Why is it that we bump into the word ‘sustainable’ all over the place now? In this week’s post, Dr. Giovanni Siepe explains how sustainability is, in fact, about survival.
Sustainability is a word that we often hear in conversations that involve environment, economy, organizations and many other aspects of our everyday lives. What is so special about it? And what is the meaning we associate it with?
The main reason why almost “all of a sudden” we have started talking about sustainability, and also about systems, is because during the last 30 years we have gone through frequent economic crises that have led the world, particularly the western world, into the current state of emergency. In other words, we fear for the survival of our world as we know it. We fear we cannot keep up our present standard of living, and we have realized that resources are limited and we cannot “sustain” the way we live for ever.
Sustainability means survival
Sustainability is, as a matter of fact, synonymous with survival. In this respect, the concept of sustainability is strictly connected with the concept of system. Any system is defined by its own goal, i.e. the aim toward which it works. If parts of the system work towards another goal that is not in line with the global goal of the system, or the parts do not subordinate to the global goal of the system, the results can be catastrophic: the system can collapse and destroy itself.
This statement is in line with the most recent studies on networks (and systems are networks). These studies show that networks can “survive” if the hubs in the network do not grow too much at the expense of the smaller nodes. Also in biology, recent studies show how communities of bacteria can only survive, i.e. “sustain” themselves, if they use the available resources by means of cooperation, and not through competition. This is the very essence of a system, and this is part of the legacy of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s message for the science and practice of managing organizations.
Why have we only just realized what we need to do to survive?
The world, until 30-40 years ago, was much less interconnected than it is today. Every nation, every state, every region, every city or town was working and living almost in isolation. Transportation and information exchanges were more difficult, and the possibility of cultural, economical and social “contamination” was much more unlikely.
The problem of sustainability really only concerned local communities, and not a larger environment. Today, instead, the explosion of information technology and increased mobility have made the “local optima” model obsolete. We live in a constantly growing environment that requires a different approach to sustainability, or, in another word, survival. If we really want to have a safe and sustainable economy, and as a consequence we want to survive, then our system, our network, and our environment cannot be static; they must be dynamic, and so must their goals. They must learn to cooperate, adapt and grow.
The way forward: cooperation
Any economic entity and any for-profit organization has to be inclusive: it must take into account that we do not live and survive in isolation, that we need external input, and that our output is needed for the survival of some other entity.
The ultimate system, in the end, is the World as a whole. No individual market will ever survive if other markets go under. Let’s not forget that Economics is a social science, and the very first form of Economics was the exchange of goods. If we no longer have anyone to exchange goods with, then we no longer have an Economy.