The world that lies ahead – beyond sustainability misdefined.


Guest blog by: Jessie Henshaw is a Research Scientist at HDS Natural Systems Design Science. My expertise is in Recognizing Natural Patterns of organization and changing design in environmental, cultural and business systems, used for designing or guiding their transformations, sustainability and organizational learning. 

For background, I’m a natural systems scientist who spent years working at the UN with NGOs during the drafting of the SDGs. The economy’s growing harm to the Earth and inequities for humanity were the focus. In the confusion, we seemed to neglect the former to achieve the latter it seemed.

That is when I noticed that what pressures people felt most intensely were what they advocated for. The social activists had little feeling for finance and finance leaders little for its growing impacts on the Earth and humanity. Finance essentially defined them away, calling them “externalities” of the profits system central to finance. To me, those two biases stood out as displaying similar kinds of “missing information,” relying on our feelings about what we were close to more than reporting and research.

That way of thinking started with noticing in the 1960s and 70s, along with many others, that there was something wrong with “the system.” Innovation seemed to be going from growing “creative destruction” to growing “destructive creation.” As a baseline, rich and poor alike seem to have quite healthy individual survival instincts. They easily sense when a growing intrusion in their relationships needs a response. But why isn’t there a survival instinct for society as a whole, or even some of its highly educated professions?

Recently I’ve been focusing on how the feelings and intuitions that guide our survival in local environments seem mostly to come from nonverbal cues. You see how well it works in developing close personal relationships, friendships, and business connections. They all start with a nonverbal spark of interest and then grow by small and then bigger steps of engagement. All the good ones then respond well to the point when further steps would involve higher levels of trust and connection. That signals a need for caution and changing directions to either make things last, leave it casual, or walk away.

So, in what situations do we get the opposite, no direct information about how our choices may change our world? We don’t get anything but self-interest signals from money, even though every receipt, expenditure, or addition to savings changes our relationships with the world. Each time they reverberate through the global network of services, virtually never with information about them at all. So money takes the whole world largely out of context, cutting off our feelings.

Could that be why the fast-growing global pressures of endless economic growth seem not to be noticed by economists, investors, governments, and only an increasing number of others? Does money so isolate us from reality that most just can’t feel what arguably threatens our whole species?

A kind of proof of it comes from how the 1987 Brundtland Report (1) holistic definition of sustainability, caring for the present and the future, change upon implementation. Soon after, institutions decided how to first measure sustainability in terms of the resource inputs and outputs. The reasoning was that businesses seemed to control and could accurately measure. There was also the attraction that I/O (input/output) accounting came from 1940s economics. So it was a globally modeled system on the shelf that could be easily adapted and was rigorously scientific.

However, it also appears there was no study of whether it would work. So, perhaps the financial institutions knew it wouldn’t. After all, business I/O decisions are actually predicated on someone else paying for them. Investors at every level actively select, fund, and guide developments according to their rule of maximizing the growth rate of their profits. That rule of maximizing profits and making everything else “external” to the system clearly mark it as a rule for fixed remote control steering of how the economy will develop, an obvious fatal design flaw when you think about it. So, in any case, excluding all responsibility for the impacts of money decisions might have been the main interest of the financial institutions, perhaps led by the OECD, in pushing the use of I/O data. It permanently held money harmless and excluded the impacts of financial decisions from sustainability accounting.

Allowing finance to hold itself harmless for the accelerating destruction of the Earth, it pays to develop, guide, and profit from, misdefined sustainability from the very start

Or… maybe the financial institutions were just blinded by their total lack of information about how they were altering their environment. Money decisions rarely ask for it. The “externalities” are all directly caused by the economy and by the financial decisions managing it. People in finance use the term to indicate those impacts are completely external to their way of thinking about money.

I also watched as excluding “externalities” got a new twist in the rules for reporting financial sustainability. The new rules would only apply to sustaining growing investor profits, not the world from which they are extracting profits, still called “sustainable investing.” However, it may often be the opposite. I complained vigorously about how the discussions were going to the UNEP FI and WRI groups developing the plans. All I got back was that their financial advisors had veto power on any new rules. Perhaps that was also the case before and after, and this is just a glimpse into the system.

The proof seems to be in the curve in Fig 1. Maximizing economic growth is a long-term practice. Atmospheric CO2, the main direct driving force of climate change, is rising at its fastest ever exponential rate. Details of how the two are linked are in Growth Constant Fingerprints(2) and a survey in long tables of other linked World Crises Growing with Growth (3). You may see some I’ve missed, too. As a growth system pushes its limits, the pressures are widely distributed, so the system tends to push all its internal and external limits at once.


The world that lies ahead is one in which we’ll see what we’re doing. The rich seem like everyone else, caught in the headlights essentially, unable to see outside the silo they built their lives around. The situation is dire, but we need to rise to it, our old ways of using power to give us more power have done us in. Look for the old roots of our ways of life that are still healthy.

References

1 The Brundtland Report - Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. 

Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Common_Future  

The Report - https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf 

2 A demonstration of scientific analysis and curve fitting of the analog curves of connected world systems, of course, misunderstood by the numerical modeling journals 

JLH (2019) Growth Constant Fingerprints of Economically Driven Climate Change  https://www.synapse9.com/drafts/2019_12-FingerprintsOfEconCC-MS.pdf 

3 An experimental scientific taxonomy. are divided into eight categories and illustrate the scope of our exponentially diversifying and expanding global systemic threats. That is due, of course, to our interventions of all kinds upsetting nearly every kind of macro system on Earth, deeply disrupting our personal and societal ways of life. 

JLH (2021) The Top 100 World Crises Growing with Growth

https://synapse9.com/_r3ref/100CrisesTable.pdf 

4 The globally relied on world atmospheric CO2 data, combining ice core data from all over the world to 1958, then mountain top data from Antarctica and Hawaii after that. https://scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/data/atmospheric_co2/icecore_merged_products.html


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