Sustainability: A herculean task of modern times

At a meeting at PR firm Fishburn Hedges last week on communicating sustainability, one of the discussion topics was how much sustainability should be treated as one issue and how much a multitude. According to their own write-up, a “key conclusion” was: “A variety of ‘sustainability’ messages from water to conservation can conflict and cause confusion.” My impression was that it was a more contested discussion than that. In particular, Alan Knight OBE, who has a long history of making corporate sustainability happen, argues in favour of issue-specific eco-labelling, floating the benefits of seventy separate labels for different causes and rejecting the suggestion of one sustainability brand to rule them all. I have some concerns with this, not least the lack of scrutiny eco-labels currently get and the inability of consumers to get their heads around them.

To deal with the general point, however. I square this circle by viewing sustainability as a many-headed hydra: different issues have different faces and personalities, but are fundamentally one core problem. When Hercules cut one of its heads off the Hydra of classical mythology in the second of his twelve tasks, two more heads appeared in its place. The same can be said of taking a narrow view of individual environmental issues: if CO2 or over-fishing is tackled without reference to a broader systemic shift in society’s attitude to consumption and resource management, then we get nowhere. This problem was demonstrated in practice when at the same talk Doug Johnston, director for climate change and sustainability at Ernst & Young, referred to many companies only reporting their carbon emissions with little or no reference to other areas.

Cutting off one head of the hydra: A carbon capture and storage site, one of many images of this developing technology from a feature article on the website of Scientific American

To stretch the metaphor further than is probably a good idea, that is not to say there isn’t a case for lopping off the head that’s biting you at any one time. Let’s take the example of carbon capture and storage (CCS): this technology, which captures CO2 from major sources like power plants and pumps it underground, achieves nothing except CO2 reductions, so is not ideal overall. That said, given the difficulties of reducing CO2 emissions, it is probably a good idea to have a broad portfolio of approaches. But if we can find ways to instead improve the supply of cheap renewable energy, that also solves our fossil-fuel supply problems and builds towards a future of cheap sustainable energy for the whole planet, not to mention easing the geopolitics of energy security.

Where this metaphor falls down, of course, is with the complexity of climate change outside a sustainability issue. I have previously argued that climate change should be disentangled from left-wing politics. I am increasingly of the opinion it should be disentangled from “green” issues and treated as a general policy issue (like universities policy, say, or debates on primary care trusts that appear regularly in the UK news media). Green messages engage an engaged minority, but climate change should be integrated into other areas.

It is a well-known argument in academic circles that the ultimate goal of environmental policy should be to fully integrated with all strands of policy making, but in the case of climate change an especially strong case is made by the recent Hartwell Paper, with a variety of impressive authors, on “A new direction for climate policy, after the crash of 2009”. This seeks to link climate change in with not only wider sustainability goals but also supplying low-cost energy globally for a growing world population,  equipping societies to “withstand the risks and dangers that come from all the vagaries of climate, whatever may be their cause” (p.8).

In the News: This week saw the end of funding for the Sustainable Development Commission. Hopefully this will not damage understanding of environmental sustainability as one interconnected issue in policy-making circles.