We've all heard the word sustainability. It is almost inescapable in today's language, yet most have not taken the time to think about what it means. The most widely held belief is that sustainability is a process of making decisions to achieve a triple bottom line: economic growth, societal advancement, and environmental improvement or protection. This involves the ability to know enough about a problem to balance the competing interests inherent to the triple bottom line to reach the best solutions given the current conditions and perceived needs of society.
"Knowing enough about a problem," according to Sarah Stokes of the Keystone Center, a leadership group that works with key executives and decision-makers, "is about getting the information right, which means learning about a problem, formulating a vision and turning it into action." To some, this means nothing more than an exercise in quantitative risk management and cost benefit analysis. Those more grounded in the complexity of real life, know that the trouble with sustainability is that we currently don't, and probably never will, have the ability to clearly identify and quantify multifaceted problems, let alone solutions. What we have learned is that the quantitative approach is an insufficient mechanism that, if relied upon exclusively, risks delaying the understanding of a societal problem and possibly getting it wrong, in an effort to exhaust empirical sources of data before making a decision.
As a society, we are fairly good at identifying environmental issues and negotiating solutions when the evidence (and/or pressure for change) is conspicuous. This is the reason why every major piece of environmental legislation passed over the last 30 years has had bipartisan support-the water, air and land were perceived to be in "bad enough" condition, and we had the political and economic will to act. One of the main suppositions for this is called the Kuznet's Curve. This curve is based on the theory that as the per capita income of a nation increases, the environmental quality deteriorates up to a point. After that point, environmental quality improves as incomes continue to rise1.
It is believed that environmental deterioration related to increasing income, at low-income levels, is probably associated with increased industrialization. However, the reasons for environmental improvement are less understood. According to Mario Molina and Luisa Molina, researchers at MIT, "the association between improvement in environmental quality and higher income is less obvious. Wealthier nations can more easily prioritize environmental quality, implement more stringent control measures to reduce pollution, develop new technologies and enforce environmental regulations more strictly1."
Although Molinas' research and the Kuznet's Curve suggest a model for improving environmental conditions, neither specifically address where America finds itself today in the sustainability debate. Once a certain level of environmental quality is arrived at, the next degree of incremental environmental improvement is somewhat less noticeable and more difficult to attain (especially if pollution is directly and/or indirectly exported). As opposed to other environmental problems, such as cleaning-up a polluted stream or mitigating a toxic dump, sustainability is often not associated with clear problems or easy answers. In fact, research suggests that living in a sustainable way is more subcutaneous and elusive than it is recognizable or even sublime, making it difficult to assess and habituate. If not confronted, it risks a type of paralysis that can result in desensitizing people to environmental issues by lulling them to a point of complacency of no concern, until a major disturbance occurs.
Speaking at the Air and Waste Management international conference in Indianapolis on June 22, 2004, James Rogers, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Cinergy Corp., offered a simple but effective way to perform a "gut check" for sustainable behavior. He called this process "passing the Grandchild Test." According to Mr. Rodgers, this test means that when your grandchildren and great grandchildren look back on the decisions you've made they say "my grandfather (or grandmother) made great decisions."
It seems then that sustainability is something deeply imbedded in who we are and how we go about identifying problems to arrive at solutions that minimize foreclosing opportunities for future generations. It is apparent that developing appropriate answers to this challenge involves an innate leadership ability to make the best decisions in the face of situations that are not self-evident. At the very minimum, it means taking the time to act selflessly. 1Molina, Mario J. and Molina, Luisa T. "Megacities and Atmospheric Pollution" Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association, 2004 June (54), 644-680.