On The Three-Legged Stool

This is a long post. I know. But, this is the foundation upon which all others will be built and to divide it into several articles would diminish the whole. Stick with me. 

It is you, Dear Doubter, who I wish to address. I do not want to berate or admonish you. I do not want to dismiss your beliefs or values. I want to dissipate the dubious cloud that creeps in when you hear the word sustainability. This blog is not another volley in an ongoing war of ideologies, but an invitation to dialogue, because you and I are not on opposite sides. My hope is that you will at least respond with the sentiment, “OK, I will continue reading.” I encourage you to leave comments to challenge my thinking if you disagree. I will read them take them into consideration.

And it is also you, Dear Doer, who I wish to inspire. If you are, like me, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems that we must solve and you overthink until you’re wallowing in inaction, keep reading. Though the planet, civilization, industries, economies, corporations, and governments are huge and our impact as individuals is small, be reassured that it has been only the cumulative actions of individuals – nothing more, nothing less – that has gotten us to such a desperate point. Be reassured that it is the same cumulative action of individuals that has the power to right our course, beginning with you. If you’re an expert in triple bottom line accounting and circular economics, or if you give talks on sustainable development and are finishing up a quarterly deforestation and child labor supply chain audit, this may not be the blog post and I may not be the blog author for you (but I welcome your feedback and if you have a blog, I’d love to read it!). I want to build, in all of my writing on this site, the core ideas of sustainability from the ground up and use that understanding in its most immediately applicable outlet; on myself. As the manager of my life, my family, and my home, how can I have the maximum impact in creating the kind of world that I want to leave to my son?

[suhstey-nuh-buh l]

Adjective

2 – pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse¹

Sustainability is how. Sustainability is not tree hugging for granola snowflakes. It is systems thinking and it is good business. The essence of sustainability is summed up in the Three P’s, or the Triple Bottom Line, or , as I prefer, S.E.E. the Three Legged Stool (with our globe sitting atop):

  • Social (People)
  • Environmental (Planet)
  • Economic (Profit)

Teacher presenting sustainable development concept with Venn diagram on glass screen isolated on white

This business and personal accounting framework forces us to realize the interconnected nature of everything that we do. Every action we take must be socially sustainable, environmentally sustainable, and economically sustainable if want to leave a prosperous world to our progeny. One of these legs should not ever be given favor at the expense of another lest the stool tip over. In the course of our daily lives, if we are inflicting more damage than can be fully-recovered by the natural order of the system, then action must be taken to alter our behavior AND to intervene in the system to aid its regenerative capacity. Intervening into a system to aid in its restoration is the method of sustainability to which I subscribe: strong sustainability. This means that when rainforests are clear-cut and burned (at a manic pace of more than 80,000 acres per day) that robust reforestation and rewilding projects act swiftly to replace as much of the lost ecosystems as is possible. This means that when communities who have been cut off from capital for generations by redlining, robust programs that infuse capital into those communities must be implemented posthaste. The alternative, weak sustainability, is simply to stop the unsustainable harm and then to allow the system to run its course. This is appropriate for largely intact ecosystems, which should be protected for the irreplaceable biodiversity and services they provide for all life. But in too many cases, we’re beyond the point where allowing a system to run its course will leave us with a global community or a planet that are capable of sustaining us.

Of course, there is the economic leg. In the human world, we can’t maintain any action while operating at a financial loss for very long. The good news is that sustainability  can have an immediate positive impact on the bottom line. The bad news is that too many people grimace when they hear the word sustainability because they think it’s expensive and that it’s charity; something noble, but not in the budget. Non-profits are amazing. I donate to a number of them and I urge you to do so as well because the positive impact you can have with less money than you spend on a meal at a fast casual restaurant is truly awesome. However, this gives people the misimpression that profit is somehow incompatible with our goals. IT IS NOT.  Profit is a measure of sustainability. Profit and healthy growth can create more opportunities for work and more ways to invest back into the societies and planet that made profit-making a possibility in the first place. Because this is the knee-jerk reflex of most naysayers, let me assuage your concerns by addressing the Economic leg first.

