UNsustainability: NOT a priority

by Peter Malaise


Sustainability is not a priority!

That is what I’m told on a regular base when we come to speak about sustainability, or when people hear I’m a consultant in sustainability matters. In their eyes I’m bad news, because I’m only costs – or so they think.

What they don’t seem to realise is that the reason why we are running into the wall with society as a whole, and with economical and social life more precisely, is exactly UNsustainable development. Not to speak of the planet’s ecological systems, which we turned in a complete mess in about 200 years of so-called industrial revolution. This is not only a dramatical outcome for our own lives, but even more for the generations to come. I’m not aware of any human culture before ours that did something similar.


Summing up the reasons why this happened is done in many other places with more authority than I have. I just want to stress that it might be sensible to take the issue serious and not allow ourselves another one or two decades of disbelief before we start taking action. We had that kind of disbelief when the discussion on climate change started, and a lot of scientists opposed the idea that this change might be a consequence of human activities. Some of them were paid by opportunist financial and industrial circles, others not; the latter wanted to see conclusive evidence first.

My question is: shouldn’t we put the precautionary principle before the proof of the pudding in such serious, planet-encompassing matters? And can we leave the taking of decisions in the matter to a value-free science, a profit driven industry and party minded politicians? I think not: we have our own values and as human beings we should all be involved in the decision making.


In spite of all the negative connotations, our culture is an absolutely interesting and thrilling one. We have scientific knowledge and technical skills on a level we never had before. They shrunk the formerly enormous and unoverseeable globe to a global village, where the gossip is going round at light speed. However, we paid a very high price for these new faculties: we lost the close relationship with the planet and in the wake of that, the sense of responsibility we should have for all living beings, the actual and the future ones. Stones, salad or cows don’t have the faculty to understand and guide the planet and mankind; only mankind itself is able to do that. So, let’s do it! Sustainable development as it was formulated at the origin is essentially that: taking responsibility for the planet and all living beings thereon, actual and future.


Stating that sustainability is not a priority is a very bad start. In fact it is comparable to stating that one knows that the situation is horrible, but that – for the sake of short term financial or personal profit – one is not going to take any action. We can not afford to continue the actual UNsustainable situation without causing catastrophes which will come at a forever growing pace and at a forever growing scale. We can not just sit around and wait for Armageddon to come. By the way, long before some form of collapse will occur the whole economical life on this planet will already have been eradicated.


It is true that a lot of negative outcome has already been corrected through legislation. Nevertheless, this is not enough, it was not effective enough either and mainly: it’s coming from a wrong motivation. When parents have to be forced by law to love their children, there is something terribly miss.


We have to reverse the argumentation: UNsustainability is not a priority. Whatever human activity is organised, it should fit as much as feasible into a sustainability framework. ‘As much as feasible’ means: with the practical possibilities we have at our disposal here and now. Mean people will conclude that – to preserve business as usual – we must then keep the possibilities undeveloped and as low as possible. In my perception this is already happening for some time anyway; you only have to look at the dwarfish amount of money that is invested in future proof technologies and the often unsubstantiated criticism they are submitted to. If the risk calculations used for future proof innovations would be applied in the same way for UNsustainable business practices, not even one third of those would come through.


UNsustainable business is not yet forced to pay the real costs linked to its unsustainable character, but that moment is quite close. Governments feel the heavy burden caused by the damage to resources, human health and the environment – and back again, because the one is linked to the other. Repairing the damage is eating increasingly bigger holes in the state budgets and there is no remedy to that, as the damage done is growing every year. It is obvious that sooner or later they will try to recover the losses by cashing with the ones who cause them: UNsustainable businesses. It is to be expected that when these companies will not have taken serious action of their proper initiative, they will be forced to do so at a much higher cost and far less autonomy. Engaging in sustainable development is therefore not a more expensive solution, but a cheaper one, as far as one looks a bit further than just the results of next quarter.


One of the ultimate arguments is that a satisfactory economy can never be run in a sustainable way. I have no crystal ball and can’t predict the future, but till now I wasn’t confronted with an industrial activity that could not be set up or be transformed in a sustainable way. The only thing you can’t do is having that happen overnight. A situation that went wrong for 200 years will need a lot of compromises and mending before an acceptable level of conversion will be reached.


UNsustainability is NOT a priority. It’s all about revolution in the ideas, and evolution in the field.