Some connection between sustainability and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November is assumed, but the very idea of sustainability remains poorly understood.With students and colleagues, we have promoted systems thinking as the key to understanding sustainability in a variety of contexts. We believe wider appreciation of this perspective would pave the way for progress at COP26.
We have all heard the definition from the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED): “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Ironically, this aphorism has impeded sustainability by tying the idea too closely to the theory of economic development. In fact, sustainability thinking has a much older history in population ecology, trophic flows, and the economic theory of the firm. The WCED drew upon this history in formulating a mandate tailored to the problems of international relations in the 1980s. Their statement consolidated two moral commitments that we endorse.
First, the WCED brought future generations into the universe of moral consideration in unequivocal terms. While many cultures, faith traditions, and individuals have expressed a sense of duty to their progeny, the WCED statement articulated a fundamental tenet of environmental ethics: Our decisions today must be evaluated in terms of their impact on the opportunities of unborn people, people who are not here to defend their interests in today’s decision-making. Second, and equally important, the WCED stated that we must never use our commitment to future generations as an excuse for neglecting the responsibility to redress the legacy of colonialism, racism, and other forms of oppression. In the context of the 1980s, this meant that industrialized economies must not attempt to meet their obligation to future generations by denying less economically developed nations the opportunity for economic growth. We would hope that COP26 continues to respect these two moral commitments from the history of sustainability.
“In short, a sustainable system is robust, resilient, and adaptive.”
However, the underlying logic of sustainability thinking stresses the way that key stocks—be they populations of plants or animals, abiotic elements like water and energy, or even money and capital—grow or shrink through flows that enter or leave. Systems thinking stresses how the level of stock generates feedback to these flows. Most obviously, the number of organisms in a population will affect the birthrate of organisms flowing into it. Yet stocks can also generate feedback to the flows of other stocks: a decline in the stock of nutrients for a population (stock) will increase the outflow (e.g., the death rate) for that population. At its heart, sustainability is a measure of the robustness of these stock and flow relationships, as well as their resilience—that is, their ability to recover after destructive events like hurricanes or an economic recession. A sufficiently complex organization of stocks, flows, and feedback can adaptively alter elements of its own structure in response to shocks that would otherwise send its key stocks into a collapse from which they would never recover. In short, a sustainable system is robust, resilient, and adaptive. The WCED’s definition did not draw attention to this underlying logic of sustainability.
With a narrow focus on the development process, advocates for sustainability have neglected the way that sustainability logic helps us understand the resilience of systems that reproduce social evils, as well as those that provide for social needs. In some formulations, the word sustainability becomes so closely associated with progress, goodness, or justice as to be synonymous. Yet, structural racism is arguably one of the most resilient systems in American culture. It has “bounced back” after numerous attempts to redress the oppression of nonwhite groups through slavery, dispossession, colonial marginalization, and overt racial prejudice. We should use systems thinking to understand what makes this system so sustainable and then identify the leverage points that could be targeted to make it less so. Getting away from the thought that sustainability is always a good thing will be especially important for addressing climate challenges in COP26.
COP leadership has articulated four goals for the 26th Annual Conference of the Parties. Realizing success will require focused attention to the sustainability of systems that undermine work toward achieving the goals. The work of countries to articulate and meet emission reduction targets in order to reach net zero carbon emissions (Goal #1) will understandably be confounded by the way in which energy systems are so dominated by fossil fuels. Despite decades of efforts to change this, the fossil fuel economy continues to be incredibly resilient. Understanding the controlling feedback relationships in this system—and those connecting it to so many other systems—is an example of applying sustainability logic and systems thinking when something is all too sustainable. Developing and implementing plans to adapt and protect communities and natural systems (Goal #2) is happening at international, national, regional, and local scales, but progress is halting. In many cases, political and financial power dynamics impede progress; protecting the status quo is a knee-jerk reaction on many fronts. What makes political and financial systems that are contrary to COP26 goals so sustainable? The sustainability of these systems is likely to also challenge efforts to mobilize the finances (Goal #3) needed to reduce carbon emissions and adapt and protect communities and natural systems and to foster and accelerate cooperation among the parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement and between governments, businesses, and civil society to meet overarching climate goals (Goal #4).
In our work, we have focused primarily on the robustness, resilience, and adaptiveness of systems that undergird our ability to meet important social goals like protecting critical ecosystems and fostering social justice. But we also recognize that making some systems less robust, resilient, and adaptive may be necessary to achieve sustainability goals. Couching the work of COP26 in terms of sustainability is intuitive; it is less intuitive but no less important to realize that meeting climate goals may require us to dismantle some systems that are all too sustainable.
Feature image by Appolinary Kalashnikova via Unsplash