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Image: The interconnected nature of the SDGs (Credit: Azote Images for Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Defining sustainability and setting the stage

Sustainability is a systemic property emerging from the interactions between the environment, the society and the economy. It refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilisation to co-exist.

Unfortunately and despite of all the global level commitments, agreements and conferences the sustainability of the future is, to some extent, unclear. It remains to be seen if we will witness the end of the fossil based economy, see the climate warming staying below the critical temperatures, find ways to stop the biodiversity loss, slow down the population growth and find ways to transform into circular economy where there is no space for overconsumption or if the planet will witness the tragicomic end of the human race.

Even if we can’t see nor predict the future we can identify signals and trends that most likely describe the future. Among many, Dennis Morgan, Phd. in Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea, points out that the 21st century society is not a future-oriented one. The reasoning behind this is that if we let the progress continue as before, it will in the end use up the renewable and nonrenewable resources and eventually destroys the whole life capacity of the Earth. 1 

It’s quite evident that we must become more future-oriented society if we desire to keep on existing in the planet earth. In order to do this we need to understand the changes on the societal level and how the daily lives are to be organised, how the  economic activities must change and what new alternative economies are emerging and how we have already affected the environment around us what are the ways to minimise the negative impact while increasing the positive. As these themes are interlinked and intertwined by nature, they should not be harnessed with the idea that if we are environmental friendly enough, business could flourish like before and people would not have to make any sacrifices. Instead, we have to adapt our societal and economical activities to the planetary boundaries that ultimately sets all the limits and the environmental changes that are unavoidable – and ensure that new innovations are regenerative by nature.

Let’s start from humans and the social level, which is all about satisfying the human needs.

Social level of sustainability covers topics from ending hunger and poverty to human rights, equity, gender equality and women’s empowerment as well as increasing health and well-being, opening free education for all and enabling people to live in sustainable cities and communities with clear energy solutions are on the todo-list.
business impacts on people and labour.

. 2, 3

In general these issues are all interlinked and intertwined. Maybe because of the difficulty it doesn’t have so much attention in public discussion and media as the economic and environmental sustainability which this article covers later. However, these are the wicked problems of our very own race that we need to fix because without a healthy, educated and empowered active people it’s pretty much impossible to fix issues on the other levels.

It is quite evident that solving these wicked problems requires a high level of systemic and holistic understanding. 4 It’s also an extremely tricky task. We can’t, for example, prototype new income or healthcare models and simulate them in a closed environment or a laboratory. Instead, the improvement ideas related to these designs need to be tested in a real life environment with the possibility of these tests leaving traces, understanding and emotions that can’t be undone. 5

UK-based social enterprise called Social Life defines social sustainability as a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.” The definition continues by taking it closer to action, by stating that “Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.” 6

Economical level, which currently doesn’t really fit into 2020’s world as putting economic and individual interest first, at the cost of its effects to the climate, biodiversity and natural resources ignores the future perspective.

The most relevant economic changes regarding sustainable development happened when industrialism took off in 1750 – 1850. Over time, this led the society to mercantilism (maximizing the exports and minimize the imports for an economy while promoting monarchy, aristocracy, clericalism, militarism, imperialism) and capitalism (to produce constant and limitless growth based on the exploitation of natural resources.) 7,8 The current operating system, neo-liberal economy, was born around the 1950’s and it instantly started a success story as the economical growth pretty much skyrocketed. Resulting to the following observation: infinite economic growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron as the natural resources aren’t endless at all but scarce and rapidly dwindling. Or as economical and political researcher Paavo Järvensivu writes: “we are currently operating as the money would be scarce and the (natural) resources would be unlimited – when it’s actually the exact opposite. Money is an instrument of our modern capitalistic system, it isn’t scarce and shouldn’t even be compared to the very scarce natural resources at all’‘. 9  

So, also growth is an essential concept that needs shaking and reshaping. But no need to panic! Growth dynamics is not a natural law that cant be changed. There’s many modern and resilient views on economic models. For example Gibson-Graham (a pen name shared by feminist economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson) sees the economy in a wider perspective as a model to maintain and enable livelihoods filled with wellbeing. The basis of this thinking is the recognition that even if we are living on a finite planet which’s resources and systems we have messed up, we still have hope as there are individuals and communities acting and addressing these messy challenges. 10

