November 23rd, 2018

Sustainability needs a new story

7 minute read

by Alex Massie


Growing concern about the state of our world has already prompted many businesses to consider how sustainable they are. As a result, there are now whole sustainability departments in many firms, responsible for delivering the company’s sustainability agenda. They deliver carbon savings, supply chain improvements, recycling successes. The eco-credentials of many businesses seem exemplary. And yet there are stark reminders – like recent reports from the IPCC and WWF – that the breadth and depth of these interventions are proving insufficient to avert a growing environmental crisis.

It is time for individuals and organisations to take a different approach, one that addresses sustainability at its root. Instead of tinkering at the edges and merely making our current approaches less environmentally damaging, we must journey deep into the heart of how we see the world. This process is a powerful one, not to be undertaken lightly. Yet it holds immense potential.

We need to expand our definition of sustainability, beyond talking in terms of the resources we extract, the pollution we create, the treatment of our soil. Sustainability extends also to human society; the way we treat each other and ourselves. If we can develop organisations that are sustainable in this wider sense, they will become highly attractive to work with, and we will significantly increase the value we add. That is quite a claim, but in our rapidly evolving world, organisations that start to address sustainability on a deeper level are going to stand out and thrive.


Glasses half full

Some years ago, I worked with a group of people in South West Uganda who had been evicted from their native lands. A local NGO had built latrines for them, but many refused to use them. Their story of hygiene told that bad smells transmitted illness. This hygiene story had served them well when they lived in their ancestral home where avoidance of bad smells kept them out of danger – it made sense and was retained. However, on their eviction and forced adoption of settled lives, this had changed. They had been provided with appropriate technology and also educated about how to use it, but it made no difference. In their story, their perspective, the sometimes malodorous toilets were dangerous and so should be avoided.

In every moment, how we see the world is determined by the stories we tell about it. But, just like getting used to a new pair of glasses, we soon stop noticing the way that these stories shape our vision. These lenses – our story of how the world works – are implicated in our struggles with achieving sustainability. We have the clean technologies, we have the education, but still it is not quite working. Why?

Our current stories are making it very difficult for us to use the tools at our disposal appropriately. We can have all the finest environmental procedures in place, but if our staff members don’t see the point, then these will be bypassed or ignored – their lenses make the procedures seem an irrelevance.

Most of us rarely stop to consider how we have been taught to look at the world.  Neither our education system nor our society at large encourages this kind of introspection. Yet these are questions that need to be asked if we are to look at the root of our actions. Why does this matter to organisations? Well, when we perceive the world from within the same story, we may never notice alternatives. For organisations it means we are missing major chances to innovate and add significant value in what we do.


Separate ways

An important story in the industrialised world is that we are all individuals separate from other humans and also separate from the wider ecosystems that we exist in. In this story it’s each of us against the world. If we don’t fight for our own self-interest then we will starve, be ignored, go unloved. Fear and anxiety are an unsurprising product of this story. If you don’t feel that this belief is part of your worldview, I would just ask how much you worry about money, how much you feel you need to protect your interests, and how important your social standing is to you.

The result of this is that we act in our individual perceived best interest in most instances. Our whole society is set up to reflect this. Our politics appeals to self-interest, marketing and advertising attempt to use our insecurities, and laws and institutions attempt to use fear and flattery to control our behaviour.


Book page

Can we turn a new page on our approach to sustainability? Photo: Suzy Hazelwood (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr.


In this story, we have to control each and every human to become more sustainable; each of us must be coerced into compliance. We need to be bombarded by the data from the IPCC, charged to use undesirable products such as plastic carrier bags, and lured by tax cuts to adopt low-emissions vehicles.

Of course, some of this immense effort works, but by turning sustainability into a burden it rarely yields deeper, lasting change. If we become aware of this story, we begin to see that it needn’t be so.



When you push people to do something, how much do they change their fundamental attitudes? Usually, the answer is relatively little. Witness the pent-up energy of repressed peoples, or a teenager’s desire for escape from control. You can perhaps achieve the desired results for some time, but all the while resentment and frustration builds until eventually it is released – often in unhealthy ways. We can try and control our way to sustainability, but it won’t be sustainable. Yet in the grip of our story of how the world works, we persist with exactly this approach.

Clearly this story is not working for us. Nor is it true. At the simplest level we have been born on this earth, our bodies built from our environment, our living in societies and as part of wider ecosystems that form a Lovelockean self-regulating biosphere. We now know we do not hold a monopoly on self-awareness – witness the magpie recognising itself in the mirror, the elephant mother grieving for her child, the tree-root mycorrizhae passing information and nutrients between hosts. We are not atomic, separate individuals. Ecological science demonstrates what many indigenous peoples have always known: we are interwoven with our ecosystems, and what happens to one part of the web affects us all.

To become aware of the stories we hold, we can use one of the most powerful tools that we have: inquiry. Inquiry – the art of suspending judgement and instead asking questions – is a diminished part of our education system but can be nurtured and learnt as part of a group. Exploring our stories through inquiry opens the space for something immensely powerful to occur; we can see what is, and what is no longer, meaningful for us.

If we clearly see something no longer has meaning for us, it can be dropped. This leaves us in a place where there is a gap, which is the most fertile ground possible. If, in this space, we can continue to hold questions rather than manufacture answers, we make space for the astonishing process of emergence.

The process of emergence requires taking time to slow down – which is hard, especially for those of us who feel under pressure to ‘do something’ to fix things. But all of this ‘doing’ is to no avail if we haven’t found a way of being and doing that might actually make a difference. It is perverse, but to achieve more we must first do less.

Bringing this into an organisation is not easy, but it is a process that can be facilitated and supported in groups. It has to have significant buy-in from the leadership. Yet it can pay itself back many times over in the changes it elicits from the people involved. It is not, however, a one-off fix – it is an on-going process that must be held strongly.

By letting go of the stories we no longer need, and allowing new ways of seeing to emerge we create an environment in which real change can occur. Working at this deeper root level is not a controlled change, but is a sustainable change that will be felt both within and outside an organisation. It affects how companies are seen by potential clients, the way staff engage with their work, the value they add, and the organisation’s ability to function as an agent of innovation and change.

Having the courage to look at the source of our stories can be rewarded with riches.


Alex Massie


Alex Massie


A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn. Alex’s assessment of how we can broaden and reframe sustainability for our current challenges can be found here.


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