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The Death of Sustainability

Reframing the dialogue beyond the meaning of the word sustainable.

Last week was the Indian festival of Sivaratri.

In the Hindu belief system, there are three gods which each represent creation, preservation and destruction. Shiva is the latter. While I participated in the local celebrations, my mind was focused on the natural cycle of life and death, and its relationship to the sustainability narrative.


Sustainability is naturally associated with the “preservation” aspect of the creative cycle, and yet it is just one piece. Creation and destruction are just as important in the evolutionary cycle – not just in nature, but in systems and in our individual lives. Even the definition of sustainability suggests its limitations:

“Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level” Oxford

“The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld or confirmed”

In fact, a far more radical approach is called for. The sustainability debate is currently being warred between whether aiming for the 2C goal by 2020 is enough (we are currently heading for 4C and are less than 5 years away), or whether a paradigm-busting net-zero impact strategy by 2050 should be the aim (as Paul Polman of Unilever and Richard Branson are calling for – see PWC blog).

One means carrying on with ‘business as usual’ while slowly changing consumer and business practices. The latter requires a total overhaul of everything we take for granted, hold to be true and invest in for our supposed long-term security. Since the first option is the one we are following at the moment, it seems we are more interested in preserving the status quo than the natural habitat that we purport to be saving through sustainability measures.


Whichever way we go, destruction is inevitable. Destruction of more natural resources, or destruction of our beliefs about economic growth and the habits that support those assumptions. But we don’t like to look at what needs to be eliminated or destroyed.

I think this is in part due to a fundamental problem we have with the notion of death. Whilst in principle we don’t seem to have a problem with destruction at the universal level – destroying huge swathes of rainforest, warfare etc – at the personal level we live as if we – and therefore the planet as a whole – are immortal.

This is reinforced in the excellent RSA report, Spiritualise: Revitalising Spirituality to Address 21st Century Challenges

Scratch climate change confusion long enough and you may find our denial of death underneath; we are terrified by an unconscious awareness of an existential threat, and we may need to look at climate change on those terms to really deal with it.


In order for new life to be born we have to let go of the old.  In its place, innovation that delivers social value will be the challenge moving forwards.

Unilever’s sustainable living plan is a good example of innovation to drive social benefit, fully integrated into every aspect of the business.

Maintaining the status quo is not good enough. Driving innovation naturally means accepting that the old order must die in order for new systems to emerge.

So let’s start reframing sustainability in light of what is really needed to give this planet and humanity what is needed not just to survive, but thrive.

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