This is the first of three essays discussing the state of sustainability.


The modern history of the sustainability movement has a specific starting point - that almost no-one knows about.

After the Second World War, in 1949, an event called the United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conversation and Use of Resources took place in New York state. UNSCCUR prefigured all the main themes that would rise again to prominence - and stay there - from the 1970s onwards.

These included both resource limits and optimism about beating them back with industrial advance, the rights and needs of the global South to grow in material prosperity and the impact of that on the environment, and clever strategies for managing resources such as industrial resource cycling.

At the same time and place, a parallel event, the International Technical Conference on the Protection of Nature was held, to improve human relations with the natural world, without UNSCCUR's emphasis on resource extraction and efficiency.

What was set at these events was not just a way of thinking - and arguing - about sustainability, but the standard model for actively addressing the sustainability issue.

The standard model for dealing with sustainability as an overarching theme for society has three basic dimensions: actors, issues and actions.

The main actors are - intergovernmental bodies, national governments, corporations, research and education, non-governmental organizations, and some additional groups often including media, religious and cultural groups, and 'youth'.

The main issues are - resource use and nature protection.

The main actions are - regulation, economic tools, and information.

It's either astonishingly foresighted that UNSCCUR and ITCPN set this shape on the debate for such a long time, or disappointing that nothing has changed much since then.

The biggest change since UNSCCUR, of any sort, has been the internet and digtal tech in general–but this has perhaps surprisingly done very little to reshape either the main issues or the actors, or even the action. To be clear: the digital age and the internet has certainly amplified the noise around the issues and reach of the actors, but it's hard to see new kinds of actions, and above all better or deeper results arising so far, due to it.

Perhaps two more actors have risen to influence in the standard model, and neither are truly new.

Finance has become more visible from behind the wall of corporate interests, and is increasingly separate from it, in particular venture and philanthropic finance. And cities have become massively bigger, and as such more independently both prominent and competent in changing things towards sustainability. And both of these have become more prominent for unique reasons, which we will see.

As for issues, the major change has perhaps been increasing abstraction in how resources are defined.

Climate change is increasingly seen as a matter of managing the stability of and access to the 'climate stability' resource. But in policy and change mechanics, these abstractions little: nothing actually differs if we are worried about the (decreasing) amount of copper in the ground, or the (increasing) amount of carbon in the air.

With this standard model, a health check on the environmental sustainability movement can be performed, in broad strokes, which in turn gives us guidance on where to focus sustainability efforts. It's clear that despite huge amounts of animated rhetoric and more consensus than ever of the need to work on environmental sustainability, a lot of evolution that could have been expected is missing.


At the level of intergovernmental organisations the signs are not good. In fact: they are shockingly bad. Let's start with basic numbers.

The UN Environment Program, set up in 1972 by the world's governments to be the leading authority and guide on environmental sustainability - a huge mandate across oceans, climate, industry, economics, and more - has a core annual budget allocation from the UN system of less than the production cost of one Coachella festival. Including all its additional sources of revenue, which are 80% project- or context-specific, the police department alone for New York City still costs ten times more than the only global environment agency.

We will look at international climate change policy separately, but the financial facts of UNEP alone tell you that intergovernmental progress made since 1972, let alone since 1949, has been limited.

National level progress is complex and vast, and there is in many countries an acceleration of policy on themes that can be called sustainability.

But, to look deeper, you can assess pretty accurately where the attention of nation-state governments is really at by looking at two things:

  • the indicators nations rely on to generate policy
  • the agenda items they set in negotiation.

None of the headline indicators of modern governments relate to environmental sustainability, though carbon intensity is maybe getting close. And none of the non-environmental international forums, such as the UN Security Council, the G8, and more, include sustainability as a baseload item, with maybe the EU - if that counts as a forum - emerging as an exception.

As with governments, corporations are awash in enthusiasm, marketing, reporting, product options and support actions that remind us sustainability is some kind of issue, even if while maybe confusing exactly what kind.

But just the same, core measures are lacking: most businesses the world over do not have to report their progress at all, let alone against absolute baselines (vs against competitors), on objectively defined sustainability criteria.

Research and education on environmental sustainability has, in some ways, advanced enormously. There are now far more, and technically capable, scientists working on the main planetary environmental trends, and more data to work with. Environmental education at least in some European countries is so advanced that you can see signs of it across the whole curriculum.

If there is one fundamental absence, however, which all but undoes all the progress in research and education, it's the lack of willingness of economics to settle on a pathway of evolution that substantially and satisfactorily includes environmental sustainability. Instead of embracing the emergent branches of relevant research - including ecological economics, industrial ecology, advanced materials science, system theory - the core of the economics profession continues to either ignore, marginalize or rationalize away the issues of sustainability.

As for the non-governmental organizations, there's been an explosion of activity. This shows at least that the general public has not forgotten the issues.

Lobbying groups pro- and anti-business, public education charities, radical campaigning organizations, consultancies-cum-think-tanks, debating forums, events, local action groups, all of these and more have arisen, and the number, diversity, and enthusiasm all demonstrate that the environmental issue is alive and well.

But despite that, there's a looming danger that this thriving realm of non-governmental work has become an end in itself: the latent mission is not to solve the environmental sustainability problems, it's to stay individually alive and relevant. That's understandable: but it can be hard to determine when a group has become, practically speaking, more focussed on its own survival than that or nature and the planet's humans.


It seems simplistic to divide up the issues of environmental sustainability into resource use and nature protection - but that's how it went down in 1949, with the split in focus across UNSCCUR and ITCNP.

