Big Sustainability

What Is Big Sustainability and Why Is It Important


First published on October 23, 2018

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe what is big sustainability
  • Explain why big sustainability is important.

What Is Big Sustainability?

Imagine a world where everyone had what they needed, where all people could have interesting, healthy, prosperous, meaningful lives. Further imagine a world where all these things could be obtained in a sustainable way, for many centuries, where the Earth’s ecosystem and beauty was preserved, where society could endure in a manner in which people felt hope, freedom, secureness and fairness.

Big Sustainabilityincorporates a comprehension of large-scale social, economic and historical forces, processes and potentials to develop an approach for thinking about sustainability challenges and a framework for developing solutions. It encompasses macroscopic, integrated approaches to sustainability, including environmental, economic and social sustainability. Big Sustainability involves large-scale, integrated systematic thinking. It recognizes that multi-century “soft” physical forces exist that act to push society along certain paths.

Big Sustainability involves several branches.

  • Unified science, including a science of society.
  • Constructive thinking approaches
  • Thepsychology of sustainability and human decision-making, especially in very large groups.

Big Sustainability strives to bring the goals of humanity through the filters of physical, social and psychological reality to develop a framework for identifying robust, practicable solutions to sustainability challenges.

Science of society, psychology of sustainability, and constructive thinking approaches

Three areas of Big Sustainability

Why Is Big Sustainability Important?

Environmental sustainability will not happen without economic and social sustainability. If humans feel stressed, environmental sustainability will be a low priority. Consequently,  excessive use of renewable resources and rampant destruction of the environment will be more likely to occur. Consequences of that stress include environmental damage caused by wars and accelerated use of nonrenewable resources.

In the past, disruptive events as such war might last a few years, and then ecosystems would recover during times of peace. Destruction in one part of the world could be offset since other parts would remain intact and help with the recovery. Yet, in current times, a global nuclear war can destroy the Earth’s entire ecosystem. Or, given the international interdependency of national economies, severe economic shocks can lead to global economic collapse, and nearly did so in 2008. Even conventional wars, such as Syria’s civil war in , has lead to a refugee problem that encouraged in the partial break-up of Europe (e.g the Brexit) and the fall of several democracies. In reaction to globalism, there are nationalist and fascist movements in many developed countries that threaten the freedom of speech to vital to gain and spread the knowledge required to overcome human crises.

Thousands of dedicated activists and scientists work on sustainability. Yet despite there have been some successes, humanity and the environment are rushing towards a catastrophic future. Just climate change itself may lead to the end of complex life on Earth. There may be several reasons for this lack of success. First, we do not sufficiently understand the psychology of sustainability and human decision-making, especially when they occur in very large groups. Second, we do not sufficiently recognize and understand medium-term “soft” physical forces that push society along certain paths. Finally, there is a lack of really large-scale, integrated systematic thinking.

If one fails acts without understanding the big picture, one can actually make matters worse. Imagine a factory production line, where a worker in the beginning of the line starts working much faster than the other workers. Will this effort produce any more product? No. All the worker will do is to use up more raw materials and create an late, growing pile of unfinished inventory in front of the next worker. Each and every worker and part of that line must work in coordination to be truly more productive.

Big Sustainability strives to better understand and overcome these challenges. These challenges are embodied by the following parable.

The Scientists and The Elephant

There is an old parable that illustrates the importance of systematic thinking which is fundamental to Big Sustainability.

  • It was six scientists
  • To learning much inclined,
  • Who went to see the Elephant
  • (Though the night was dark as coal),
  • That each by observation
  • Might satisfy their minds

They conclude that the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touch.

  • And so these scientists
  • Disputed loud and long,
  • Each in their own opinion
  • Exceeding stiff and strong,
  • Though each was partly in the right
  • And all were in the wrong.

This parable is a modern adaptation of the Blind Men and the Elephant, by American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) which in turn was based upon a fable told in India many years ago.

What Makes This Different?

Big Sustainability goes deeper. In addition to big picture, systematic, interdisciplinary thinking, Big Sustainability goes to the roots of our ecological and social systems. We recognize that our world is the product of cosmological processes, and that our lives, environment and societies are the natural progression of such processes, that we don’t exist in isolation. This approach provides us with an understanding of how things work, the forces that drive our world, and the constraints that fight back. Even so, we never forget that we are each conscious individuals.



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