Why I’m breaking up with sustainability

I’ve been in the so-referred (for those of you not in the biz) sustainability space for roughly 10 years. It’s a term so ingrained into my psyche that it might as well be synonymous with shrimp dumplings or sunglasses, just without the flavor, but perhaps with the tinted lenses.

Back in 2006, “sustainability” was the hot buzzword in the environmental community and my network was excited with the promise of what this all meant. You didn’t have to look far to see the job title springing up at universities (Sustainability Coordinator), select corporations (Chief Sustainability Officer) and a handful of government agencies (Sustainability Manager). What a pragmatic blend of environment and business — it just makes sense! This movement had an alluring ring to it, and my mid twenties idealist wanted in.

My relationship with sustainability, however, has shifted over the past decade. We started hot and heavy and are now left with a diluted taste of “this just isn’t doing it for me”. This shift isn’t necessarily surprising and I’m learning that I’m not alone. I want more, and so should you. For starters, there’s a growing sense of ennui with the status quo, which we’re seeing played out in our current political culture and highlighted in the 2016 election, if you could even call it that. The push for anti-establishment leadership is louder than ever and there are a million reasons why.

In light — and in celebration — of this shift, I find myself asking: what are we really trying to sustain and why? And is sustainability enough to turn back the clock on climate change, or should we be doing so much more, so much faster? Somehow producing sustainability reports and the time and effort needed to collect, calculate, and convince a President or CEO of the value of embedding environmental costs into your production line doesn’t seem all that valuable when you’re up against the ticking clock of a warming planet.

Back in 2006, I wouldn’t have asked such questions, or been so critical.

To me, the word sustainability has devolved into a word that embodies a non-offensive, contradictory acknowledgement of the need to address the dire issues facing our rapidly changing climate without actually having to shift core business models. For example, instead of focusing on smart product design that leaves little to no footprint (think biomimicry), we’re somehow still stuck on recycling and a number of communities in the United States — some I’ve visited just this summer — continue to dish out Styrofoam to-go containers. In the enlightened words of John Oliver: How is this still a thing?

To add fuel to the fire, I bump into professional contacts of mine at various conferences and events in the sustainability space who say they feel disempowered in their role. They’ve “hit a ceiling” with executive leadership, they’ll tell me. Or they work in a silo in the facilities department or operations, or only have an intern for support. How can any single person in a massive organization have the opportunity to fundamentally shift the bottom line, particularly when that bottom line is triple-down, without the necessary backing and support?

Now I know I’m going out on a limb by saying all of this, and I recognize that I will alienate and/or offend a number of my colleagues and friends in the space, but I’m doing this out of hard love. I challenge the sustainability community to think outside the box as we move into the next decade, a decade that’s slated to bring stronger storms, more extreme temperatures and an even smaller window to push the brakes. I challenge the community to take a long, hard look at where sustainability has gotten us, and, more importantly, where it can take us from here. And while I fully acknowledge that it’s better to have pushed consumer behavior trends towards a space of environmental awareness than to keep blindly consuming at the rates we were back in the 1980s, in my mind, at this point in the game, sustainability is like fracking — it’s the technology that’s impeding a rapid clean energy revolution by prolonging the fossil fuel status quo.

As Jeremy Butman wrote in his recent New York Times op-ed:

When we talk about sustainability, then, what is it that we hope to sustain? We certainly do not sustain nature ‘in itself.’ Rather, we sustain nature as we humans prefer it. More precisely, we preserve the resources needed for human consumption, whether that means energy consumption or aesthetic consumption. In one sense, we preserve nature for industry.

Maybe it’s because I just finished reading The Sixth Extinction, or maybe it’s because the more I read stories of displacement due to fire and flooding, the more real climate change becomes. Either way, we must face facts: climate change is not just knocking at our door, it’s in the entryway and it wants to join us for dinner. If what we’re ultimately trying to sustain is a more benign version of our current system, we’re merely prolonging the issue, not solving it. We need dramatic change from the inside out and we need broad, united national and international coalitions of public-private-NGO partnerships to do it. We need large-scale renewables, and we need better and more accessible public transportation networks. Most importantly, we need education and we need to elevate groups that are working towards systemic solutions right now.

So while the sustainability movement can take pride in shifting the dialogue a decade ago and building awareness, it’s resiliency, adaptation and design thinking that’s the name of the game today. And the game is on.

This post was originally published in invironment on Medium.