LEG: Economic

No one is asking you to give up your livelihood and donate all of your hard-earned to charities and move to an atheist commune where crickets are served for dinner.

Capitalism has the potential to be a phenomenally, uniquely sustainable economic system. So long as its tendencies for perpetual, arbitrary and ultimately self-destructive levels of growth – akin to a malignant tumor – are sufficiently controlled by policy and an informed populace, we truly can have our cake and eat it too. The present-biased behavior of firms (Does anyone else feel like quarterly financial results are our new horizon line?) is an amplification of the same defect in our individual human nature, but it is not a law of nature. Within our power is the ability to adjust our thinking to incorporate a longer term perspective of growth and the real cost of the goods and services we purchase. Economies are not systems of nature, but nature’s systems give us a compelling model for how we ought to be doing business; the output of one thing is always the input for something else. What is the true cost of cheap goods that are produced by sweatshop and slave labor from materials and processes that destroy the planet and whose lifecycle necessarily results in landfilling yet more destructive materials? If I could show you the cradle-to-grave product cycle of those ten shirts you just bought for dirt cheap and that every penny of your great “deal” bought suffering and destruction, would you be willing to entertain a new way of thinking about things? There are companies who are already turning profits by doing business differently and we’ll examine many of them down the road. Circular Economics is a new paradigm that is modeled on nature’s example. But it isn’t just the disruptors who will be responsible for changing the way business works, legacy brands and people like YOU will too.

I worked for a small family restaurant for many years as a part time job during school and later as a part time job to supplement my full time jobs. We made sauce (a guarded family recipe) each week in a large sauce cooking cauldron and some of the raw ingredients came in those big steel cans, like the big brothers to the little soup cans we all know, which came packaged in cardboard boxes. Each week, five boxes of six cans were used to make sauce. Each week, those cardboard boxes filled with empty steel cans were thrown, along with many other paper products, plastic bottles, glass, and many pounds of food waste, into an 8 yard dumpster that cost money to rent and have emptied by a waste service. The only thing that ever went into the dumpster that had no option but to be sent to a landfill was the copious amounts of film plastics that are almost unavoidable in food service. After not questioning or even thinking much about it for a long time, I eventually began to feel guilty, somehow like I had been cheating the family who employed me by not reducing some of this waste. Because not only were all of these materials being sent to a landfill, but we were paying money to send things to a landfill that we paid money to purchase. LIGHTBULB MOMENT: Struck as if I had just understood the punchline to a joke for which I had earlier faked a laugh, it dawned on me that everything that goes up a smoke stack, down a drain, or to a landfill takes some profit with it. I began covertly collecting those cans and boxes and storing them in the basement. Once I had enough of a haul, I took them to a recycling center a few blocks away (also a local, family-owned business) and then returned to the store with money in hand to deliver to the owners. It was a meager sum, less than twenty dollars, but I thought my point would hit them as it did me: “We don’t have to pay for a dumpster!  Not only that, we can GET PAID for the things we throw out!”

Perhaps my sales pitch was not effective or perhaps doing things  a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done is more deeply ingrained than twenty dollars – and the savings of not paying for a weekly service – can motivate one to change. We continued business as usual and raised prices on our menu twice before I finally left in 2011. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t change. It is in my self-interest to examine all of my own actions this same way because each of us bears the increased costs of waste. An easy starter-action for all of us is ceasing the use of plastic bags at the store. Film plastics are so difficult to recycle that the overwhelming majority are not. Plastics in general, including film plastics, are a terrible scourge on the environment. So much plastic has ended up in waterways and in the oceans that it is bio-accumulating up the food chain and we are starting to eat our own garbage. This has dire implications that will be examined in another post. It is a small impact for one person or one household to bring their own reusable grocery bags to the store, but don’t mistake that as being a reason NOT to do it. If customers everywhere did this, guess what cost your grocer or retailer no longer incurs, and which will ultimately then not be passed down to you as an increase in the price of your goods? The bulk ordering of plastic bags. Guess what waste gets eliminated? That’s right.

