Why we should rethink sustainability

By August 19th, 2019No Comments

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important. It has to, because without it there will be no future against the background of aggravating climate change. But the current discussion in society shows that we need to breathe new life into the word ‘sustainability’ – it is high time for a reframing. 

Photo: Pine Watt via unsplash

We are treading water.

Without sustainability there is no future, without future there is no sustainability. That is how simple it is for now. But in practice it is currently apparent that it is anything but simple and that not everyone has quite internalized this equation. For half a year now, the Fridays for Future movement – and with it tens of thousands of young people – has been taking to the streets of Germany to demonstrate for more climate protection. In its back, alliances of scientists, entrepreneurs and parents, underlining the urgency of the topic. The reaction of politicians? They are referring to “professionals” who should be left to do this, and to the neglect of compulsory schooling.

And if there are politicians who express a progressive, sustainable idea (for example, fewer cars in city centres, speed limits on motorways, higher prices for flying or even a CO2 tax), the prohibition club is unpacked directly from the other side and every discussion is blighted. “I’m not going to have my car banned and certainly not my schnitzel,” everybody yells out at the top of one’s voice. Is that a good starting point for real change? Absolutely not. Social progress? No, not at all. Opportunities for a future without catastrophic consequences of climate change? The current situation tends towards zero.

Somehow we are treading water. And the issue of sustainability and the need for new production and consumption patterns is anything but new. Already in 1972, the Club of Rome reminded us of the (planetary) limits of growth with a much-noticed publication. In order to prevent irreparable damage to the environment and thus enormous risks for the world population, an “ecological and economic state of equilibrium” was needed. 30 million copies of this publication in about 30 languages later, one wonders what has really happened since time immemorial.

„Sustainability is like teenage sex: Everybody talks about it. Nobody does it very much. And when they do, they don’t do it very well.“


Rethinking sustainability

“Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everybody talks about it. Nobody does it very much. And when they do, they don’t do it very well.”, GreenBiz founder Joel Markower summarized his view of sustainability. And I could not agree. Because it is undoubtedly the case that sustainability in many areas is still associated with something negative, too often and exclusively with restriction and/or even renunciation. Companies only see additional expenditures in the short-term, politicians a horde of potentially frightened industrial voters and the population a life like in the Middle Ages. 

Please stop it right here! Before we go back to demoralising ourselves by throwing around some kind of prohibition discussion statements resulting in more and more unconstructive behavior, we should try to understand one thing: Sustainability does not want to limit options, but to create spaces of possibility. And social change does not come about through guilt, but through possibilities. And when it comes to sustainability, we have only seriously exhausted a fraction of conceivable possibilities. 

With regard to possible future strategies, this above all means one thing: We must move away from efficiency thinking towards consistency and, most certainly, sufficiency. As cradle to cradle pioneer Prof. Braungart already said: “If a system is destructive, one should not try to make it more efficient. Instead, we should find ways to completely turn it upside down.” In other words, if something is less bad, it is far from good.  

Over the years, our cars have become more efficient in their consumption, but in the same breath larger and we have used them more often. Our electric household appliances have also become 37 percent more energy-efficient over the past 30 years, but at the same time electricity consumption has risen by 22 percent. What science calls the “rebound effect” simply means that, despite efficiency gains in many areas, we do not necessarily consume fewer resources and therefore do not live more sustainably than before. 

From efficiency to consistency and sufficiency

In view of the fact that the ecological limits of the planetary carrying capacity have already been reached in many areas, eco-effectiveness is increasingly being discussed as a counter-model to eco-efficiency: Radical innovations are intended to replace existing products and technologies or make them more environmentally compatible. When the company adidas manufactures sports shoes from collected “ocean plastic”, this goes into that direction. But compared to the production of meat-looking, tasty and bleeding burger patties from purely plant-based ingredients, it has a light aftertaste of an advertising stunt focusing solely on symptoms.  

And, of course, e-mobility should also be mentioned as a prime example of eco-effective innovation, but only as long as the electricity that drives it is also generated from renewable energy sources. In addition, we would also need a solution for the batteries that is suitable for circulation, so that sooner or later – due to the rebound effect – we do not reach the planetary limits here as well.

„For companies and politicians, the rebound effect – above all – means that they cannot solely rely on technological solutions in the future.“


For companies and politicians, the rebound effect – above all – means that they cannot solely rely on technological solutions in the future. A sustainable transformation of our society therefore requires (at least) strategies that lead to an absolute reduction in our consumption of energy and natural resources. It is therefore also a question of culture. Genuine sustainability can only be achieved if nature-compatible, technical innovations meet changed production and consumption patterns.  

This reveals a huge potential for the pioneers of sustainable economic paradigms who understand growth not quantitatively but qualitatively – and thus also operate successfully within a finite terrestrial system. One could say that we need more players in an empowering and enabling economy. Politicians must help with this transformation by setting appropriate (ordoliberal) framework conditions.

