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‘Sustainability’ Risks Losing Effectiveness as a Term

sustainability-circles2Using the term “sustainability” does not spur society on to an ultimately better solution. Rather, it is a “negative vision,” said MIT Sloan’s Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning.

“It’s just a bad word. It’s technically what we would call a ‘negative vision,'” said Senge, in an interview at MIT Sloan Management Review.

To Senge, Senior Lecturer in Behavioral and Policy Sciences at the MIT Sloan School of Management, sustainability is about recognizing that global commerce tends to put most of the wealth in few hands, with devastating results in consumption patterns and resulting environmental and societal damage.

“We don’t want the unsustainable, we don’t want civilization to collapse, we don’t want the human species to fail. Well, of course we don’t want that, but those images don’t move people. ‘Survival’ is not the most inspiring vision. It motivates out of fear, but it only motivates for as long as people feel the issues are pressing on them. Soon as the fear recedes, so does the motivation,” he told MIT Sloan Management Review.

Instead of considering sustainability, society must look at reinventing its way of living, because population growth and commerce will render today’s version of sustainability unsustainable. He said a preferred term may be “All about the future.”

Senge has noticed a trend of companies going from being “less bad” to “more good,” the interview notes.

He cites the example of Alcoa, which in the 1990s had sought to build a water-intensive aluminum smelting plant in California, which even then was beginning to understand the perilous state of its water resources. California rejected the plant, leading Alcoa leaders to realize that it must address its water use in a larger sense.

“They went to a serious strategy session and said, if we look at the big issues in the world for the next 20 years, water is getting bigger, and we better significantly reduce our water footprint,” Senge said.

Because of that realization, Alcoa has been able to reduce its water use 50 percent per ton of aluminum created.

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8 thoughts on “‘Sustainability’ Risks Losing Effectiveness as a Term

  1. There is general agreement that sustainability is not the best term, but I’ve yet to hear alternative terms suggested. What is a succinct term for the future vision that Senge suggests in this article?

  2. I disagree with Senge that “sustainability” is an inadequate word. To me it’s a big picture word that describes a time in the future when humans live in a way that we use natural resources no faster than nature can replenish them, and create wastes (like GHG) no faster than Nature can absorb them. It’s also about developed countries doing more with less so there will be enough resources for everyone in developing countries to have their basic needs met. Just because we raise the bar on corporate sustainability next year, next decade and next century doesn’t mean it isn’t a relevant term. I’ve yet to see a better term but I’m open to hearing about it.

  3. I would agree that the word “sustainability” is big picture and hard for some to get their arms around. But corporate citizenship and corporate responsibility are too narrow. Our stakeholders told us repeatedly to call our corporate responsibility report a corporate sustainability report. Until someone comes up with something better (which Senge didn’t offer), I think sustainability is the way to go.

  4. good argument on the transitional meaning of the word “sustainability” personally I disagree and feel the word has been excepted to be associated with environment. i am a proactive supporter of the sustainable movement and would like to make you guys aware of wwwe.e3bank.com check them out to see how they can help you all with your sustainable goals.

  5. The real issue is the use of the term sustainability and many others in the eco/green movement is the fact that they are improperly and over used.
    In an era of vastly more knowledgeable people and easy access to references and information, any slight error can undermine the purpose of any effort put forth to the world.

  6. I disagree about sustainability being a negative term. Of course, if you define the objective as survival, you’ll see it in negative light. But if you define the objective constructively, as building a better world, it becomes a whole another story. Isn’t sustainability about satisfying our needs without compromising future generations’ capacity to do the same? Sounds positive to me.

    Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the meaning of sustainability will be interpreted by different people differently.

  7. Hogwash. To say that ‘sustainability’ is a negative term is absolutely ridiculous. To me, sustainability is the absolute foundational concept for building a society that lives within the means of our planet, and is perfect because it is so clear: you are either sustainable or unsustainable. It is the ultimate benchmark. I’ve read recently about using the term ‘resilience’ as a replacement for sustainability, but even there, in most cases it is employed as a basis for sustainability. I think this is a case of consumer culture demanding something ‘new’ instead of just getting on with the hard work of transitioning. One term which I do find has equal weight is the concept of restoration, and the restoration economy, as developed by Storm Cunningham. Our planet is depleted and our actions should be devised in response to that reality, towards the achievement of sustainability.

  8. The use of a double negative by the Mr.Senge “we don’t want un-sustainability” is actually a proof that the word “sustainability” is a positive term and provokes a positive vision. However, if you don’t like it, there is a term that has been used in most religious prophecy, “Golden Age” which may evoke the vision of what we are really striving to attain. However, it’s more than just a change of environment. It also implies a change of heart and motive, a change in the way we view our environment and more importantly a change in the way we view ourselves in respect to others in the world. It’s all well and good to strive for technological solutions to our material problems such as energy consumption, waste and pollution. It’s a whole other issue on how to bring social justice in the form of equitable distribution of wealth, education, freedom from repression, advancement and equity to other parts of the world where sustainability means something quite different than it does in North America or Europe. For now, sustainability is probably the right term but the writer makes a good point that we could all begin to adopt a larger vision.

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