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Commentary: Defining Sustainability

August 4, 2014 Category: Uncategorized

Editor’s Note: Max Zahniser is the owner and operator of Praxis (Building Solutions), a consulting firm on sustainability in the built environment and in how organizations operate. He is also the co-founder of City CoHo Philly Nexus, a co-working space located in Center City designed for professionals and companies making Philadelphia and the world more sustainable. The Sustainability Nexus is a community of these professionals that focuses on this concept. This column reflects how the Nexus defines sustainability.


The term sustainability in and of itself is very simple. Its root, sustain, simply means to maintain, keep in existence, provide for, or nourish.The Sustainability Nexus community believes it’s not necessary to tack a bunch of additional complexity onto the word itself. When applied to the complexity of the real world, it is imperative that this simple idea remain simple and be added to a systems-based worldview (seeing the world as a complex set of interconnected and interdependent systems).

The question then is what are we applying this term to — what do we want to sustain? This is where confusion and debate can enter into the concept. Many equate sustainability with environmentalism. But given our systems worldview we believe this is too simplistic, and it somewhat misses the point. An eco-centric perspective misses the fact that environmental crises tend to most directly and profoundly impact the most vulnerable members of society. It also misses that economic, social justice, and environmental systems are inextricably intertwined in many other ways. You don’t achieve, let alone sustain, a desirable condition within one without addressing the others. This is our version of the triple-bottom-line concept (people-planet-profit, or equity-ecology-economy, etc.). Typically displayed as a Venn diagram, we believe the following model for the triple-bottom-line is more accurate:

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The nested-systems model better reflects reality, in that humans are members of life on Earth and the economy is a human system, created with specific purpose for our own civilization. Humanity existed and could exist without an economic system, though not in any semblance of civilization.

Many would also argue that the current economic system is utterly failing in its purpose for many members of society, and the polarized debates around this blame various factors. Likewise, life on Earth would go on without humans, by SOME measures more successfully, because the way we currently meet our needs tends to degenerate other living systems.

Inputs and outputs flow across all of these lines, and a version of this system that is indefinitely repeatable and/or maintainable is what we believe the high-level, larger concept of sustainability is about.

What this means to us is that we’re seeking to support people and organizations that are deliberately and explicitly striving to contribute to some aspect of that outcome. Short-sighted (single-) bottom-line only decision-making ultimately hurts profits, because the other two bottom-lines more directly support human and environmental wellbeing. We seek to support social justice and environmental organizations and individuals, or other “traditional” businesses that consider these living systems.

A version of the piece ran on sustainabilitynexus.blogspot.com

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