Another example worth mentioning is the doughnut economics, which explores the mindset and ways of thinking needed to get us there. The concept is designed by Kate Raworth and it proposes an economic mindset that’s fit for the 21st century context and challenges. Drawing on insights from diverse schools of economic thought – including ecological, feminist, institutional, behavioural and complexity economics – it sets out seven ways to think like a 21st century economist in order to bring the world’s economies into the safe and just space for humanity. 11

Economy researcher, Toni Ruuska, questions the whole concept of capitalism by asking: “how will capitalism, as our chosen economic model, succeed in the future? Is it capable of learning from the past mistakes and shift towards new directions or do we need totally new economic models?”. 12 The tragedy of capitalism is the fact that the capitalist economic structure cannot change the way it treats its environment as a free and endless resource. Therefore the whole idea of capitalism has to be challenged and in the end it remains to be seen how capitalism will succeed in the future or do we need totally new economic systems. 13

One initiative, working for change in business level, is UN Global Compact. It includes ten principles for businesses to follow: They start from (1) Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; (2) and make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses. (3) Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; (4) the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour, (5) the effective abolition of child labour; (6) and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. (7) Businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges; (8) undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility; (9) and encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies. (10) Businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery. 14

Environmental level that ultimately sets the boundaries to everything.

While the economy is looking forward in yearly quarters, the planetary changes happen in longer periods. Comparing these two, a climate impact 100,000 years from now feels easily irrelevant to the present time economical and political decision-making. It is possible that we will adjust to the new climate regime with approxs 2°C warmer climate, but in a longer timespan, this fossil fuel powered century might have a crucial price to pay. 

Despite all the global level commitments, agreements and conferences the future impacts are pretty much unclear. It remains to be seen if we will witness the end of the fossil based economy or the planet will witness the tragicomic end of the human race.

Let’s focus on the first option, the transition to the post fossil world. According to several researchers our modern society is shifting from the steady epoch of the holocene towards the anthropocene. It means that we are entering a period in human history where we have shifted from industrialism and the consumption of natural resources – without any doubt we might run out of them – into an era where we simply just have to start dealing with the accelerating and extreme weather phenomenon, scarce resources and other issues rising when we are messing up the planetary boundaries. 15

What are planetary boundaries? Stockholm Resilience Center’s  researchers have proposed nine planetary boundaries that are set to meet the holocene state and to give safe operating spaces that don’t disrupt Earth’s systems. According to the research, three of the boundaries, the climate change, the biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle, have already peaked into unsustainable levels. And in order to affect climate change we must take care of other boundaries also, in this case the freshwater usage, land use, aerosol, nitrogen-phosphorus, ocean and stratospheric boundaries. 16

To sum up, sustainability is a systemic property emerging from the interactions between the environment, society and economy. What we are dealing with is a complex, interlinked and interconnected system of which casualties we can’t even predict. Nevertheless, there’s no time to bathe in guilt and despair for too long. Sustainable transformation needs active individuals, leaders and owners working across political, economical, cultural and social domains. 


1. Morgan, D. R., 2015. The dialectic of utopian images of the future within the idea of progress. Futures.



4. Jones, P.H., 2014. Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems. In G. Metcalf (ed.), Social Systems and Design, Volume 1 of the Translational Systems Science Series. Springer Japan. 

5. Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M., 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences.


7. Marx, K., 1843. Letter From Marx to Arnold Ruge Kreuznach.

8. Foster, J. B., 2009. The ecological revolution: making peace with the planet. New York: Monthly Review.

9. Järvensivu, P., 2016. Rajattomasti rahaa niukkuudessa. Like.

10. Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2013). Take back the economy. an ethical guide for transforming our communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


12. Ruuska, T., 2017. Reproduction of Capitalism in the 21st Century: Higher Education and Ecological Crisis. Aalto University. 

13. Gerard Delanty The future of capitalism: Trends, scenarios and prospects for the future [Source]


15. Stoermer & Crutzen, 2000; Rockström et al. 2009; Scranton 2016

16. Rockström et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity

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