Home » The trouble with Sustainability

The trouble with Sustainability

The term of sustainability is not sustainable. Looking for one that is.

If I’d ask you how’s your relationship with your girlfriend, would you answer ‘sustainable’? ”

Michael Braungart, TEDx video (2016): How to Celebrate a Positive Footprint?

From Weak to Strong levels of Ambition 

According to Golberg 2023:

«Sustainability generally strives to reduce impacts on people and the planet as compared to the status quo — say a baseline of previous operations or the industry standard (..) In too many cases, sustainability is still seen as “doing less bad.”»

Kori Goldberg  (February 10, 2023) Back to basics: A systems thinker’s view on circularity


The level of ambition needs to match our values, vision and principles, here defined as:

A healthy*, fair and environmentally sound economy where cities and communities take responsibility for own supply chains and for reduced inequality, all embodied by the principle of economic democracy.

98% of Europeans breathing highly damaging polluted air linked to 400,000 deaths a year. (Matthew Taylor and Pamela Duncan, The Guardian, 20 Sep 2023: Revealed: almost everyone in Europe is breathing toxic air)


McDonough and Braungart 2013 raise the level of ambition from ‘being less bad.’ to ‘do more good‘:

«Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.

..We like the way businesspeople look at charts: A CEO prefers seeing an upward-climbing line. She wants growth…Much of the well-intentioned environmental work thus far has preferred a different chart, one inclining down toward lower CO2 emissions, decreasing population growth, fewer cubic tons of pollutants ..What if those two charts, of the businessperson and the environmentalist, could be combined? Take a look. The top side of the zero axis is the upcycle—striving to be ‘more good,’  not ‘less bad’.


William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2013): The Upcycle. Beyond Sustainability-Designing for Abundance. (see also this 2 min. video)


The Left-Libertarian (2013) argues that we can progress considering 3 types of abundance:


  •  Information abundance which includes knowledge such as open source education, research and development including medicine and technology, software, research in academics, etc.  In a left-libertarian society, there is no need to keep nature’s secrets but an incentive to share with all.  When information is enclosed, many cannot benefit which chokes growth and progress.
  • Biological abundance“creates as much potential for abundance as information multiplication, and promises us a perpetual stream of ecological benefits as well as raw materials for industrial production”. This means not only protecting the environment but also sustaining it using new techniques in farming and so on.  But most of all, it requires viewing the world through a lens that is more organic, holistic, and thinks in terms of future generations.
  • Last and most important is organized abundance. The best way to think of organized abundance is analogous to the Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona. The biosphere is enclosed natural ecosystem sealed off from the rest of the world and meant to sustain life for long periods of time.  Inside the biosphere (..) is a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, a mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, an agricultural system, and a human habitat.  Organized abundance is similar by the fact that we have a totally sustainable system because it is designed that way. 


The Left-Libertarian (2013) The Commons – Beyond the State, Capitalism, and the Market [emphasize and bullets added]


From Market Only to Results-focused Stewardship

Much of our problems relates to resource extraction, economic orthodoxy, price setting and property. Bollier (2014) illustrates this by comparing mainstream economic theory and practice with the concept of stewardship:

Once a resource is legally recognized as property, the door swings open for markets to set its price. 

This is considered a great advance, because markets consider price to be the supreme indicator of value and prices as the fairest way to identify the true value of things. People are said to maximize their individ­ual, rational self-interests through the price system and market exchange; the collective good then naturally manifests itself through the Invisible Hand. 

Markets are presumed to be more efficient and fair in allocating wealth than governments—so the best strategy for managing natural resources, according to the economic orthodoxy, is to privatize and marketize them. 

The truth is that this system of market-based governance is a disaster in the real world. The price system typically fails to take account of all sorts of value that are external to the marketplace. 

For example, price cannot easily represent types of value that are subtle, qualitative, long-term and complicated—precisely the at­tributes of nature. What’s the market value of the atmosphere? Of a clean river? Of babies born without pollution-induced birth defects? Markets have trouble answering such questions because there is no meaningful market price for such things. 

Price only measures exchange value, after all; it doesn’t really measure use value. And so the grand narrative of conventional economics celebrates Gross Domestic Product as the height of human progress by totaling the value of all market activity. It doesn’t really care if that activity is beneficial to society or not— in fact, it doesn’t even ask that question! Instead it just measures if money has changed hands, which is its moronic definition of wealth creation. 

By this reckoning, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster should be considered good, because they ended up stimulating economic activity. 

John Ruskin called the unmeasured, unintended harms caused by markets “illth.” The problem with the price system, as yoked to private property, is that it generates as much illth as wealth—but hardly any of this illth gets counted. It’s off the books. A company’s bottom line and a nation’s GDP reflect only the monetized wealth generated by markets; they deliberately omit the nonmarket illth. 

