The many faces of the sustainability literature

Does the world need another book on sustainability? Honestly, I'm not really sure. Having waded into this literature roughly five years ago, and have since ventured into some of its stronger currents, I have seen that much of what needs to be said has already been said — it's just that not everyone has said it and not everyone has heard it. It helped me to recognize there are different approaches to the topic, and a roadmap would be useful — here's the one I've come up with to help me make sense of the large and growing conversation.

Before talking about what has been written, let me make an underlying connection. The topic of sustainability covers everything from climate change to social equity to global health to fresh water to conflict minerals. At its core, however, there is a single simple challenge: annual global human consumption exceeds the earth's carrying capacity. It is estimated that, annually, we are consuming roughly 50% more fresh water, fossil fuels, minerals, atmospheric tolerance for carbon, than the earth can replenish. By 2020, those estimates suggest the global economy will be drawing down twice what the earth's resources can sustain. By 2050, as more Chinese and Indians reach middle class, we will be consuming more than five times the the earth’s carrying capacity. It’s a simple equation: the earth replenishes fresh water, food, energy, and other resources we need at a given rate and we—the global we—consume it at another rate (a third factor, technology, can change either the rate of replenishment or of consumption—more on this in a later post).

This much we know. And on this issue, debates, conversations, and arguments are taking place around kitchen tables, watercoolers, conference tables, workshops, and political backrooms and assemblies. After wading through books, articles, white papers, reports, and talks over the past year it is clear there are many ways to talk about sustainability.

In trying to make sense of them, I've come up with five main genres, which I sort out as "sustainability and" catastrophe, morality, technology, policy, and strategy. Oftentimes, someone will start with one angle and move to another, but usually as a segue or to establish their credibility. Almost everyone, for example, seems to cover the coming catastrophe before rounding on to their own particular focus. Each of these approaches provides value and I describe them briefly here, with a few examples that hopefully illustrates each. I’ve no doubt missed some important works in each field so please let me know. I end with a sixth that I think is relatively new and different enough to be worth holding a seat for at the table.

Sustainability and Catastrophe

Thomas Malthus may have invented this genre over two-hundred years ago and it's alive and well today. Nothing sums it up better than an Ottawa Citizen's review of Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress:

If you read one book about impending doom this year, make it this one.

Wright's book provides a nicely (and concisely) written version of what Jared Diamond talked about in Collapse, which itself summarized a wide range of original research describing how, time and again, civilizations outgrew their environment and, yes, collapsed. This group includes scientific assessments—most notably the report from IPCC but also a range of other organizations reporting on a range of sustainability issues (e.g., UNEP, IEA, EIA, FAO. Other books get more temporal and approachable, like Bill McKibben's 1996 The End of Nature, a seminal recent work, followed by Al Gore’s movie and book Inconvenient Truth. All share the same basic message: This way lies danger.

Sustainability and Morality

This approach typically begins with the requisite doomsaying—which I agree with, btw—and then moves on to our individual and collective (moral) obligation to change our unsustainable ways. Whether that’s buying local, organic, renewable, efficient, fair trade, dolphin-safe, or (for companies) reducing out carbon footprint. These books and articles offer inspiring examples of individuals, communities and companies that have taken up the cause and we leave with a great sense of obligation (and guilt) about composting more, switching to CFLs, and supporting our local farmer’s market. Bill McKibben may be the Michael Jordan of this genre (though he often carries a strong dose of doom), and examples include Deep Economy and Eaarth. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma also provides a good example of connecting global sustainability to our local behavior (and dinner tables).

Sustainability and Technology

The masters of this genre are university scientists, science journalists, and nobel laureates, who provide an overview of the technical breakthroughs that can avert catastrophe. The favorite inspirations here are moonshots and manhattan projects— if only we have the moral fortitude to invest in their development and deployment. One of the most influential of these works was Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow's 2004 article in Science entitled "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies," which took a very macro perspective on what sort of technical shifts would be needed to reduce our carbon emissions enough to avert catastrophe. The more mainstream of these works offer promises of technological salvation. Amory Lovins is the grand old man here, whose techno-utopian visions have shown that, if it weren't for the damn people, engineers would have this problem licked.