And the reason is simple: this division is basically just a way of describing the environment, and our relationship with it, in terms of either it material usefulness; or its value in some way other than usefulness, such as scientific or ethical.

The resource use issue has transformed from bringing attention to specific stocks of non-renewable resources that were thought to be in short supply in 1949 (and after), to a more comprehensive statement of concern about the state of life-support systems. These are non-renewable in a more abstract sense, but no less critical to human survival.

In fact, planet-scale life-support systems, such as nutrient cycling and climate stability are proving to be more critical to human survival than many individual resource stocks. Because those resources turn out to have substitutes, which is one solution, according to market-theorists, to their scarcity–but whole planetary systems really don't.

At the centre of this reframing of resource use challenges as planetary system boundaries is the issue of climate. Climate change can be and is seen as an issue of the 'resource' of climate stability: how we measure it, how we impact it, how we 'distribute' it, how we sustain and regenerate it.

There's no perfect explanation for why climate change has taken over from all other dimensions of planetary resource boundaries, as the main issue of environmental sustainability. But the likeliest reason is both that

  • climate change is the largest proximate threat to human wellbeing at planetary scale
  • climate change is the resource dimension that, while still pretty abstract, can be understood across the widest range of human activities and contexts.

The problem with it eclipsing all other environmental issues is not just that it takes away necessary attention to other issues of resource use  - such as loss of topsoil, nutrient waste and ocean pollution, and destruction of biodiversity, which all present major risks to the flourishing of the human race. It's that making climate change, as a resource issue, the overwhelming focus of environmental sustainability, pushes aside all attention to the issue of the environment as something other than a resource.

The reason the UN resource conference was matched in 1949 with a parallel UN event on the protection of nature was because, even then, the conversationists and natural scientists understood that if all you see in nature is natural resources and all you are concerned is to make their supply to human affairs sustainable, you by default set no value on the parts of nature that are not resources. And as such, they will sooner or later likely be destroyed, if only by accident, by a human race that continues to grow in size and scale of impact.

So in the shadow of the world's focus on climate change, as the big sustainability issue, what's going on with the other issue in the standard model, nature protection. Some stuff, but not nearly enough is the short answer.

The IUCN, which monitors the state of the world's species - and was responsible for staging the ITCPN in 1949 - says that 27% of all assessed species on earth, and so maybe much more in practice, are threatened with extinction.

When confronted with that fact, it is definitely easy to look at 70 years of progress across all the actors in the standard model of environmental sustainability, and say, despite all the concern, action and enthusiasm: not nearly enough is being or has been done.

What stalks the issue of natural protection is the permanent issue of economic growth and industrial development in the poorer countries of the world. In that list of threatened species is not included all the species already killed off by industrial development in the now-richer countries. So, as was already politically clear in 1949, and again in the 1970s when the modern commitment to sustainability was born, it's seems unjust to tell poorer countries not to damage nature to create industrial wealth - when that's exactly what the richer countries did to get where they are today.

This is one area where the failure of economics to advance in sustainability is so damaging: a modern economics should be able to guide societies on how to not just avoid damaging nature while extracting the resources they need to develop, but how to create industrial advance and economic value from nature by protecting it.


The actions of the standard model of sustainability - governmental regulation, market-based tools, and so-called soft or information measures - are not just common across the environmental debate.

They also reflect the political outlooks in which action is taken. In the 1970s, and certainly in the post-war period, governmental action, regulation, was considered both on the the left and the right a natural first move for policy issues as grand as environmental sustainability. But gradually, after a move to more market-centred governance in the 1980s, willingness to use regulation to shape policy decreased, to the point that now, it is very hard to generate momentum for a regulation-based policy action for sustainability.

Instead, market measures become ever more creative, including classic taxation and subsidy, to complex permit-trading regimes, even to speculative (magical) techniques such as asking people how much they would be 'willing to pay' to, say, protect the rainforest, even if it's not something they will or could ever pay.

Information–so-called 'soft' measures–have never really stabilized as action tools for sustainability. But for some reason they won't just go away as an option either. Maybe it's partly a way for governments and business people to put a name on campaigning which they otherwise find hard to understand or deal with. But it's also a way to claim you are doing something when really you aren't doing very much at all. If I 'inform' consumers about the carbon intensity of what they are buying or doing - even if they have no idea what difference a gram or ton or gigaton of carbon makes to the climate - I can say I have taken action for sustainability.

There are some new measures emerging, in particular so-called 'nudging'. But nudging policy is really just a hybrid of regulation and information, depending on what it actually is, lubricated by some, sometimes quite speculative, psychological and economic theory. To make big changes, nudging needs to reveal the real levers being used, which hasn't happened yet.

This summary of standard actions for sustainability reminds us of one central fact: a problem as large and as complex as runaway environmental unsustainability and damage is hard to solve, no matter what you do. Society is learning about itself all the time, attitudes and technical capacities are changing at an accelerating rate, so it's not so surprising that choosing the right action to take, and making it work, is hard.

What should be less acceptable is ideological bunkering that characterizes a lot of the debate around which actions to take for environmental sustainability. Some believe government action is so necessary to change, and market-centrism is so misguided, that they don't stop to ask if government in general or in specific instances is capable or competent to take action with the right result.

Others who feel that the market is the natural mechanism for shaping social change, and who resist government intervention, fail to consider what should be done when well-considered market policies have already been tried, and just not worked at all. And others still believe that citizens and consumers are just waiting to be given the right information before taking wise action - as if people aren't always overwhelmed with signals, and anyway driven at least in part by temporary emotions.