The Importance of Sustainability!

The importance of sustainability -however defined- as the foundation for social, institutional, environmental, and economic well-being, has been globally accepted and recognized.

The need for rethinking the approaches that best guarantee environmental, social, institutional, and economic sustainability has been acknowledged and documented by researchers, social scientists, and government agencies throughout the world (Anderson, 1991; Beckerman, 1992; Brown et al., 1993; Daly, 1993; Homer-Dixon et al., 1993; Toman, 1994; Upreti, 1994; Utton et al., 1976; Young, 1992).

Recognition, however, is the easy part. What remains to be understood is the means by which social, economic, and environmental sustainability can be best achieved.

Environmental degradation, such as deforestation, desertification, wetlands destruction, air and water pollution, keep reaching unprecedented proportions. This is particularly evident in some parts of the “less developed” world (Bos, 1994; Brown, 1993; Douthwaite, 1993; Duchin and Lange, 1994; Hudson, 1991).

The inefficient use and allocation of natural resources in most parts of the world impose ever-greater constraints on the livelihoods and well-being of local peoples.

Negligible man-made capital assets combined with non-existent or ill-defined property rights, inaccessible financial services, inadequate or non-existent safety nets in time of disaster or stress, and inability (or unwillingness due to inability) to participate in decision-making, force people to adopt ever-shorter time horizons.

These forced decisions favor immediate needs and goals over long-term objectives, or ideals, and most often contribute to a downward spiral of economic, social, institutional, and environmental degradation (IFAD, 1995).

A focus on what may constitute the best means to deal with uncompensated effects (i.e, negative externalities ) and unsustainable project outcomes associated with development programs must become a priority in every local and global development strategy.

This focus was somewhat acknowledged in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987), or Bruntland Report, in June 1992 at the Rio Summit by the United Nations Development Commission (UNDC, 1992) and in 2016 during the Paris agreement.

But what do people mean when they speak of “Sustainability”?

It is not feasible to translate the Bruntland definition of sustainability into actions, and much less to accomplish the “Sustainable Development Goals” of the Paris agreement without a conceptual knowledge and understanding of human organizations and their underlying behaviors.

What is Ideal-Seeking Behavior?

Most definitions of “sustainability” share at least two things in common:

  1. They are all obviously anthropocentric.
  2. They all speak of an ideal process or state.

Based on these two observations and on the seminal work of Ackoff and Emery (1972), the only operational definition of sustainability to this day is the following:

This behavior is characterized by the desire and the ability (i.e., opportunity & resources) to:

  • Progress towards a ideal by choosing a new goal when one is achieved (or the effort to achieve it has failed), and
  • Sacrifice a goal for the sake of the ideal.


Only ideals serve as appropriate guidelines within a context of uncertainty and complexity because only ideals are time-free, hence, intrinsically pro-active-adaptive in themselves.

The four universal ideals are:

1) Homonomy

2) Nurturance

3) Humanity

4) Beauty

(Emery, 1993).

Ideal-seeking behavior is what builds Tropophilia into any process or organization allowing it to thrive on uncertainty and within Black Swan Domains.

JC Wandemberg Ph.D.

President & Founder

Sustainable Systems International

About the author: Dr. Wandemberg is an international consultant, professor, and analyst of economic, environmental, social, managerial, marketing, and political issues. For the past 30 years Dr. Wandemberg has collaborated with corporations, communities, and organizations to integrate sustainability through self-transformation processes and Open Systems Design Principles, thus, catalyzing a Culture of Trust, Transparency, and Integrity.