We customers, as the most important actors in the economy, are absolutely free to mold every business and industry and market in existence by voting with our dollars. This is not a neoliberal apologetic for the benevolence of market forces and “incentivizing desired behaviors”. This is simply reassurance to doubters that the word sustainability doesn’t need to be put in quotes. No one is asking you to give up your livelihood and donate all of your hard-earned to charities and move to an atheist commune where crickets are served for dinner. I am asking you to be intentional with every dollar and help us to shed that terrible epithet of submission – consumer – from our collective psyche. We can choose to be informed about the costs of the products we buy and the values of the companies that make them. We can choose to stop inflicting irreparable harm on people and planet by mindlessly spending. Let’s exercise our power and make companies earn our loyalty as customers by demonstrating their commitment to the planet and people who create their opportunity to be in business.

LEG: Environmental

What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

― Henry David Thoreau, Familiar Letters

When most people hear the word sustainability, they think environmentalism. While it’s an incomplete picture, environmental conservation, protection, and stewardship are certainly at the core. Though each leg of the Three Legged Stool is necessary and the stool cannot remain balanced with any of them injured, the primacy of environmental sustainability makes it both a leg and the seat of the stool. Paying the utility bill becomes a non-issue once the house is burned down. No economies in the world matter in the least without a viable planet upon which to exist. The debate over climate change is not a debate at all and it doesn’t happen as much outside of the United States where fomentation of discord over settled facts is less profitable (and less possible). Here is an analogy to characterize the nature of this “debate”:

Let’s say you have a fever and several other strange symptoms. You visit 100 doctors because you are immensely wealthy and want to make absolutely certain that there is no misunderstanding or misdiagnosis. After you describe your aversion to hand-washing and the doctors perform some basic tests, ninety-seven of the doctors tell you, “You have an infection, likely the result of poor hygiene. Here is a course of treatment that will resolve the issue. Please do not delay, untreated infection can spread and cause widespread damage and even death.” Doctors 98, 99, and 100, who are funded by the pro-germ lobby, have a different message altogether. “Not only do you not have a fever, these other symptoms aren’t happening and infections don’t exist. If infections did exist, they wouldn’t be caused by germs and so hand-washing is irrelevant.”

My purpose is not to be condescending with this analogy. This is an honest characterization of the degree of nonsense that is being given false equivalence. But, alas, I am not a scientist, though I defer to their expertise, and I do not think I’m linguistically skilled enough to convince anyone who holds these kinds of views. However, I’m not convinced that understanding the science or agreeing with the science are completely necessary conditions for moving forward together.

Perhaps most surprising to me is the denial and outright revile that, in general, American Evangelical Christians have towards the idea of climate change and the people working to protect the environment. A common rebuke is that the idea of climate change is human hubris and that ecological sustainability is just worship of nature. Is caring for your child considered worshiping your child? If you are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, fine. Please take a look at the pictures below. Do you at least agree that these images are of harm? Can you agree that there is something in the core of your being that is revolted by seeing your home treated this way? If you are a Christian and believe that we and everything around us are God’s creation, do you believe that these images, this trampling of our common home and each other for money, depicts the will of your Creator? I certainly hope not. If we can share this, a common pain at the destruction of the planet in the name of profits, then we can dialogue about a different way forward that doesn’t require a compromising of values.

