Okay. Now you’re here and thank you for clicking. Over the next 4 (just four!) or so of your precious minutes, I’m going to try to shift your fundamental understanding of what sustainability really looks like. There’ll hopefully be something in here for everyone.
The inspiration for this blog comes from the many protests, talks, webinars, seminars and sustainability consulting hours where I’ve had sustainability explained to me. The ideas in this blog are actually very simple, but it’s something that I (and hopefully future you) use every time I think about sustainability.
We, as people with human minds, have no other choice than to split the world around us into distinct categories in order to understand it. Some of the first works of scientific inquiry we do at school is dissecting a frog – splitting it into its component parts in order to understand it better. It works insofar as it allows us to understand better what ‘frog-ness’ means.
The exact same is true for how we begin to look at sustainability. We split it into the TLAs (three-letter acronyms): ESG (environmental, social, governance), CSR (corporate, social, governance), PPP (people, planet, profit) that make up the jargon of just about any sector. We’re going to focus on the common split of sustainability into environmental, social and economic categories and how they are often viewed wrong, and how a shift in how you look at them can help you think about sustainability.
If we look at the Google Image results for “social environmental and economic sustainability” we can see the age-old Venn diagram of three, equally sized, spheres which signals to us that these are equally weighted, slightly intersecting components of sustainability.
This gets a big fat NO from me and anyone who’s looked at sustainability at depth because it doesn’t get close to the reality of how these three ‘pillars’ of sustainability interact.
Here’s three reasons why the visualisations above are wrong:
It shows that the economy, the society and the natural environment are of equal size and importance for sustainability
It shows that the spheres only somewhat interconnect (and in the bottom-middle case in the figure above, don’t intersect at all).
The large part of each of these systems exist in isolation from each other which is inextricably wrong. This also makes it look like these spheres can exist without each other.
Now to a better framing of these three spheres. Below we have a visualisation that better fits the reality of the world that we live in.
Here’s three reasons why the visualisation above is better:
The economy, society and nature are not equal and never will be. We cannot see clearly from our limited human perspective – we wake up in concrete boxes, get in our metal boxes to sit in another concrete box for 8 hours, get back in our metal boxes to our personal concrete boxes in order to rest and occasionally get in a longer metal box that flies to enjoy ourselves. When we look at it from this perspective of course we’re going to be prone to mistakes when it comes to recognising the true proportion of things. We’re the centre of our worlds but not the centre of the world.
The economy, society and nature don’t just interconnect, but are subsets of each other and are interdependent. The economy exists only within (and never outside) the society that made it up, human society exists only with nature and not outside it and nature can exist on its own without the others. As much as we like to think that we are gods, we are merely a subset of a wider nature, a little circle next to penguins, ants and mushrooms’ with no more authority in nature’s order of things.
This also tells us a lot about the fragility of each of these three systems. If the economy is on its knees (because a group of American blokes decided to take excessive risks in 2008 or a flu-like virus starts killing all the old people in rich economies in 2019), society will still function just fine like it has for the last 10,000 years (apart from some very upset billionaires) and nature will probably be better off. If society implodes because a certain trembling Russian decides to push a big red button, nature will recover even if every last one of us is obliterated. But if nature is on its knees, so is our society and economy, and without society, the made up laws of economics will cease to be. The economy, whatever the news likes to tell you, is wild and fragile if you look at it relative to the other spheres.
The economy needs nature but nature does not need the economy.
We make mistakes (like destroying half of our regions biodiversity) as people and communities because we don’t see the world in the correct way. Shifts such as this towards seeing how systems actually exist and depend on each other can help us all make the critical decisions that make up our personal and collective impact.
This podcast has been my mantra for the last year and speaks some deep truths of our society and the nature of things.
Further watching: – How language shapes the way we think | Lera Boroditsky – One of the biggest squeezes on how we interpret the world around us is language. In this Ted Talk, Lera Boroditsky explains how the categories we use to break things down and thus interpret them can distort even our most fundamental senses from our sense of direction to how we see and understand colours.
We were very proud to share our new logo with you all a few weeks ago. The starting point for our new brand was change. Change because that’s the reason we come into work in the morning and leave at night satisfied and hopeful for tomorrow. And here she is:
Ultimately, this is a nice shape that has elements of a leaf, an F and an S, is cyclical and green so can be interpreted in many ways but is always going to be a logo that suits a sustainability company with the initials F. S. This blog entry however is a deep dive, so we will be going into the logo’s symbolism (and beyond).
The logo shape is inspired by the Greek letter delta, used in maths and engineering to denote change. I used the uppercase letter delta (the triangle below) a lot in thermodynamics calculations and always loved how active the shape was: one, it’s an arrow and two, it sometimes looks like a door or portal which your numbers would step through changing state. We settled on the lowercase delta because it holds dimensions of our initials. The lowercase is still used in calculus to denote change (Wikipedia).
