from a recent keynote in New York at the SUNY Sustainability Conference:

“Sustainable development” was born from a historic moment and a warning to humanity.  The concept was forged within the 900 days of global listening sessions, the Brundtland Commission held on five continents in the 1980s.  Post WW II, economic and technological expansion was exploding but benefiting only the few and liquidating natural capital.  “Sustainable development” was a global call for attention and action and a new direction.  However, it has mostly become a culture that is unfit to fulfill it’s own mission.

My thesis is this:  the work we need to do is not matched by the work culture we have assembled to do it.

My critique is not of the notion of sustainability, but of the culture I have observed in my work with companies, organizations and in my study of the field over 20 years.  It is meant to both reclaim the original fullness of “sustainable development” but even more to point to the baggage we must leave behind.  In a word, sustainability has to grow up.

There are eight dysfunctions of sustainability. Why do I call them “dysfunctions”?  The Oxford dictionary defines dysfunction as “an abnormality or impairment in the function of the system.” We hear about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional companies, and even dysfunctional organs in the body.  My father had Parkinson’s disease which is a dysfunction of the brain’s basal ganglia, predominantly in the substantia nigra region.  When a dysfunction exists, the system doesn’t work properly and will never reach its fullest potential.

The 8 Dysfunctions of Sustainability are:

  1. A small committed group of citizens won’t be enough Margaret Mead’s famous quote is a favorite of the sustainability set (like myself) but the inconvenient truth is that it isn’t entirely true and has created, I argue, a type of small thinking and rampant parochialism.

  2. We measure what we can manage even if it doesn’t matter: metrics, KPI’s, OKR’s, etc are essential but…we confuse outputs with impact and need to upgrade our understanding of how to measure what we are actually trying to achieve; as Jim Clemmer has said: “measurements that don’t lead to meaningful action aren’t just useful, they are wasteful.”

  3. Sustainability as private social club: sustainability offices, officers, meetings and conferences, at least in this country, are decidedly and unfortunately monocultures; diversity is strength and if your team is too similar, it’s too small and too exclusive

  4. Efficiency ≠ sustainability: the Jevons effect, rebound effects and backfiring are known phenomenon that accompany efficiency improvements and can lead to maintained or even increased usage (e.g. double the gas mileage and driving it twice as much) and has a “check box” effect (i.e. once we do it, we think we’re “doing with sustainability”); efficiency is a tool in the tool shed but there are many others

  5. Meekness will lose the earth:  many efforts are slowed and ultimately killed by false humility and misguided ideological stances against using paper or electricity or vinyl or bothering people too much; sustainability people can be too nice

  6. The business case will not save us:  it is entirely possible to do what is good for business, including protecting workers, safeguarding human rights, reducing resource consumption and waste production, and still destroy the planet and ultimately the value of the company

  7. Environment ≠ sustainability: the work is as much–if not more–about human well-being, equality and equity as it is about environmental protection; as Penn State’s former Vice Provost of Educational Equity Terrell Jones said: “You can’t be a leader in sustainability without being a leader in diversity and inclusion.”

  8. A passion for sustainability will leave you jobless:  we have overemphasized passion; most sustainability teaching lacks rigor and overall learning objectives and we produce passionate students without skills

Refreshing the Work Ahead

Everything needs to be refreshed. It appears to be the natural way of things.  After fall and winter comes spring and summer.  Sustainability has been around now for 30 years.  It would be wrong to suggest it hasn’t grown and matured along the way:  it has.  But it would also be inaccurate to say there haven’t been positive and negative results from the growth process. I think some important things have been lost along the way.  And I think some critical things need to be added for the work ahead.

This article is a version from a recent keynote in New York at the SUNY Sustainability Conference
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Erik Foley is Director of Sustainability, Smeal College of Business, Penn State University.