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June 15, 2007

SustainAbility Predicts How Sustainable Development Will Play Out Over Next Two Decades
    by Bill Baue

Part two of this two-part article looks at a recent report from SustainAbility that projects four scenarios of potential developments in sustainability over the next 20 years. -- To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its founding (coinciding with the release of the Brundtland Report, which coined the term "sustainable development"), UK-based think tank and consultancy SustainAbility published a report projecting the future of sustainability over the next 20 years.

The report, entitled Raising Our Game: Can We Sustain Globalization?, proposes four potential scenarios (based on a card game metaphor) for how the future will unfold depending on how business attends to social and environmental sustainability. Each scenario corresponds to a card suit (Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, and Hearts) on a matrix with environmental wins and losses on the horizontal axis and social wins and losses on the vertical axis.

"[The Hearts scenario] is the future that the Brundtland Commission pointed us toward," the report states, as it balances environmental sustainability with social development. It projects a scenario where a pandemic slows global transportation, forcing simultaneous attending to human health and curbing environmental impacts. The crisis inspires creative destruction and innovation that ultimately leads to true sustainability.

The report acknowledges that the "concept of sustainable development has stood the test of time since it was first injected into the political mainstream in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission," though the marriage between sustainability and development has always contained tension.

The beauty of the SustainAbility report is that the Spades and Clubs scenarios play out the potential consequences of over-weighting environmental sustainability at the cost of social stability, or over-weighting development in ways that compromise environmental viability. In other words, the report illustrates the pitfalls of unbalanced sustainable development.

"In the Clubs world, social equity is traded for a degree of environmental quality--albeit enjoyed by a sub-set of the global population," the report states. "Think of the evolution of a new sustainable energy platform where billions are priced out of the emerging green market."

"By contrast, in the Spades world social equity broadly trumps environmental sustainability, whatever we may intend," the report continues. "Current forms of development and consumerist lifestyles spread, but at a growing cost to the environment."

The SustainAbility team, led by founder John Elkington, excels at distilling complex trends, listing various series of discrete elements. Defining globalization, they list four drivers (open markets, technology and connectivity, developing country prominence, and the growth of multinationals), as well as seven attributes (capital revolutionaries, maquila planet, growing divides, multiculturalism's discontents, climate insecurity, governance vacuums, and "blessed unrest," the concept recently coined by Paul Hawken to describe the movement forwarded by environmental and social justice organizations.)

Continuing the numbers game, SustainAbility posits six dimensions encompassed in the four future scenarios, encapsulated in the acronym G.A.M.B.L.E. (growth, acceleration, mainstreaming, barriers, leadership, and equity.) SustainAbility's party line on economic growth is a bit hard to nail down. On one page, the report notes that "economic growth has major sustainability consequences."

On another, it maintains that "[c]urrent economic growth is unprecedented--and the potential opportunities are huge," no doubt causing some readers to cringe at the notion of sustainable development as a cash cow and others to welcome a business case for sustainability. However, SustainAbility distinguishes between capitalizing on the opportunities presented by sustainability, and actually achieving sustainability.

"Many companies have set in place programs to address the environmental impacts of their business, but few have made the necessary investments to ensure that their business models and operations are environmentally sustainable," the report states.

Discussing the Hearts scenario, the report predicts that "[e]conomic growth will continue but will need to be contained within a 'one planet' agenda." It later fleshes out this explanation: "if we are to have any chance of bringing our global economy back onto anything like sustainable lines, concepts like WWF's "One Planet Business' will be critically important."

Advancing this line of reasoning, SustainAbility tempers its stance on economic growth, coming down more on the side of caution.

"The modern environmental movement was powerfully shaped by its limits-to-growth roots," the report states. "Current evidence of planetary 'overshoot,' with our needs outrunning the capacity of the planet to provide, confirms the dangers we face in globalizing a flawed, unsustainable economic model. Even our current resource use already exceeds the regenerative capacity of the planet by 25 percent."

"You could even argue that today�s economic model is an economic tumour on the planet," the report continues. "Of our four scenarios, only Hearts is built around increasingly sustainable economic and business models, but both the Clubs and Spades worlds would need to see energetic experimentation on--and investment in--new technologies and business strategies."

The report ends with seven recommendations, or "new rules" of the game for businesses in the age of sustainability. For example, SustainAbility urges 21st Century leaders to "think around corners" (or plan for the unexpected), find true South (recognizing that the Northern orientation of so-called developed countries is waning with the rise of South-South trade), and to lobby--for sustainability. Exemplifying this last rule is the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), whereby ten major companies are pushing Congress to set a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions.

While the Brundtland Report was instrumental in injecting environmental and social consciousness into the political mainstream, it fell short of achieving substantive advances toward true sustainable development. Hopefully, the SustainAbility report will inspire leaders to shoot for the Hearts scenario.

Part one of this two-part article examines how the Brundtland Report has promoted sustainable development over the past two decades.

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