Following example: It is quite preposterous that today it is still cheaper for companies in the food industry to simply throw away and destroy perfectly edible food instead of redistributing them – be it to charitable organisations, animal feeding or start-ups that upcyclize them. Whether we then implement a carrot or stick model and promise companies tax incentives or fines can still be discussed. But it is clear that we have to adapt the system in this respect. 

Because perhaps one can hardly imagine how many 1.3 billion tons of food wasted worldwide every year are at the end of the day. But if you consider that we are artificially and thus unnecessarily creating the third-largest CO2 emitter (after China and the USA), fueling climate change for nothing, you should be able to act quickly. 

Growth with real added value

But where we cannot get around in this context: The question of growth. For decades, economic growth, i.e. purely quantitative growth, was equated with prosperity. Now we have recently reached a point where we fundamentally question the notion of “ever higher, ever further, ever faster”. 

But don not worry: the end of traditional growth does not necessarily mean the end of growth in general. Smith, Marx and Mill already assumed that the economy was heading for a stationary state. But it is precisely then that real growth – not material, but intellectual and cultural – begins – the growth of the purpose economy! From a strategic point of view, this leads to the dissolution of growth constraints. This does not mean a rejection of entrepreneurial growth, but the restoration of entrepreneurial freedom of decision – to grow, to shrink, to change, to reinvent oneself. 

„Where the world seems to become more and more complex and confusing due to the blind urge for growth, people long for naturalness, authenticity and simplicity.“


Against this background, the major trends of slowness and mindfulness can also be explained, which are becoming more and more noticeable both in the entrepreneurial context, but also the social context in general. Where the world seems to become more and more complex and confusing due to the blind urge for growth (and we are more and more overwhelmed by this), we humans long for naturalness, authenticity and simplicity. But this is not about going back, but about going forward into the future.

We want to get out of the hamster wheel of the “always higher, always further, always more.” Slow food or minimalism, for example, have become so popular because they – due to increased sustainability and responsibility towards the world and fellow human beings – enable more resonance and thus increase individual well-being. 

Rethinking sustainability

Which brings us back to the crux of the matter: More sustainability always means more health, more quality of life and therefore more future fitness. At the Zukunftsinstitut we are talking about “Next Growth” – a new vision of growth and life. The Wuppertal Institute around Prof. Schneidewind calls it “art of the future” focusing on the culture of change. Both approaches essentially mean the same thing: A transformation of our current system – and thus the way we make politics, economics, consume and live in general.

Perhaps our language is also to blame for the fact that we environemtalists have been cooking our own soup for decades and have no’t managed to convince the social centre with our visions for a better world. Communication about impending catastrophes and appeals to fear and anxiety may increase attention, but it also triggers defensive behavior and avoidance reactions. Catastrophism does not bring people into action, but paralyzes them and lets them react defensively. “If the world ends anyway, I can take my SUV and go 200 km/h over the motorway before I kill my 2 Euro discount steaks a second time on my brand-new Weber grill.”

„Sustainability needs a change of scenery.“


Sustainability needs a change of scenery. We have to succeed in creating personal relevance – for everyone in the here and now. We have to make sustainable behaviour not only easier, but also cheaper and more desirable. It should therefore not be a question of banning cars, but of how we can make our cities more bicycle-friendly and thus more livable in general. It should not be about banning meat, but about real prices for meat (i.e. including external costs!) and enjoyable alternatives beyond boring veggie schnitzels. It should not be about minimalism and the compulsion to do without, but about maximalism and thus the freedom to reduce one’s consumption to a beneficial and experience-oriented level. 

As I have written above: Change comes from opportunities. And it is generally driven by vision and urgency – both things we can feel in our current social situation. Now we are all responsible. In practical terms, this also means that schnitzel or flying shame (from its Swedish counterpart “flygskam”) are currently the subject of much heated debate, but do not necessarily change anything about the underlying system. As long as meat and flying are not priced with a view to sustainable development and – much worse – are subsidized, the incentives for irresponsible consumption remain too high.

What we should be doing? 

  • politics must make sustainable living easier and cheaper; 
  • science, as a “science of possibility”, must continuously design more sustainable social and economic models;
  • civil society, with its pioneers, has to exemplify these utopias in real laboratories, and
  • companies then have to carry them into the middle of society.

It is still possible that we can manage this transformation “by design” and thus democratically, socially acceptable and taking into account many to all needs. And thus not “by desaster”, unplanned and caused by catastrophes. This requires a mindset of critical future optimism, a possibilism, that emphasizes the potential of our world in view of the great challenges posed by climate change and the like. In contrast to extreme optimism, it differs in that evil and bad are neither excluded nor ignored. Positive change is possible precisely because of such problems.