This damage is borne mostly by com­mons as markets take what they can from nature, for free, with­out acknowledging its actual value (because nature is seen as res nullius). Once profits have been taken and privatized, the market then dumps its wastes and disruptions back onto the commons, leaving commoners and governments to mop up the mess.

(..)  this might be called the “tragedy of the market”—the unmetered, hidden subsidies and costly “exter­nalities” that markets, in the service of private property, impose upon the commons. This should not be surprising in a society that looks to price as the highest, most reliable metric of value. If a resource does not have a price or property rights, it naturally will be regarded as “not valuable” or “free for the taking.”


David Bollier (2014:107): Think Like A Commoner (empasis added)]


This entire website can be regarded as argumentation for a result-focused stewardship. The course outline for cooperative social entrepreneurship elaborates on many levels and issues. Suffice to mention here the following:

  • The commons as a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources
  • ‘Mutualise for Stewardship’/‘A Pool & Steward economy’
  • ‘Stewardship design through Legal Property Hacks’

Limiting ourselves here to this website, the below lists internal links and references.


Pulverization of Liability

Rau og Oberhuber 2023 [R&O], first referred at the homepage, are among those who most strongly stress  pulverization of liability as a major problem of the linear economy. IIt can also be seen as one reason we are not close to a real circular economy.

«..the separation of power and responsibility is the fundamental problem of our current economic system.. Our current production chain is organized so that nobody ever really needs to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.. The power to influence the production process and the responsibility for the consequences are separated from each other by the distance of an entire ‘production chain’; meet the linear economy.»

(Rau og Oberhuber 2023:179, 40: Material Matters. Developing for a Circular Economy)

To remedy this fundamental problem, R&O argues that:

  • Those who determine production processes must have a duty to manage their long-term consequences, and not be able to sell and resell their responsibility through the production chain
  • Manufacturers must hold on to their products and sell them as a service instead
  • Materials (input materials and raw materials – right down to the molecular level) must also be sold as a service


The ability to take on responsibility has been reduced by Globalization: The Need for (Re-) localization of the Economy

Globalization has resulted in wealth being extracted from local communities. To regain control and economic democracy, we need a (Re) Location of the Economy, an agenda closely linked to the Principles for a Democratic Economy.


Ownership Design 

Relocalization of the economy will spur economic actors to be more accountable through ownership design. These are corporate forms for democratic ownership were social and environmental stewardship are enshrined in the company’s constitution. Ethical and democratic ownership design can thus facilitate a result-focused stewardship approach.

Revisit the Principles for a Democratic Economy, particularly no 5 (Creating Enterprise Designs for a New Era: The principle of democratized ownership) and no 6 (Protecting the Ecosystem as the Foundation of Life: The principle of sustainability).

This is important because of the widespread principle (in the mainstream economy) of fiduciary duty. As countless examples as shown, this has given -and continues to give- large and negative social, economic and environmental consequences. That’s why we have called this the elephant in the room (see also Economic Democracy):

“When the first moral duty is a fiduciary duty to maximize returns on investments, in effect it becomes the only duty, requiring all other concerns—the well-being of communi­ties, employees, and the environment—to be justified in terms of impact on capital.”

Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard (2019: 25): The Making Of a Democratic Economy.  Building Prosperity for the Many, Not Just the Few (emphasize added)


Different forms of ownership design

Co-operatives are the only form of corporate entity with a clear entrepreneurial compo­nent where the subordination of the economic to the social is inherent in the logic of the organi­sation and is usually stipulated by law. (Levi and Pellegrin-Rescia 1997, p. 160)

Quoted in: [Tim Mazzarol, Sophie Reboud, Elena Mamouni Limnios, Delwyn Clark and Edward Elgar (ed.) (2014: 11): Research Handbook on Sustainable Co-operative Enterprise. Case Studies of Organisational Resilience in the Co-operative Business Model .


It regards the exclusion of stakeholders from ownership as a cause of contemporary poverty. Believing it’s much harder to distribute political than economic power, shares are allocated so that ownership  -and the wealth created- is shared fairly amongst member/share classes. 

The FairShares Model integrates entrepreneurs, producers, consumers and (social and community) investors. Through this multi-stakeholder ownership, governance and management system to social enterprise development, common bonds emerges. Apart from special resolutions, all voting is on a one-person, one-vote basis irrespective of the number of shares held, or the number of shareholder groups to which a person belongs. With the below share classes, financial investment ceases to be the sole basis for company ownership:

  • Founder shares: for the entrepreneurial effort needed to bring an organisation into existence. It is linked to a stewardship role, to ensure the socio-economic goals of their founder(s) influence decision-making.
  • Labour Shares: to people engaged in the production side of the business. Labour shares can be issued to suppliers, producers, workers and employees
  • User Shares: to consumers who trade regularly with the enterprise or who are regular beneficiaries / users of its services.
  • Investor Shares: to any person contributing patient capital [i.e. long-term capital- the investor is willing to make a financial investment in the business with no expectation of returning a quick profit (Wikipedia)]. Many additional investor shares are destined to end up in the hands of producers and consumers because a FairShares constitution guarantees that half the capital gain is distributed as Investor Shares to recognise that capital is created by their interactions with each other.


