The Notion of Nebulous Sustainability is Misguided and Misguiding

A recent review of a session at the APA California Conference (“Translating Sustainability into Practice: Tools for Measuring Community Sustainability”) seems to argue that that a robust understanding of sustainability is not possible, that measurement is unnecessary, and that neither is needed because an effective response can be found in traditional planning as usual. Even if I have inaccurately perceived or over-interpreted this point, a response to it may be useful because one does find these positions in society more generally.

Although I can sympathize with the apparent nebulousness of the concept of sustainability and the limited occurrence of a rigorous understanding in practice, those conditions do not justify uncritically jumping to the conclusion that the concept is therefore ephemeral and that sustainability in planning is simply about making “nicer” cities. Those conditions do not support such a conclusion unilaterally and such a conclusion is counterproductive.

Doing so cheapens and undermines a long-standing and painfully emerging integration of economics and development (the key contribution of Brundtland in 1987 and environmental science beginning in the late 1950s). That integration would align the human economy with the principles of the regenerative life-support system of the biosphere. It would leverage them to produce higher levels of prosperity for the environment and the stabilized 9 billion of us by 2050 than the false-positive business-as-usual (BAU)-prosperity scenario could ever produce. It would also avert the systems-destroying effects of the BAU scenario from accelerating socio-economic-environmental trends.

Although there is a common perception among planners that integration of the “good” planning of smart growth and new urbanism is the basis for city/community sustainability, there is a growing awareness that the real implications of sustainability for cities, economies, and communities has yet to be conceptualized and developed, that it is a work in progress. Unfortunately, the real value and emergent urban forms and processes would never be developed if we were to buy into the sophistry that the absence of a rigorous definition simply means one is not possible.

A more constructive position might be to inquire more deeply into why 255 definitions of sustainability exist. To explore the issue around the phenomenon of sustainability, the issues involved in understanding it, defining it, and measuring it, even if measuring it is necessary. I reviewed the article cited for the 255 definitions and found NOT 255 different definitions, but 255 instances of the same core definition (economic development that does not compromise the biosphere’s ecological integrity and that does not affect some groups for the advantage of others) with a wonderful variety of surrounding detail. In my view, the variety of surrounding detail does not undermine the constancy of the core definition. Maybe I am seeing things, but the jumped-to-conclusion was not the only obvious perception.

On the issue of measuring sustainability, I recently reviewed a new PAS report (No. 565), Assessing Sustainability-A Guide for Local Governments, for the APA California Northern News (see page 12; see also review on the Sustaining Places Blog). That Report is the most rigorous and richest assessment of measurement tools, techniques, and issues applicable to any planning goal, but reviewed for the purposes of assessing sustainability, that I have seen. It deals with the definitional issue rigorously but crashes on the same shoals as those mentioned in the article above without arriving at a rigorous definition. I address some of the issues of reaching a rigorous, operationally definition of sustainability in my review.

Even if we did not want to pursue a more rigorous definition, we could easily come up with some key measures of sustainability for the “know-it-when-we-see-it(sustainability) crowd.” How about share of a city’s energy use from renewable sources (100%=sustainable, <100%=NOT, the closer to 100% the closer to sustainability)? How about the share of the acreage (local and non local) growing the food consumed locally that is farmed with organic, restorative methods without fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides (100%=sustainable)? How about total C02 emissions/2020 peak C02 emissions, where a ratio of 1 in year 2020 is on target and it needs to decline to 0 by 2050 preferably go negative? How about zero toxic emissions from the economy into the environment? How about zero net water use/living within the declining water supply projected for the western US over the next 50+ years from our current catastrophic climate change trajectory? How about measures of economic security (days economy could operate during a shortage, price spike, or other disruption in global fossil fuel market; price of gasoline or fossil-fuel-based energy at which economic growth begins to slow and unemployment rises; etc.). Sustainability for a city, or any subsystem of the larger environmental system, involves NOT contributing to the negative environmental impacts undermining local, regional, and global environment at a minimum, and at best, having restorative effects. It also includes substantial insulation, or better yet, avoidance, from the current survival and well-being risks economies and their communities presently face. Community and city sustainability, (or that of any other subsystem) is not that hard to conceptualize. Once done, the new roles for planning become relatively obvious and would also develop over time. Who else will take the lead? Not business. Not the politicians. It is left to the citizens and to planning and planners.

Now comes the tricky part–mental models of reality. If you have the most widely distributed mental model that we all do, the atomistic, reductionist one, the one that sees only dots and no systemic connections, then you probably view the above measures as impossible-to-attain, uneconomic assaults on the economy for better environmental quality. You would see some measure of reduced environmental quality as the cost of economic prosperity without perceiving the darker back-story; the dynamic degenerative effect of that reduced environmental quality ultimately on economic jobs and prosperity (and nowadays, that ultimately is likely not that far away).

