The Word ‘Sustainability’ is Dead

24th June 2020

For years, organisations have been talking about ‘sustainability’, and some have entire teams dedicated to it, but our Principal Consultant specialising in the Climate and Ecological Emergency, Alex Massie, has observed that forward thinking organisations are now using a new language, and believes the word ‘sustainability’ is out of date and increasingly redundant.

Alex has worked in the environmental sector for 10 years and currently advises local authorities on their climate emergency strategies: we asked him to explain his thinking.

“Being ‘sustainable’ isn’t enough anymore, sustaining our current existence in the current way will result in collapse of ecosystems and extinction of much life, including perhaps ourselves, so organisations are choosing to set themselves new ambitions. Organisations tend to choose one of five levels of ambition, which I’ve listed below, along with basic explanations. The first level, decarbonisation, is the least ambitious, and the fifth level, declaring an ecological emergency, is where I think we all need to be.

New levels of ambition

  • Decarbonisation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions in relation to climate change
  • Achieving Net Zero – eliminating greenhouse gas emissions with a combination of decarbonisation and carbon off-setting
  • Achieving Zero Carbon – eliminating greenhouse gas emissions without using carbon off-setting
  • Declaring a Climate Emergency – acknowledging the need to make significant changes to operations and external influences due to the wider impact of a changing climate. This includes adaptation and recognising the role of behaviour change. It also means they are likely to already be taking, or will soon be taking, action around the three preceding levels.
  • Declaring an Ecological Emergency – climate is just one of numerous interlinked systems which make up ecosystems. Recognition of an ecological emergency goes beyond a focus solely on climate to recognise other major challenges such as biodiversity, soil fertility, the water cycle etc. It questions how we live as part of our ecosystem, and asks us to move beyond sustaining the status quo to create a regeneration.

A need to reconnect with nature

“I have come across a mixed understanding of what the different levels mean during recent projects. Any organisation which has committed to one of them must be applauded since customers and stakeholders will now be able to hold them to account. But it would be dangerous to think that any of the levels, other than the fifth and most ambitious, is enough. The declaration of an Ecological Emergency can often be misunderstood. Many think the ecological emergency is a biodiversity problem, a problem in nature, rather than our place in, and relationship to, the living systems we’re all part of. Mainstream discussions around ecology focus on exotic species like lions in Africa rather than us, and our relationship with the systems that sustain us. Most understand the problems we face as a result of greenhouse gases, but fewer understand the complicated interrelationship we have with our living planet, so there is quite a big jump between reducing emissions to changing worldviews around our place in the world.

In most western societies we view ourselves as separate from nature. We have built ourselves a world where we’re very comfy, but this means we’re now disconnected from the natural world that we’re part of. We are insulated in our houses from the weather, we’re not connected to our food in the same way, water is piped to our home, waste is picked up and taken away: these, along with other disconnects, mean we don’t understand how we fit into ecosystems, and damaging actions follow, most of which we never see. This disconnected worldview has enabled this crisis to emerge, and means we struggle to see all of the interlinked systems that maintain life, often leading us to cause damage whilst trying to ‘fix’ one of the systems. The climate is one example of this.

Being bold and taking action

“The declaration of an ecological emergency opens up these questions in a way that a climate emergency declaration does not. It requires us to see that solving the climate crisis to sustain our human society as it stands is not viable, and that a full regeneration of our planet is required. It requires us to move from sustainability to regeneration.”