You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Eat the rich: on sustainability

Another very interesting entry in Seth Godin‘s (free) PDF e-book compilation, What Matters Now, is Unsustainability by Alan M. Webber (co-founding editor of Fast Company).

Now, this one had me thinking about negative externalities, the book Natural Capitalism (and its authors, Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins), and a provocative article by Frank Furedi (heh, “one of these things is not like the others…”). Furedi’s article, published in Spiked Online, is called, Anything ‘sustainable’ is not worth having,

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

(Disclaimer: I have a guilty conscience right now because so far I’ve quoted from pages written by men. There are women authors in What Matters Now, and I hope to get to some of them, too. I’m not sure why the male-authored articles have grabbed more of my attention.)
Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken

From what I understood of my reading around in Natural Capitalism and other books, we have an economic system that fails to account for negative externalities: that is, there are rewards built into the system to encourage you to generate the most profits, but there aren’t really meaningful fines or penalties or constraints built in if you, for example, wreck the environment for everyone else. There are fines for wrecking it after the fact, but by then the damage has been done. Granted, we don’t live in the dark ages of 19th century industrialization any more, but there’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong – and therefore also for improvement.

Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins

For example: the air is free to breathe for everyone, but if a feed-lot sets up next door and pollutes the air with its stench or poisons the groundwater with excess nitrogen, that negative externality (the pollution from the lot) in the past typically was not charged to the feed-lot operator. Instead, the rest of us are expected to suck it up (literally, in this case), and absorb that negative externality ourselves as the price of having a thriving business (the feed-lot) in our midst. Ditto for excess packaging of consumer goods: the manufacturer reaps a reward (increased sales) if s/he manages particularly eye-catching or obtrusive packaging, but pays no penalty for contributing mountains of garbage to landfills. It’s a negative externality that’s palmed off on the rest of us instead, who struggle in our communities to find ways of dealing with trash.

Hunter Lovins

Hunter Lovins

In many ways, this is arse-backwards. If, in the process of making a living (with profit, which isn’t in any way a bad thing in itself), you mess up The Commons for the rest of us, The Commons has typically and to date “eaten” that cost as the price of progress. But shouldn’t the cost to The Commons be built into your profit model a priori, to force you (the entrepreneur, the business person, the natural capitalist) to factor into your business model the true cost of doing business?

Of course it should.

That would be a reckoning that includes “sustainability” (an admittedly much-overused word these days).

So let’s look at Alan M. Webber’s entry on Unsustainability (p.24):


Everyone is pursuing sustainability. But if change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change, we really need to focus on raising the costs of the unsustainable systems that represent the unsustainable status quo.

Unsustainable failed educational systems, obesity-producing systems, energy systems, transportation systems, health care systems. Each and every one is unsustainable. It’s more “innovative” to talk about bright, shiny, new sustainable systems, but before we can even work on the right side of the change equation, we need to drive up the costs of the unsustainable systems that represent the dead weight of the past.

The road to sustainability goes through a cleareyed look at unsustainability.

Alan M. Webber is co-founding editor of Fast Company magazine and author, most recently of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.
Alan Webber

Alan Webber

Among other things, I’m reading this as a call to take negative externalities into account. What’s delusional (and therefore unsustainable) is the pretense that negative externality can just be “eaten” by others. It has to be factored into the business model.

What I like about Alan Webber’s comment is his plea for a “cleareyed look at unsustainability” – yes, please! Because that will help us a lot more than a religiously-tinged view of sustainability.

This brings me back to Furedi, who attacks the religious attitude of the sustainability crowd.

(I’m an atheist, I can’t help liking the “cleareyed” approach a lot better than …the other stuff.)

Furedi argues that in much of the usual discussion around sustainability, all the emphasis is on consumption – and not nearly enough on production.

An emphasis on consumption puts the onus on individuals, and on that whole quasi-religious aspect: if only you could become pure and good enough, you wouldn’t consume so much.

Furedi criticizes the shifted focus on consumption, which de-emphasizes production (and recall how an integrated approach that factors in negative externalities could shape our production practices). We are ignoring a lot of quantifiable factors around production.

We’re focusing instead on indexes, for example the “happiness” index, and we feel guilty about linking happiness to prosperity. Production underwrites prosperity. In Furedi’s analysis, severing the linkage between happiness and prosperity is a logical error, and it inflects our thinking about sustainability.

As he puts it in his conclusion:

We live in a world in which the one idea that everyone can sign up to as a way of dealing with the recession is ‘sustainability’. Now, I’m old-fashioned about this – maybe it’s my classical economist, Marxist background – but basically I would say that sustainability is not a good thing. Anything that is sustainable is not worth having, and that has always been the main principle of human development. That is, it’s precisely because we recognise the transient, fluid character of our existence that we don’t simply want things to be sustainable – we want things to move forward, to progress, to develop. It seems to me that what is really lacking today is some kind of progress-related, progressive ideology, which we might use to deal with today’s many troublesome ideas and issues. (source)

In other words, let’s try also taking a “cleareyed look at unsustainability”…so we can move forward on progress.

1 Comment

  1. I have read with pleasure. a clever idea and a good share. Thanks;)

    Comment by internetten para kazanma — December 27, 2009 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Recent Posts



Theme: Pool by Borja Fernandez.
Entries and comments feeds.