A sub-genre here takes a more pragmatic (some would argue pessimistic) approach to what technology is actually capable of doing. The prolific Vaclav Smil falls into this category, with his techno-historical approach. It's hard to argue that the process of technological change will change all that much.

Sustainability and Policy

Once we agree on the magnitude of the problem, and recognize there are technical solutions (of equal magnitude), another genre takes up the battle: the need for policies that curtail bad behaviors and foster good ones. Most of this work begins with catastrophe, detour through morality or technology (cuing up the desired behavioral or technical change), before getting to the policies needed to make that change. Yet policy requires its own focus as it is, often more than technology, the most powerful lever. Whether it's arguing for a broad tax on carbon emissions, increased fuel economy standards, water policies or social equity, these works tend to be white papers, policy reports, and the annual issues of acronymical folks like the C2ES, WHO, NRDC, EDF, and others. As for books, Dan Sperling's Two Billion Cars is a nice example, particularly since it recognizes there is no corner of this challenge that is not already shaped by incumbent policy.

Sustainability and Strategy

A fifth genre is strategy, which addresses the role of the corporation (or startup) in driving change. The core mantra here is "green is green," meaning companies can do well by doing good, or more baldly put, there's money to be made in pursuing sustainability. Paul Hawkens's 1993 Ecology of Commerce was one of the first and perhaps the most inflential of these and set the early tone for the genre, and he followed it with Natural Capitalism (in 1999 and co-authored by Amory and Hunter Lovins). Ray Anderson, former CEO of Interface and the leading role model for CEO's who got it and made their company money by embracing green, credits this book with changing his personal outlook and corporate strategy. His own book, Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist, gives a nice history of his (amazing) accomplishments. C.K. Prahalad's The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid aligns this perspective with global economic development. Green to Gold, by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston, and The Triple Bottom Line, by Andrew Savitz, also insert sustainability into the traditional business book template. Others include Embedded Sustainability by Chris Laszlo and Nadya Zhexembayeva, which firmly seats sustainability at the strategy table, and Joel Makower's Strategies for the Green Economy, which lays out a roadmap and many of the groundrules and for companies pursuing sustainability.

I believe there is another genre emerging that has the opportunity to contribute to the dialog: Sustainability and Practice.

This one's late to the party, but for a good reason: it has to do with actually getting the work done, which required a decade or so of companies actually doing things before we could learn a set of useful lessons about how. This genre is less about what should be done or why or with which technologies and what policies; it's more about the management lessons learned in accomplishing sustainable innovation. Also, it's less about providing inspirational examples and more about drawing broadly applicable lessons from these examples. Getting Green Done, by Auden Schendler, exemplifies this (still sparce) field. He explains why it's hard to get organizations to take on sustainability projects, how these initiatives must be integrated into the challenges of doing business on a daily basis, and gives the reader a more sobering view of how hard it really is to accomplish sustainable innovations. I might include Ray Anderson's story, Business Lessons, here but for the fact that his is more of a success story and, as such, is more inspiring than instructive. We may learn the most from our own efforts and failures, but the efforts and failures of others—honestly admitted—are probably the next best.

This genre is closely related to Strategy, but less about setting goals and more about the tactics of achieving them. It's also closely related to Technology and Policy but, again, less about what technology or policy and more about the challenges of accomplishing them. To be useful, however, this emerging literature needs to be grounded in how companies large and small have actually accomplished what they did (or how they failed in the same pursuit). It should recognize what processes they relied on (and why), what capabilities they required (and why), and how the context in which they acted—the fit between their strategy and the market context—shaped their choices and actions.