Paradigms of Progress and Sustainability

I stumbled across the concept of paradigms of progress in a graduate school course taught by Dr. Grace Goodell. Until that moment, I had always assumed that progress was a straight line heading upward toward the sky. Turns out that this linear vision of progress is not a truth, just a Western ideal. Ever heard the expression “One step forward, two steps back”? That’s a paradigm of progress too!

In some cultures and/or religions, progress is a more circular concept. How you behave in this life determines your rebirth and pathway in the next life. Reincarnation suggests that we have multiple chances, indeed, multiple lifetimes to evolve. “Whatever happens” one of my Buddhist friends said to me once “I’m not coming back as a cockroach”. Vivid imagery, but his point was that he wouldn’t try to get away with something today that might come back and bite him in the long long-run. You’ve heard the expression “what goes around, comes around”? Isn’t this a way of describing progress as an upward spiral?

Progress can be an exclusive concept – my well-being (or my family’s), my advancement, my wealth and worth, but not necessarily yours. Alternatively, progress can be inclusive. My individual advancement might be nice, but it doesn’t necessarily signal progress. Greater socio-economic well-being in the community, the country or on the planet would be inclusive concepts of progress.

Why am I thinking back to a graduate school class in social change and development 20+ years later? In a word, sustainability. The 21st century economic model relies on the concept of perpetual growth, assuming that this is desirable and feasible. According to my grandmother, my great grandfather used to sell salt in NY for people to put on the ice in their “ice boxes” to make it last and keep food fresh. Waves of immigration at the turn of the 20th century triggered a temporary boom in the ice and salt business. Briefly, great grandpa was “the King of Salt” (at least to his neighborhood!) and then the refrigerator was invented. Great grandpa’s clients didn’t all run out and buy new refrigerators over night, but over a number of years his business stalled, then shrank, then died entirely, or so I was told. Innovation and invention created a paradigm shift that reduced growth from wow to zero in a short time span.

Encouraged to eat more fish for our health, many of us began to do so. Commercial fishing ventures boomed and as some species became scarcer, farm fishing was introduced. And still we were encouraged to eat more fish. A new documentary End of the Line asks us to imagine a world without fish, noting that as much as 90% of large fish species may already be overfished and only 3% of the world’s oceans are marine protected areas. Clearly, we can’t keep eating more fish at the same pace forever nor can the boom in commercial fishing continue unabated. How do we rethink nutrition, fisheries and oceanic exploration in a constructive way?

Sustainable growth means first and foremost a change in mindset. We cannot assume that high and unfettered growth is good or even feasible for society. An increasing array of disposable consumer goods seems exciting at first, but we’re generating tremendous amounts of waste as well. “Built to last” means fewer repeat sales than “planned obsolescence” but better resource use. Can built to last companies achieve sustainable growth rates? Will markets penalize companies that push consumption without sustainability?

Capital markets evolved to facilitate economic growth and development, but over time, greed and gaming (theory and practice) have changed market dynamics. If there are limits to growth, inevitably there will be constraints on financial returns as well. How quickly will we become knowledgeable about and comfortable with the idea that every financial return is accompanied by social and environmental returns that may be positive, negative or neutral but never absent? What’s the relationship between “sustainable” on the one hand and “fair” or “equitable” on the other?

I’m pleasantly surprised by visible signs that the world is becoming more attuned to sustainability in general and more specifically to the various flavors of multiple bottom line investing (SRI, ESG, Impact Investing, Venture Philanthropy, etc).

I’m also deeply concerned by the all too prevalent notion that we need or should take away from one group to make another better off. Sub-market compensation of the people who choose to work with non-profits, social enterprises, the poor and disenfranchised is routine, unfair and foolish. Sure, there are people whose personal beliefs encourage them to be of service to others even (or perhaps especially) at a cost to themselves. And there are others who can afford to work for peanuts because of family wealth or other forms of support. The fact that we can generally hire at sub-market salaries doesn’t make it smart to do so. If I don’t pay you a fair living wage, how do you convince a small business in a poor country that it needs to pay fair living wages? Do unto others, people! Let’s aim for a “win-win” outcome rather than “zero sum”.

Depriving Peter because he wants to help Paul is no more sustainable in the long run than assuming unending double digit growth in financial returns. Long-term sustainability will require different choices around consumption and investment  and lots of behavioral and mindset changes.  Our paradigms for progress, happiness, success and well-being are in need of an update. Think positive. Think practical. Think collaboration and cooperation. Think some more about goals, values, hopes and dreams. Then go out and do something!

By Lauren A. Burnhill aka @LaurenOPV


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