If you switch to a systems mental model, you realize that the duality of jobs and environmental quality results simply from an incorrect framing, that is, specifying the relationship incorrectly. You realize that the tradeoff is actually jobs now for no jobs later. When you realize that, you realize that using the constraint of not undermining the integrity of the environment with our economy is actually the key, the innovation path, to perpetual prosperity. Fortunately, the smartest business people and the smartest firms on the planet started realizing that point in the early 1990s. This gave birth to the emerging arena of business sustainability that continues to expand (see GreenBiz Innovation Forum 2011 for a powerful current incarnation; or see Interface Corporation or The Necessary Revolution).

My perspective on the challenge for planning/planners is fleshing out the implication of business sustainability, that is sustainability as a driver and innovation platform for perpetual prosperity, for community and urban-rural-regional sustainability planning. That is where the “money” is so to speak, where the power is, where the jobs are, where the future lies. All jobs are green jobs if you green the industry. The idea that green jobs are a new sector of the economy is misguided. The investment firms and governments need to undertake is not in incubating a new “green” sector, but in greening each business and industry, and their supply chains, in their jurisdictions. This leads to the inevitable multi-stakeholder collaborative process dimension of sustainability (ANOTHER measurable component, maybe under the rubric of community sustainability business-political “capital”). It leads to new roles for planning. It leads to planning inventing the new land use patterns of places that sustain the economy, the society, and the environment simultaneously. The APA National’s Sustaining Places Initiative will soon be releasing its first report on The Role of the Comprehensive Plan in Sustaining Places. It addresses the definitional issue, provides some best practice principles of sustaining places planning, and invites planners to pick up the challenge of measurement by also providing some best practice examples. My only minor beef with the report is that it does not go beyond best practices, but that is another report that someone will write in the near future. The SPI Report does break new ground by summarizing and synthesizing current best practices to advance understanding and practice and to illuminate a new sustaining places agenda for the APA and AICP.

In concluding, the notion that because many people don’t have a rigorous understanding of sustainability now means that there is not one and that sustainability is an empty, unimportant concept without potential consequence, and with an associated implication that we should, therefore, simply flail away doing whatever comes to mind or is easy, or give up entirely, is simply false. It is also disingenuous, not only for the sustainability agenda, but for the larger planning agenda.  Much of the larger planning agenda shares characteristics similar to those that make sustainability planning more difficult, but not impossible, to define rigorously and measure meaningfully.

Chapter 2 of the PAS report characterizes measuring sustainability as the Holy Grail for planners. The chapter concludes with two quotes that aptly frame the challenge. The first is that old management adage, “What gets measured gets done.“ The second is an interesting counterpoint, that reality and management are not so simple: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” (the latter quote by Albert Einstein).

The Holy Grail for sustainability planners may be more a robust and clear operational definition of sustainability than the measurement of it, for which there are plenty of good tools and methods! Unfortunately, the report does not review the implications of the emerging arena of strategic sustainability and its application to communities internationally over the past 20 years. Strategic sustainability uses a clear principle-based definition of sustainability—rooted in standard science—and a range of other tools and methods to facilitate the paradigm shift required to understand sustainability issues, measure progress, and achieve success.

There are rigorous definitions out there, but finding them requires an open mind and apparently, a little work. My personal-professional recommendation for a starting point is the powerful, science-based, principle-based definition used in The Natural Step’s Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, the related eco-municipalities framework, and the five core principles produced by a colleague of Buckminster Fuller.  You will also find close facsimiles to these principles in the APA’s Policy Guide on Planning For Sustainability (2002; see Section III(A)).  Other useful frameworks are (1) Living Future Challenge, (2) Sonoma Mountain Village, (3) the international One Planet Living program. For thinking powerfully about how to achieve these principles, that is embarking on the innovation journey to ultimate sustainability, the four strategies of Natural Capitalism are another good and powerful place to start: )1) Radically Increase the Productivity of Natural Resources; (2) Shift to Biologically Inspired Production Models and Materials; (3) Move to a “Service-and-Flow” Business Model; (4) Reinvest in Natural Capital (see RMI).

These definitions, principles, and strategies have been applied more to business organizations over the past 20 years than communities, which are more complex sub systems. However, the rigorous and fruitful application to communities is strategic sustainability’s next step. Taking it should produce even greater prosperity than the application to business organizations. That is the challenge ahead that I see for planning and planners. Taking this next step would be foreclosed by trivializing the potential for a rigorous definition of sustainability, and therefore, the import of the sustainability challenge itself for global society and pivotal role planning could play in leading an effective response. Let’s take this next step.