The time has come to reimagine sustainability

From the [semi] weekly letter...

Reimagine Sustainability

The time has come to reimagine sustainability.

We find ourselves at the dawn of a terrifying new era. We know now that essentially every planetary system is in crisis, that our greenhouse gas emissions, our destruction of nature and our depletion of resources are not only initiating catastrophic and ruinous consequences for humanity—they may yet threaten the very possibility of civilization on this planet.

We face this planetary crisis while at the same time being forced to acknowledge the massive backlog of needs our failure to act has produced. We face the erosion of decades of progress in reducing poverty, as planetary disasters destroy vulnerable places, create conflicts and drive refugees from their homes. We also face the consequences of decades of inaction on building housing, new infrastructure, better agriculture, clean energy, etc. Now we need to not only ruggedize for a chaotic world, but build as never before to secure a livable future for our children.

I believe that the only way we can break free from this crisis is to update our frameworks for understanding these challenges. Many of the ideas about sustainability and planetary thinking we’re still using are decades old. The sustainability crisis they were developed to address is not the same crisis we face today. The sheer complexity, magnitude and acceleration of our problems means that those old answers are no longer sufficient, and that we now need to act with a scope, scale and speed never before seen… indeed, never before imagined.

The idea that sustainability is an add-on—something we do to make already functional systems more responsible—is one of these relics of the past. Today, sustainability is survival. Sustainability now demands wholesale systems change. Sustainability demands huge disruptions to the status quo. We need massive, rapid transitions in how we power our societies, build our cities, meet our basic needs and work with natural systems to grow our food, provide our water and maintain planetary stability.

We can no longer retrofit failed systems. We need to build new and better ones, on an almost inconceivable scale, and faster than seems possible. And, if you’re like me, you also believe we need to build these systems in ways that strengthen democracy, reduce social inequality and provide safeguards against desperation. All this will require a heroic kind of building. Creating and driving forward that heroic build is now what sustainability means.

But we can’t build what we can’t imagine. Not only do we need intellectual frameworks for understanding the kinds of innovations, policies and enterprises our future demands: we also need cultural visions that help us intuitively grasp how large-scale change can work and stories that help us see who we might become to make that change a reality. How we imagine changes what we can build; what we learn to build (even in our imaginations) frees us to imagine more.

I’ve been on the front lines of the sustainability movement for 25 years. I’ve spent my life thinking about what planetary sustainability might mean and how to achieve it. I’m convinced that we’re now at a critical inflection point, caught between old ideas about sustainability that no longer make sense in our world and a new vision of our future and its possibilities that is, as yet, largely unexplored.

Next week, we’re launching the first in a set of projects that aim to reimagine sustainability for the 21st century. It’s going to be an adventure—one I hope you’ll want to join.