Sustainability is not sustainable

By Chris Tobias, Managing Director and Lead Strategist at Forward, and Guest Lecturer at National University of Singapore School of Geography.

The “S” word: the omnipresent concept that references striking a balance between environmental, economic, social, and cultural outcomes. It alleges we’re not sacrificing our future to justify our current global lifestyle. Great idea in theory, but in many ways self-delusional. After working in the so-called “sustainability space” for the better part of the last decade, it occurred to me the concept is flawed.

What it equates to at the end of the day is making our present situation “less bad.” Think cost savings from energy efficiency initiatives that enable more consumption. Think corporate supply chains that lower the amount of waste they produce, but still dispose by the tonne. Think of people who change their light bulbs to LEDs then globe trot globally in an otherwise high carbon life- style. These are short-sighted, poorly formed decisions at the expense of positive long-term outcomes. There’s nothing sustainable about this reality.

None of this means any profound change to underlying systems causing a raft of inter-related problems from climate change, to resource scarcity, biodiversity collapse, and economic meltdowns. It’s basically putting a bucket of water on a burning house. Enlightened business, social, and environmental leaders note we’re amidst a paradigm shift. We need new economic models, businesses, social movements, and major restorations to our environment. It’s not about being a treehugger, not a question of survival at some point in the distant future, or on some other distant planet; it’s here and now.

Our possibility of tomorrow hinges on this: why do less bad, when we could do more good?

Why should something be promoted as merely sustainable in our present set of circumstances (if truly even that), when it could be better, effective, positive, restorative, and move us towards a shared future that is truly thriving?

While human beings herald themselves as the smartest species on the planet, we have several billion years of ecology to learn from. We could be doing a far better job at ensuring our own longevity rather than musing laws of physics, chemistry, and biology do not apply to us.

Putting the notion of sustainability behind us and moving fast-track towards a new, innovative, proactive, and informed role in our lives and in our world is the only option. History offers many examples of our race humbled by havoc.

Let’s err on the side of “thrivability” this time.


Singh Intrachooto is a Thai architect who received the 2008 Top Environmentalist 2008 award from Thailand’s department of the environment for his work in turning waste to useful products.

Industries give him their waste materials and he pays construction workers to separate the materials into usable piles so that he can experiment and build new products. Shelving from tetra paks, wallets from heat pressed wrapping paper and pipes into park benches are just a few example of what his studio Osisu has rolled out.

Naoki Shiomi was formerly a Japanese salaryman who decided to change his lifestyle in response to heartfelt concerns about the environment. He coined his new lifestyle as half farmer/half X. Half of his time is devoted to subsistence farming and the other half is devoted to pursuing his calling. He now coaches other people on how they too can embrace half farmer/half X to lead a spiritually fulfilling life. It represents a reimagining of the way people connect to their world with thought and care that is a far cry from the traditional lifestyle that promotes consumption and waste.