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Selfish Sustainability?

I have been uncomfortable with the concept of "sustainable development" ever since I first came across it in second year Geography, back in the 90's, writes Simon Gear.
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It is certainly a noble goal, to run our companies and societies in such a way that future generations get to enjoy as much of the pie as we are currently wolfing down. It is also one of the most deeply unnatural concepts that any species has ever dreamed up.

Life is the most selfish thing in the known universe. The desire to consume and to propagate is embedded deep within the DNA of all living things. We like to imagine that a place such as the Kruger National Park is a beautiful balancing act where all species interact harmoniously under the benign gaze of Mother Nature. In truth, every living thing in an ecosystem is engaged in a constant battle to take as much of the resources and space available for itself. What happens is that the striving of each organism is counteracted by the efforts of all the others, and so a dynamic balance is achieved that looks remarkably more peaceful than it actually is.

On the rare occasions that a species gets an upper hand, it will experience runaway success, until such time as the resources that feed it run out and famine resets the balance. This is true of bacteria in a petri dish, cold viruses in your nose, or elephants in the savannah. It is an integral characteristic of the way ecosystems work and is very good for the system as a whole, but absolutely catastrophic for the individuals unlucky enough to be in the last generation before an exploding population collapses.

What makes humanity unique is that we have become self-aware enough to be able to see the game from the outside. We have been able to step back and peer into a hazy future, and notice that, at some point, we too will have to accept that our success will prove our undoing. It has already happened countless times at a society level. Humans have been allowing growth to outstrip resources for thousands of years, from the eradication of large mammals on every continent that we spread to, right up to our joyful guzzling of cheap debt that precipitated our most recent financial crisis.

What sustainable development proponents note is that, one day, we will find that we reach the boundaries of what our planet can bear. When that happens, we will experience a species-wide correction that may well spell the end of complex society as we know it. So, we have taken the unique step of trying to introspectively limit our consumption of resources to, at the very least, soften the collision with the brick wall at the end of the tunnel. Well, I say that we’ve taken the step. What we’ve done is talk about it enthusiastically.

The last 20 years have seen a remarkable mainstreaming of the concept of sustainability, with the old cliché of the rapacious capitalist now replaced by companies that pride themselves on the way they treat their staff, their customers and the environment. The degree to which private industry now often leads environmental debates on the fringes of events such as the United Nations Congresses of the Parties on climate change or biodiversity is enormously encouraging. That said, underneath this veneer of concern, all companies remain, first and foremost, profit-driven entities that are answerable to shareholders, with investment horizons much, much shorter than the future of the human race.

We have seen an explosion in sustainability communication, with most listed companies now producing annual reports that go far beyond the financial, incorporating social and environmental performance as well, in what we have come to call triple-bottom-line reporting. But don’t let that word “triple” fool you. The meat of an annual report remains in the numbers. There may be a nod to a company’s non-financial policies, but the balance sheet remains the key piece of information from which investors derive their information.

All definitions of sustainability revolve around the same concept, that society or an organisation should strive to reach a situation where resources are used at a rate below which they can be regenerated. The ease with which the word is used in corporate reporting may well have the effect of fundamentally misleading not only shareholders and investors, but also the company staff themselves, into believing their own reporting, and ultimately leading to a naïve or short-termist view on the true sustainability (or otherwise) of a company’s activities.

This is further emphasised when one considers that the concept of sustainability, particularly in the financial sense, has been conflated with the need for a company to grow in perpetuity. This strikes at the very heart of the assumptions inherent in sustainability reporting. The thinking behind triple-bottom-line reporting aspires to a company that can experience unlimited growth while simultaneously decreasing consumption of limited natural resources, all while avoiding any compromise in its social responsibilities. It is a cognitive dissonance that is not unique to the world of sustainability reporting, but rather pervades the entire capitalist model.

So, I worry about that word “sustainable”. It is easy to be sustainable on the scale of a reporting cycle. But I worry that, as a species, we think we are brighter than we actually are. For all our insight, our actual behaviour is still that of an animal unaware that the resources it is consuming are finite. We like to imagine that we will be able to engineer our way out of any constriction that we wander into.

The truth is, history has shown us that inventions massively improve the efficiency with which we do things, but our overall rate of consumption seldom falls.

Should your company aspire to sustainability? Of course it should. We should never stop trying to make the world a better place. But when we claim sustainability, we also owe it to ourselves to ask: “Yes, but on what time scale?”

– Simon Gear is the author of Going Green and Director of Kijani Green Energy.

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