chapter  6
Sustainability models, concepts and principles
Pages 14

The prevailing three-sector model of sustainability – which aims to focus attention on finding overlaps between environmental, economic and social domains of thought and action – represents an attempt to tease out the notion of economically sustainable development (ESD) as it was introduced in the 1987 Brundtland Report. This is also known as the ‘triple bottom line’ model because it suggests that any economic development must not only satisfy the economic bottom line of profitability, but also demonstrate that it can be at least cost-neutral when it comes to environmental and social impacts. In other words, this model introduces two new areas of accountability for assessing the viability of all forms of human enterprise and it has been adopted very widely, to largely good effect. However, there are both transparency and equivalence problems that come into play when the ‘triple bottom line’ approach is used. For example, economic accountability relies on the use of quantitative indicators, while it is very difficult to come up with adequate quantitative indicators for monitoring social well-being, especially when it comes to considerations of affect, or feelings. Can we really measure the extent to which people feel happy or fearful, for example? We need to keep in mind that the very idea of a ‘bottom line’ comes from the field of economics, as does the thinking underpinning the setting of

performance indicators. Every field of thought has its own language and it is not easy to find terms and language that can help us explore the intersections and overlaps of diverse fields of thought. Efforts have been made to add other words and terms into representations of the ‘triple bottom line’. However, it needs to be remembered that much of the language currently used in sustainability discourses originates in economics and carries with it the assumption that impacts and outcomes can be anticipated, measured, monitored, and managed. Many commentators (e.g. Giddings et al. 2002; Dresner 2006) have argued that conventional economic thinking dominates the prevailing three-sector model to the extent that it marginalises key social considerations that do not impinge directly on the functioning of the economy, such as the desire for a secure sense of belonging somewhere. Such commentators also argue that a narrow focus on human economic systems prevents us from understanding the extent to which we are embedded in non-human ecological systems. As discussed in Chapter 2, this book works with the ‘Social Ecology’ model which re-categorises the three sectors as environmental, social and personal. While the merits of this model have been discussed briefly, this chapter seeks to explain this choice of model more fully. Most conceptual modelling draws either consciously or unconsciously on ‘systems theory’ or ‘soft systems methodology’ and this chapter seeks to acknowledge that influence. It touches on several concepts that can be used to amplify the Social Ecology model before turning its attention to the development of a set of ‘guiding principles’ that can underpin the broader notion of sustainability. In summary, the chapter aims to:

■ explain the origins of the prevailing three-sector model; ■ examine attempts to improve on that model before arriving at the choice of

the Social Ecology model; ■ acknowledge the ongoing importance of systems thinking; ■ explain why ‘ecological thinking’ can help us reframe sustainability

challenges; and ■ introduce ‘scenarios mapping’ as a methodology for thinking more deeply

about uncertain futures.