Is Sustainability Analogous to Economics ?

At Green Gov 2011 this morning I facilitated a lively panel that included discussion of what is  sustainability and what is the role of the sustainability profession. Ira Feldman (Greentrack Strategies), Terry Yosie (World Environment Center) and Valerie Patrick (Bayer Corporation) were our panelists and came with a rich set of views and experience.

The discussion of what is sustainability was broad and philosophical using terms like ‘systems thinking’ and ‘form of art’. But many people in the room (myself included) had sustainability jobs, with specific job descriptions and objectives.  So what can we compare that too ?

The more I think about it, the more I think that economics is a valuable analogy.  Economics is a broad topic about interrelationships and systems. I am sure you would find proponents of economics as a science and other proponents of economics as an art. Just like our discussion about sustainability.

And in companies you will find CFOs, accountants and accounts payable people. Just as you will find CSOs, corporate responsibility teams and energy management teams. And as the presence of finance folks doesn’t relinquish the rest of the company from the obligation to pay attention to cost and profit, so the presence of the sustainability folks doesn’t relinquish everyone else from the obligation to pay attention to the risk and opportunities of sustainability.

In so many ways I see sustainability  as analogous to economics. But where today we judge the success of so much through money and finance, sustainability asks us to take so much more into account in judging success of an organization or activity. Not just  financial impact, but a broad array of impacts on a broad array of stakeholders. 

Perhaps sustainability is not just analogous to economics. Perhaps it needs to take it on !


  1. Comments 5

  2. Steven Putter 11:54 am on November 2, 2011

    whole systems design can not separate a single aspect of the system and economics is the glue that brings and hold it together, without economics there is no capitalization on human and natural resources potential and innovation for sustainable ecological development, without that there can be no return of investment of that resources and skills and they will be unsustainable to begin with Just thinking


  3. KevinMoss 2:03 pm on November 2, 2011

    Steven, thanks for your thoughts. For economics to be the glue, I think it is a prerequisite that all the things we consider importnant in life can be translated into an economic value. I don't know that they can. I am not suggesting we drop economics as a measure. The traditional approach though is that we need to take economic account of externalities. I am wondering if a tranformational approach would be to continue to measure with economics the things that lend themselves to that measure, but we add others measures (quantititive and qualitative) for societal and environmental success and that whole picture together is sustainability.


  4. Steven Putter 12:39 pm on November 4, 2011

    Hi Kevin, I agree with you there is other measures, we are doing Whole Systems design here in Zambia, one of the things we do is to look at every aspect of the project instead of just the end product profit, in doing that we ask ourselves and investigate the possibility to make every aspect of the project self sustainable in its own right, using economy as a measuring stick. But above that we have chosen nutrition nutrition itself as an economic empowerment tool, you can see more on www.imaginezambia.org if you interested, it is uncharted territory for all of us.


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