Rethinking the Conventional Sustainability Wisdom

José Lopez, who died recently, had a fantastic capacity for turning conventional wisdom on its head. He had the knack for inverting phrases in a way that shone a blinding light on the reality, provided a simplicity of vision, and pointed us all in the right direction. Once asked what was the factory of the future, as quick as a flash his response was “the factory that has a future”. 

At first glance a flippant answer, yet on reflection its actually deeply insightful, if a little philosophical. Apply that to many current questions, such as: “what’s the future of capitalism?”, and you immediately have the answer. And the way ahead.

There are a few phrases that I believe need to be put under the spotlight. Here are a few that have shaped conventional wisdom, but are holding back progress on sustainability.

Think Local, Act Global

A phrase that needs a reboot is ‘think global act local’. The sustainability movement has dug itself into a hole following this globalization mantra.

Coming up with a global solution and then implementing it locally in one or two places has led to some nice sustainability stories for annual reports and conference speeches. Yet the continued calls for “solutions at scale” suggests that something is wrong with our thinking. 

We need to think local, design programmes that are appropriate for communities, and that make an impact on the ground. Then we need to replicate this repeatedly to roll it out globally. We need to think local, act global.

That’s the conclusion of recent research from a recent Foresight4Food paper on smallholder farmers.

And also the conclusion reached by the FSG team who stated that “Local solutions are the essential to tackling global problems” in a paper about how global leaders should think about solving our biggest problems.

Build Back Better

Thats right. I’m not sure we want to go back to anything, or backwards for that matter. The existing societal and economic foundations are exceedingly suspect, and our management theories are outdated. Quite frankly a U-turn is more appropriate in many areas.

Michael Liebreich ran a poll recently where only 3% voted for ‘build back’. 71% voted for ‘build forward’. Interestingly 26% preferred ‘embrace degrowth’. Degrowth is certainly what we need in some parts of society, though there is also no doubt that we need to deliver equality and equity in many other parts. We need growth; but differentially.

So can we please retire ‘build back better’ immediately, and replace it with something more appropriate and visionary? My own preference would be to include ‘transition’, ‘forward’ and ‘faster’ in the formulation.

A Fork in the Lake?

Somehow in the sustainability world we always seem to be at ‘tipping points’, have ‘windows of opportunity’ or be at ‘forks in the road’. This stretches the credulity of the accompanying messages, because we rarely are.

The latter is meant to be for those deciding moments in life. Yet it has become a metaphor for taking any kind of decision. Which of course devalues it’s meaning and weakens it’s impact. 

Yogi Berra skewered the phrase best, saying “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”.

So I have. I decided last year to take early independence, and my last day of salaried life is at the end of this month. This blog will continue. As will my contribution to sustainability and society – just in a different way, and on a different road, and a different lake.

I will be swapping Lac Léman for the Lake District where I will be thinking and acting locally, to help individuals and local communities. I will also focus on a few things globally that I believe can help society to transition to a better place. This will not involve building back better.

3 Replies to “Rethinking the Conventional Sustainability Wisdom”

  1. Tell me more!! I couldn’t agree with you more, Duncan. Though I have to admit that I have struggled most of my career to figure out how to put it into action. I left humanitarian assistance work because I struggled with the notion that with one hand “northern” countries were handing out life support while with the other hand they were taking away what is actually life-providing – and with many professionals living quite comfortable lives from the whole ordeal. I turned to “sustainability” work, and while it is more proactive it is still bogged down by old systems and an undercurrent of racism and sexism – that imparts a sense of malaise (to put it mildly). Don’t get me wrong, I do see hope for change in some of the work that I and others are involved in. I truly believe that re-distribution of value is part of the answer – if it happens in a real way (and there is some really good work being done on this front). But we need more than progress on a few initiatives. We need a paradigm shift. I still say that my favorite job was when I worked as an AmeriCorps Member at age 22, helping a land trust build parks and engage communities in their ownership. There has got to be away to genuinely build from local to global – but the answer on how continues to allude me. Am looking forward to continue reading your blog and learning about what you are doing in the Lake District. I recently joined the Natural Resource Conservation Committee for my town here on our Lake Champlain – my own small attempt to figure out what I can do to make these important connections. 🙂 Keep writing – and thank you!

  2. Hi Duncan, I like the blog! My folks live in Shap so hope we can meet up in Cumbria some time.

    …and the Indonesia plastics work is thriving thanks for all your support with that. Good luck with the move!

  3. Happy Independence Duncan and happy onward journey and adventures. Keep writing and keep thinking about all these unanswered questions and the way we need to move forward in our worlds.

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