Sustainability: The State Of The Movement

The essential threads of who we are and where we're going

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Spring 1990 on page 10
Copyright (c)1990, 1996 by Context Institute

What is “the sustainability movement”? What are its roots, and where is it going? Like most genuine social movements, it defies easy definition. The borders are fuzzy, and the participants are all too diverse and changing to be pinned down by a set of words. This movement compounds these problems by the unusually broad scope of topics it addresses, as well as its deep resistance to being limited by labels and boundaries.

Nevertheless I feel strongly that the movement exists, and that the work of the people within it offers the world some of the best reasons to hope for a positive future. In this article I would like to give you an overview of the essence of the movement and where it is headed. In doing this I want to emphasize that, while we at IN CONTEXT consider ourselves to be part of this movement, we do not claim to speak for it. What follows is only our perspective.


For the past decade or so the sustainability movement has been:

  • a small number of researchers, innovators and activists
  • who have taken a whole-systems approach to
  • the challenge of developing human systems, technologies and lifestyles that can provide high quality and environmentally benign ways of life for all of humankind, now and many generations into the future.

* The first key concept here is “sustainability.” While the word is a mouthful, what it refers to is a very old and very simple concept – the ability to keep going over the long haul. As a value, it refers to giving equal weight in your decisions to the future as well as the present. You might think of it as extending the Golden Rule through time, so that you do unto future generations (as well as to your present fellow beings) as you would have them do unto you.

Many traditional cultures hold this value very strongly. For example, in their councils, the Iroquois and other Native American groups required that each decision be evaluated by asking “What impact will this have on the seventh generation from today?” On the other hand, the world is full of the ruins of civilizations that died because they sacrificed the value of sustainability to the pressures (and greed) of the present – they overgrazed, overfarmed and generally overexploited their surroundings and their people.

These past social/ecological collapses were always local. Wilderness was available to start the cycle over again. What is unique to our situation is that not only must we sustain ourselves; we must be careful to do so in ways that also sustain the planet’s major life systems. We humans have grown in number and power to the point where we control the destiny not only of our own species, but the millions of others with whom we share this relatively tiny globe. This recognition that the unsustainability of present day societies and institutions is a global crisis is central to the sustainability movement.

Whole-systems thinking
* The second key concept is that of “whole-systems,” an approach which, surprisingly, seems to more profoundly define the movement than even the concern for sustainability. What distinguishes whole-systems thinking is a keen awareness of the importance of interconnections, relationships, consequences, and feedback loops. It involves a willingness to consider all significant aspects of an issue, and not to jump to appealing (but usually wrong) simplifications.

The movement’s concern with sustainability comes as a result of taking this whole-systems approach seriously. This approach also leads naturally to the other characteristics of the movement that follow.

Humane and biocentric focus
* People in the sustainability movement value both the human and the non-human equally. We resist the temptation to pit humans against nature, and we are often just as interested in issues of economic fairness and human rights as we are in environmental well-being. Indeed, we will usually insist that separations between these various categories are artificial and misleading.

Learning and innovation
* Closely associated with the movement’s whole-systems perspective is the high value it places on learning and innovation as a response to problems, rather than critique and complaint. The movement certainly has many who are skillful at criticism, but criticism is used as a tool, not an end. For the movement is basically vision-oriented – it is motivated by a desire to build a better world, not just tear down the one we have. The movement is not peopled by Pollyannas: it faces our culture’s problems squarely, with a hard-nosed realism, but it is decidedly optimistic about our capacity to learn and grow.

This optimistic bias is especially reflected in the movement’s “make it better” attitude towards science and technology. There is much in present day science and technology that the movement strongly criticizes, but it is nevertheless at home with the spirit of empirically-tested exploration that characterizes science at its best. Interestingly, a significant number of those who are most visibly active in the movement come out of conventional scientific careers – Wes Jackson, Dana Meadows, Brian Swimme, Amory Lovins, David Spangler, John Todd, and Danaan Parry, to name just a few.

