4 Sustainability Principles: Script

Have you ever played a game without knowing what the goal was? How to win? Well, to succeed in becoming sustainable, we need to know the rules too and what the conditions of success are. What is checkmate for sustainability? Let’s get drawing!

Research shows that there are only a few key mechanisms that undermine our capacity to survive and thrive on Planet Earth. This translates into 4 scientifically robust conditions that define sustainability at a principle level and that have been peer reviewed and continuously refined over the last 20 years. There’s no priority order to these principles – they’re all equally important. They’re all necessary for true sustainability and, taken together, sufficient to achieve it. Since I’ve already explained the science behind these principles in earlier videos, I am just going to explain their wording here.

The first principle states: In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust. One important word here is “systematically”.

Think about it as your email box. Say that you get on average 15 emails per day and you have capacity to deal with 20. All is well. But one day, a colleague of yours takes a leave of absence and you get his emails. 15 more emails every day for a total of 30. Your capacity is still 20 emails per day. So everyday, you pile up 10 more unread emails and they “systematically accumulate”

So this first principle does not mean that we cannot use oil, heavy metals or other substances from the Earth’s crust. It means that, to be truly sustainable, we cannot extract them and build our society in such a way that they systematically accumulate in Nature over time (like your emails).

The second principles states: In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society. The word ‘substances’ refers to chemicals and compounds that Nature has either never seen before (like chlorofluorocarbons also known as CFC), or has only seen in relatively small amounts. This does not mean that we can’t produce ‘substances’ in society. It means that to be truly sustainable, we have to use substances that Nature can easily break down, (so they won’t systematically accumulate in natural systems over time) and that we only release them into nature at a rate at which nature can cope with them (like the emails in your mailbox).

The third principle states: In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means. This is about how we physically alter nature by way of, for example, logging and fishing. This does not mean that we cannot use cut trees or use other resources from Nature. We need them to survive. It means that to be truly sustainable we cannot systematically destroy nature at a rate faster than it regenerates – that would be like spending all the capital in your bank account instead of living off the interest. Instead, we have to use our natural resources without exceeding the capacity of the planet to support life on earth.

The fourth principle deals with the social aspect of sustainability. It states: In a sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs. This does not mean that we have to meet everybody’s needs all the time. It means that, in order to be truly sustainable, we can’t use manufacturing processes, suppliers and business models that create ongoing barriers for people and make it systematically impossible for some of us to meet our needs (such as using exotic mined metals in smartphones which are now so valuable that civil war is being waged in the Congo to control access to these materials). We’ll explore the concept of human needs, social systems and social sustainability more deeply in future videos.

So here are our 4 sustainability principles. Together, they define checkmate for sustainability – meaning that if our product, our business or our community can truly achieve them, then we have achieved minimum conditions for full sustainability. Did you notice that they are all phrased in the negative? “Nature is NOT subject”. “People are NOT subject”. Like in chess “The king canNOT escape from capture”. They are not prescriptive, like “here is the list of the 3000 things you need to do to be sustainable”. These conditions are boundaries. They are the rules of the game. As long as we play within these rules we can be as creative as we want and invent anything we like. This is exciting!

You also noticed that the wording of these conditions is very precise. This is the result of a scientific consensus. They are not designed for communication (I will bring more videos for that). They are here to run in the background to make sure that we are rigorous when analyzing our decisions and initiatives against a robust framework. They are our North Star if you like, helping us to know where we are and make sure that we are going in the right direction.

How we’re going to use these conditions of success to win the game of sustainability will be the topic of another video. Stay tuned!

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