Flourishing & Strong Sustainability for Organizations


Noted Industrial Ecologist John Ehrenfeld suggests, in a very positive way, that there should be a new collective goal for our species – creating sustainability – which he defines as:

The possibility that human and other life will flourish on this planet forever” 

But how to achieve this flourishing?  This is the realm of economics – literally the “management of a household”.  In line with this collective goal Ecological Economists have re-imagined the scope of the problem economics needs to address as:

The optimal management^ of the nested systems of the environment, society and the economy in order to achieve the flourishing of human and other life.

To differentiate their understanding of what flourishing requires, Ecological Economists have coined the term “strong sustainability^.  This is defined as the impossibility of replacing natural capital with any other kind: human, manufactured, intellectual, social or financial.  This is felt to be particularly true in time frames which might help mitigate the worst effects of climate change and other anthropomorphic impacts as described by the IPCC and other bio-physical science

Strong sustainability can also be defined in comparison to the “weak sustainability” suggested by other economists.  Weak sustainability is often labeled “sustainable development” (as in the famous 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future – The Brundtland Commission Report)

Brundtland suggested that flourishing will result from sustainable development: i.e. development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their needs.  John Ehrenfeld argues that the Brundtland combination of “sustainable” and “development” is oxymoronic; suggesting that putting these two words together is at best unhelpful and at worst damaging to the achievement of flourishing.  This is because of the widespread assumption that development is equated to growth without limits.  We now understand this is impossible for any species on a finite planet.  Infinite growth is cancer - clearly not sustainable nor conducive to flourishing.

All this implies that to achieve strong sustainability and wide-spread flourishing organizations must integrate the achievement social, environmental and monetary goals.  Based on our research we suggest that:

An organizational is strongly sustainable when all of its behaviours and all the behaviours of all other relevant social, economic and biophysical actors lead to the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever.

Clearly organizations can only attempt this within an appropriately designed economic, regulatory and legal regime, one which largely doesn’t exist today.  However there are considerable efforts being made: this is the focus of Ecological Economists, other scholars, business and community leaders.   These leaders are attempting to create strongly sustainable outcomes at all levels: globally, nationally; in our organizations and communities; in our homes and families.  And the early results are encouraging^.

So what does this mean for organizations today? Today many organization’s leaders, like the late Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc., realize the opportunities inherent in attempting to be sustainable and proactively creating flourishing and the risks of failing to try.

These are the opportunities we help our clients understand and the challenge we help our clients overcome.  See our services for more details.

This is merely the introduction to a large topic.  For more discussion of this critical topic, arriving at a commonly understood goal for humanity and our organizations, please see our documents and blogs.