The two shapes contrast nicely with the uppercase representing structured, methodical, human change and the lowercase representing cyclical, chaotic, natural change. It’s an obvious choice to go for the lowercase symbol because true sustainability must conform to nature’s rules of order.
This ramble is to do with how we see the world only in the context of human understanding, especially in maths, engineering but most importantly in economics and business. We do this, I presume, because we’ve never been very good at calculating anything that is changing – there are just too many added complexities. In a very similar way, we simplify almost everything into heuristic models (tools for thinking) that we can easily wrap our brains around.
I heard a great example of this in a Reith Lecture (1967) called Only Connect by anthropologist Edmund Leach (pictured above in an early mirror selfie) about jellyfish and watches. This bizarre comparison was made to explain that our society: businesses, institutions, governments, fac**ook groups, are understood within our human brains only in ways that we can fully grasp, not in ways that are necessarily true. That is, when we think of a watch, one can imagine the cogs and springs fitting together and ticking along nicely. But when we get to a jellyfish – whoah! There is absolutely no way that anyone can configure all of the connections that allow that jellyfish to tick… or pulse rather.
We then see businesses (and I’ll keep to this example as a section of society) as ‘well oiled machines’ and ‘ticking like clockwork’ and never a ‘well fed or energetic jellyfish’. We, and our interactions, are of course far more complex than clockwork and it is to dumb down the true beauty of human society to put it in the same category as springs and cogs. We are dynamic, flexible and utterly resilient, and this is something to be admired and remembered, especially in the context of societal projects like climate justice and biodiversity regeneration.
“All the way through I have been urging you to keep on remembering the total interconnectedness of things as distinct from their separate isolated existence. But there is more to it than that. In most cases the connectedness is dynamic, not static” Edmund Leach (1967)
In Lesson One, Origin and Definition, we looked at our collective home (the earth) as if it were a spaceship. This is a useful way to see the earth when it comes to systemic issues such as sustainability. We can use a crisis in a fairly simple system – the control panel signalling a malfunction on a spaceship – to represent a far more complex system – the climate crisis on earth. But first we’ll get the definitions out that way.
What do we mean by systemic? I know this word is thrown around these days and is used to signal thoughts of frightening, large scale problems: systemic racism, systemic sexism and so on. In a social or political context, systemic often means as a consequence of issues inherent to a system, scary because the system is rarely defined in the news and media, leaving us to wrongly construct a malicious ‘system’ in our heads which the source of all of society’s ills. This is neither accurate or constructive and throws the blame around to the point of the cause becoming obscured by ignorance. There are many social systems that sexism and racism exist within like a nation, an economic system, the judiciary system. Which one is it, Vox? Let’s not fall into the Vox under-thinking trap. A system is something with a boundary, within which interactions give the system certain characteristics. By this definition, we are all systems, with our skin the boundary and the various biochemical interactions happening inside us giving us the pretty neat property of living. With our spaceship-earth analogy, the boundaries are the metal and glass exterior of the ship and the atmosphere of the earth; both boundaries that mark the point where lifeless space becomes a habitable environment. The interactions that occur within these boundaries are physical chemical reactions like combustion and social exchanges, which give rise to characteristics of the system such as technological advance and climate change. Looking at something as a system prompts us to look at the whole first, the big picture, before getting bogged down with complexities – it’s all about making the infinitely complex simple. A few thousand years ago Aristotle noticed the following:
The whole is more than the sum of its parts
That is to say, that the properties of a system cannot be explained (or solved) by looking at its component parts, just like consciousness cannot be explained by the individual neurones in your brain. Similarly, we can’t explain our unsustainable collective behaviour by looking at single policies, individual actors or events.
Why is this important?
Recognising that our species’ destruction of the living world is a characteristic of a complex social and physical system rather than the result of the actions of one orange man is a tough pill to swallow (and by tough I mean it takes a different way of thinking in order to get your head around). Thinking in systems that have interactions, emergent characteristics and boundaries is something that is a little abstract, but it is the only correct way to view a problem like sustainability and its solutions.
We must start to look at some of the more comprehensible characteristics we know are apparent in our global system (because we’re measuring them) and the interactions that have led to our crisis. Seeing in systems works as a tool for thinking about solutions too, and this is made especially easy when we know what our system, spaceship or planet has got to look like 100 years from now. Next time we will look at the system of spaceship earth in today’s crisis state next to a future world that is aligned with sustainable visions for the future. We will use this comparison to determine the interactions and characteristics that need to occur in order to achieve a system that is in equilibrium with nature.
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