Leadership and partnership
* It also seems characteristic of people in this movement to adopt the role of “servant leaders” – acting in the background, doing what needs doing, not directly calling attention to themselves. Like enzymes, we often work to break down artificial barriers and create partnerships; and like catalysts, we seek leverage points or bottlenecks where a little effort can set processes in motion that have beneficial, system-wide effects (citizen diplomacy is a good example of both strategies). As Hazel Henderson puts it, we are “designing new cultural DNA” and trying to splice it directly into society’s genes.

* There is a tremendous diversity of spiritual orientation within the movement, from active members of various traditional religions to free thinkers of all types. Nevertheless, it is accurate to say that most people in the movement are comfortable with the idea of spirituality – with the idea that there may be “more things in heaven and earth” than is included in the standard materialist description of the Universe. There is also no sense of antagonism between spirituality and science. Indeed, if there is a spiritual bias in the movement, it is towards “creation-centered” spirituality – including the sense that what we are learning about the world through the sciences has positive spiritual significance.

What we’re not
* Finally, a note of distinction. The sustainability movement sometimes gets misidentified with two other much better known social movements – the environmental movement and the new age movement. This confusion is partially understandable, since many of the people and concepts that we would identify with the sustainability movement are also claimed by one or both of these other movements.

However, there are important ways in which the sustainability movement is different and distinct. It insists on a whole-systems approach, whereas the environmental movement has focused on the human impact upon non-human systems, and the new age movement has focused on spirituality and personal growth. Unlike much of the environmental movement, it is vision- and solution-oriented. Unlike the new age movement, it is primarily concerned with the nuts and bolts of ecological and cultural health. People in the sustainability movement are generally happy to work with these and other social movements, but in doing so we retain our commitment to a practical, positive whole-systems approach.


During 1980s most of the people in the sustainability movement worked quietly on the outside, putting their energy into such things as developing alternatives in education, agriculture, business organization and energy use; building citizen diplomacy with the Soviet Union; tracking the deterioration in the natural environment; and drawing up plans for redesigned communities, cities, and entire economies.

Today their perspectives and innovations are becoming mainstream at a dizzying pace. To cite just a few examples, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now giving its blessing to “sustainable agriculture,” the World Bank now supports the idea of “sustainable development,” and it looks like the U.S. Department of Energy is about to make energy efficiency the cornerstone of its new energy policy! There is much that remains inadequate about the way these institutions are approaching these concepts, but there is no denying that the level of public credibility for people within the movement and for their ideas is dramatically higher than it was just a few years ago.

How will these welcome changes affect the movement? Profoundly. In the coming years I expect there will be:

  • a greater emphasis on putting the movement’s innovations into broad
    The articles in this issue are full of steps in that direction.
  • a need to communicate with a much larger public. The increased
    awareness of environmental and social problems – from rainforest destruction
    to drug use – has dramatically raised interest in the kinds of innovative
    solutions the movement has to offer, but the movement is still not adequately
    telling its story.
  • increased attention to redesigning human institutions, especially
    in economics and governance.
    The bottleneck to developing a humane
    and sustainable world is clearly no longer technological nor ecological
    – though ecological imbalances may cause great trouble in the years ahead.
    But while we know a great deal about what could be done in such areas as
    energy efficiency and environmental restoration, we know a lot less about
    the design of humane and sustainable human institutions – institutions
    that could both implement the needed solutions quickly and effectively
    and provide an ongoing vehicle for a fulfilling and environmentally sane
    quality of life.
  • a broadened sense of participation. All of this increased visibility,
    and ever-increasing sense of urgency in the society, is likely to change
    the movement from a relatively small and unnoticed group of researchers
    and innovators to a broad movement affecting all aspects of society. We
    need to be prepared to step into this role, and to provide assistance and
    leadership to others who want to put their energies into promoting the
    planet’s real agenda.

We at IN CONTEXT feel the time has come for the sustainability movement
to overcome its Hamlet-like reluctances. We must be willing to stand up
and be identified so that policymakers and the wider public can perceive
what we have to offer. We also need to make it easier for people to “join”
the movement in some way – to encourage them to make a stand for a humane
and sustainable world, work for the adoption of innovative solutions, and
spread the spirit of optimism and partnership. IN CONTEXT and the
Context Institute are committed to accelerating this process; and we invite
our readers, friends, and colleagues to work with us.