What if Uber was owned and run by the drivers? What if Airbnb was owned and managed by those who actually rent? Say welcome to Platform Cooperatives. The formula is simple: combine the efficiency and reduced transaction costs of digital platforms with the horizontal ownership and democratic control that characterize worker-owned cooperatives.

Examples include the cleaning platform Up & Go Co-op (New York):

«Up & Go relies on its own app to attract and book clients in the classic gig economy fashion. But while other booking services may pocket 20-50 cents on the dollar for lining up jobs, Up & Go cleaners, as co-owners of the co-op, keep 95 cents on the dollar and pay only 5 cents for booking.»

David Bollier (2021): The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking


  • Locally Anchored and Group Based Ownership, based on the Commons.

In 2009, Ostrom received the Swedish “Riksbank’s Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel” – popularly called the ‘Nobel Prize in Economics’ for her research on the management of common resources through group membership (collective ownership rather than private ownership). Ostrom found that sustainability was strengthened in local group-based right-of-use systems, – assuming clear rules for use and management. This appears valid also for collective businesses in general- as long as they follow Ostrom’s spirit regarding said rules. The social & environmental argument for local and member-based business models can thus summarized:

 When members have both rights and duties to maintain common resources, they will, instead of feeling alienated from the production they stand for, ‘re-establish the connection’ to this production.  Internalization of social rights and protection of the environment thus becomes more likely.  

See more under A systems approach, section D.2.


Liability linked to certain types of ‘common goods’ – regardless of ownership/ownership design


This proposal has been summed up by Broca, 2016 as follows:

“In Italy, a new political interest in common goods arose after a commission appointed by Romano Prodi’s government delivered its report in 2008. The commission was led by the jurist Stefano Rodotà and proposed to define common goods as:

“what is necessary for the exercise of fundamental rights and for free personal development”.

The report emphasized that the status of those entitled to these goods – whether “the owners” are “public or private legal entities” – has no significance. The Commission insisted that the resources must be managed on the basis that they must facilitate the exercise of a right. 

Defining water as a “common good” thus means that regardless of who organizes the water supply, they must ensure that everyone has access to clean drinking water in sufficient quantities. 

In the wake of the Rodotà Commission, several social and political movements in Italy have used the concept of the common good to criticize a private sector and a neoliberal state that fails to satisfy basic collective needs. In a referendum in June 2011, 25 million Italians (95.3 percent of the vote) voted against the privatization of local public water supplies.”

Sébastien Broca, University of Paris (desember 2016): Verken stat eller kapital  (‘Neither state nor capital’). Sourced and re-translated to English from Le Monde diplomatique Norge AS [own translation, emphasize and text in brackets added]. Original article: Les communs, un projet ambigu


Result-Focused Stewardship through a Real Circular Economy

A stewardship approach must steer toward what this website describes as a ‘real circular economy’. First referred in A Different Approach, this is elaborated upon under ‘Industrial Circular Economy. Agriculture is subsequently discussed as the other half of the circular economy. This last part stress the potential of improved farming methods for radically increased soil carbon sequestration. See A Real Circular Economy (scroll down to the heading ‘Overall Goals for the Circular Economy’).

Rau og Oberhuber 2023 [R&O], stressing the problem with separation of power and liability, have clearly been inspired by Walter Stahel’s ‘Performance Economy’ were the actors retain ownership and responsibility for the goods AND the materials they contain. See the Performance Economy  summarized by 6 points on the homepage (scroll down to the heading ‘Circular business models aligned with a real a Real Circular Industrial Economy ‘Stahel style’). And yes,-the circular economy will only be a reality if it is incorporated in business models. That’s why, in A Real Circular Economy, Jonker and Faber’s (2021)’s Business Model Template is elaborated upon.


To Operationalize a Result-focused Stewardship Approach: Community Wealth Building

Community wealth building shows how the said stewardship approach can be operationalized. The homepage summarizes the model as follows:

 The CWB model (2 min. video) serves as a Solution Multiplier and operational vehicle for Equality, Economic Democracy and Climate, using the means of Economy (Re) Location and a Real Circular Economy. This is System Change, but starting at the Local Level, tested out in UK & USA.

The page dedicated to Community Wealth Building sums it up:

«The starting place for CWB is that, in most communities, the resources, levers and tools already exist to begin creating a more equal, just and sustainable economy—you just have to know where and how to look for them. Whether it is local government, educational and school systems, the health service, cultural institutions and the non-profit sector, or public pension funds and other collective capital, the resources to build a more inclusive and democratic economy are all around you.»