Tired of sustainability?

Last month a quality newspaper headed “Belgians are tired of sustainability, but aren’t sick of it”. It was the conclusion of research done on 1000 Belgians, commissioned by the new sustainability network The Shift. To be clear it’s mainly about the term ‘sustainability’. One in two doesn’t know (anymore) where the term stands for and one in three is tired of the term. Sustainability is too abstract, distant and not transparent. What can we as professionals do about this?

The term sustainability

Sustainability is a commonly used term to describe different goals, strategies and methods. Besides this, there can also be ambiguity because people sometimes say things differently than what they actually mean. To understand how the term is interpreted it is important to understand how people look at their relationships with nature and humanity. The concept of sustainable development is there to create a shift to make these relationships healthier.

There are three bread visions on sustainability: Status Quo, Reform and Transformation.


Status Quo assumes there are no big shifts necessary in the relationships. The problems can be solved within the current market mechanisms by providing more information, change values, better management procedures and new technology.

Reform assumes that one day a big shift is necessary, mainly by a change in lifestyle and policy. The shift can be made from the current socio-economic structure by developing the right information and (scientific) knowledge.

Transformation assumes that a radical shift is necessary because the social and environmental problems are interlinked and lead to risk of systems failure. Social equality is important and so are open access to a healthy environment, resources and economic and political decision making key to come to solutions.

There are fundamental contradictions between Status Quo and Transformation. In the most extreme the first one believes technology can replace the functions in the relationships, whilst the second sees that technology can’t replace the complexity of functions.

From ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’

If sustainability is only about ‘doing the right things’ then there is danger that it will stay in the Status Quo and only provides shallow solutions for the growing issues. The Shift -the network for people and organisations that want to make the transition to a sustainable society and economy- says that they feel that sustainability needs to make a shift from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’.

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” —Walt Disney

There is definitely a need for action, but is ‘thinking’ not confused with ‘talking’? Probably a lot of Belgians are tired from the endless debate. Maybe there is a need to give introverted people more (quiet) space to think deeply about the sustainability challenges. And, maybe extroverted people need more possibilities to collaborate instead of more possibilities to talk. (more about this in this blogpost)

Hands, head and heart

Luckily the Belgians still have a heart and are not sick of sustainability. It’s our task as sustainability professionals to create a shift in how people build their relationships with nature and humanity. To build a healthy relationship you don’t only use your hands and head, but also your heart.

If sustainability is only about actions, then there is danger that the reference point (the reason something has to be done) will disappear. As a result form this sustainability will be forced upon people. And, if power replaces authority, then autonomy and democracy will decrease quickly (see thesis of Paul Verhaeghe in this blogpost).

The reason we have to work on sustainability can’t be driven by extrinsic motivations like fear or money. Dan Pink gave a great TED-talk on the power of intrinsic motivation and autonomy. Judging people about their destructive patterns or persuading them with status will not help in teaching them to become constructive (see this blogpost).

As sustainability professionals we have to be able to encourage people to make their relationships with nature and humanity healthier by balancing their hands, head and heart. But before we can help others, we have to –like Jo Confino describes in this article– be first in balance ourselves and learn to use positive language.

Nederlandse versie / Dutch version


De Standaard: Belgen zijn duurzaamheid moe, maar niet beu http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20150602_01710073

Hopwood et al. (2005): Sustainable Development Mapping Different Approaches http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/9387/1/Mapping_Sustainable_Development.pdf

Merel Claes: The power of introverted people http://merelclaes.com/2014/10/07/the-power-of-introverted-people

Merel Claes: Where is the leadership? http://merelclaes.com/2015/06/25/where-is-the-leadership

George Mombiot: An Ounce of Hope is Worth a Ton of Despair http://www.monbiot.com/2014/06/16/an-ounce-of-hope-is-worth-a-ton-of-despair

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation

Merel Claes: How to become constructive with our commons and addictions http://merelclaes.com/2014/06/15/how-to-become-constructive-with-our-commons-and-addictions

Jo Confino: Why sustainability professionals need to show more compassion http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainability-professionals-compassion-common-humanity-peace?CMP=twt_gu

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