 

It would be unfair to lump all Evangelicals together with this statement. Some of the most influential things I’ve read can be found on the Care of Creation website. There are churches mobilizing around the world to respond to the environmental crises that result from our throwaway civilization. I’m not a theologian, but I’ve read the Bible and God never said that he’d make his people a profit. He said he would prosper his people. The dominion described in the Bible makes us stewards of this world and the bounty it provides, not masters of Creation. What our consumer culture and its sophisticated and monied rulers have done is to make us pimps of Creation, commodifying the wonders of the natural world until all of the beautiful complexity is a mere disorganized pile of things to be extracted and transacted, having no value that is not monetary. I speak specifically of Christianity because that is what I’m most familiar with personally, but quick searches return a wealth of thought and action from all of the major world religions. Protection of the planet does not require religious belief, but religious belief does not preclude anyone from being one of those protectors. We are all on the same side in this issue and it is the moral imperative of this generation to take drastic action. Just in the last 40 years, 60% of the global vertebrate populations have died as a result of human activity. This is a mass extinction. I won’t overwhelm you with more links, search the figures for yourself.

But nature isn’t just a museum. Biodiversity and thriving global forests and oceans provide essential services to every single living creature, including ourselves. We are not apart from this system, we are a part of it. Simple logic should make it clear that our treatment of the planet is damaging it in a way that interferes with the delicate balance of all of the systems that we depend upon. Of course removing billions of years-worth of carbon from the ground and launching it all into the air within a century or two – at the same time that we are completely destroying most of the world’s forests, the primary means of removing and storing the carbon – is going to change the properties of the atmosphere. Industrial agriculture expends ten calories of energy for every one calorie of nutrition it produces, not to mention the deforestation, massive water waste and greenhouse gas emissions. If you spent ten dollars for every dollar you earned, how long could you sustain that lifestyle? We are all contributors to the destruction of our home. No one is innocent. But we can choose personal responsibility rather than perpetuation of our “taker” lifestyles. We can choose to reduce our harm to the planet and each other by making very simple lifestyle changes that require nothing other than adult discipline and thoughtfulness. I will post many things about the specific actions to take in the future, and you can also visit the Take Action pages, but one mantra should remain in your head at all times: Less. Use and consume less of everything. No one is asking you to abandon your values or beliefs. I am asking you to embrace the value of the home that all known life in the universe shares.

Image result for ecosystem services

Ecosystem services diagram, source: metrovancouver.org

LEG: Social

My separate existence is an illusion. Ecology is flow. You and I are most definitely part of the flow. Everything we do affects the flow. Everything the flow does affects us.

-Bob Hunter

I’ve heard terrible, illogical conspiracies peddled about the motivations of environmental conservation and climate science. Let me state unequivocally that the whole purpose of sustainability as a business practice and way of life is to shape society in a way that embraces the symbiotic relationship with the planet for which we are designed. Earth will continue on with or without us. Sustainability is our way of restoring a durable habitat for all life and creating a viable economy that will support people for generations to come. The point of all of this people.

We’ve figured out how to do money quite well. We’ve forgotten the purpose of money, or rather made money our purpose, though. For as long as there have been people, people have lived in community. Community provides security and meaning and a way to share the few brief moments of life that we get to live together. Today, community is a politically-coded word; a foil at odds with jobs and your values. Community is the nebulous collection of “others” around we rugged individuals who must be presumed to be and monitored as a threat in order to ensure the safety of one’s own. This kind of thinking, so prevalent in modern America, is a dire threat to our survival. We need to objectively and critically examine the society we’ve inherited and have some very honest dialogue about how its design is inherently unsustainable. Then we need to act to fix it.

Strong social sustainability means not shying away from the reality of racism but identifying our own culpability and correcting for its effects. Strong social sustainability means ensuring that environmental sustainability initiatives don’t further divide us into eco-haves and eco-have-nots. Let’s reconnect the purpose of business to the benefit of community. Work, housing, access to local food, healthcare, education, recreation, culture, these are all basic human needs that we (especially in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world) should pride ourselves on making readily available to all. This doesn’t require abandoning of our traditional American values for statist socialism or communism. But it does require that we disengage from the rhetoric of the sensationalist tweet cycle and re-engage the people around us.


¹sustainable. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 24, 2017 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/sustainable


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