Sustainability: connecting inner and outer worlds

By Joern Fischer

We’ve recently commenced work on the project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation“. This is based on Meadows’ idea that to bring about major changes, we have to look at the intent created for or assigned to a given system. On this basis, one of the deep leverage points we plan to look at is the connection between people and nature.

It struck me today that, arguably, we could have gone one level deeper. One question I have recently pondered is whether we can really transform the world at all, if we don’t even manage to transform ourselves. In other words, can there be transformation in our outer world without transformation in our inner worlds?

My interim analysis is that the answer is “only partly”. I suspect it’s a bit like with financial incentives for conservation … they can buy us time. But ultimately, they are based on the same premises underpinning unsustainable behaviour in the first place (lack of human-environment connection and primarily a financial outlook on the world) — so I doubt that they should be our conservation tool of choice in the long term.

I think at a deeper level the same is true for transformation of our inner and outer worlds. Aggressive campaigning may take us a few steps towards sustainability — but ultimately, it can’t be the solution. The anger and frustration in such campaigning somehow embody substantial overlap in their emotional constitution with the violent greed inherent to many fundamental drivers underpinning un-sustainability. The nature of the intent of such “systems” of action is somehow similar, in that it is competitive and exclusive, rather than tolerant and caring. Assuming that is true, then, transformation of the outer world might well benefit from a greater share of humanity attempting to transform their inner worlds.

While this could be extremely interesting, I have seen very little research on this topic, in a sustainability context. Is such “ultimate” sustainability science not part of sustainability science’s agenda? Or has it just not been explored yet? (Or has it been explored, and I just don’t know about it? Also possible!)

[ PS: Thanks to the guy who nearly ran me over on a bike today for prompting me to write this blog post. He made me so angry that I in fact got angry with myself for getting angry. Which suggested to me that there’s a lot of un-fulfilled potential for inner transformation on my behalf  … which made me think about sustainability and this blog post! I’m guessing he won’t read my thank you note … ]

12 thoughts on “Sustainability: connecting inner and outer worlds

  1. Thanks Joern. Another thought-provoking editorial. I think ‘traditional’ science in many ways steers us away from these types of reflections because it works to twiddle the knobs to show how we can ‘theoretically’ make things work with what we have rather than what we need to do to affect a deeper more meaningful change. Last week Australian scientists (from CSIRO, our premier science agency) launched a national outlook on Australia’s future to 2050 and it found that Australia could materially ease environmental pressures while enjoying strong economic growth. Bit of a dangerous statement I reckon. But it gets worse, the researchers said “reducing environmental pressures will not require a shift in societal values”. Of course, they gave a fistful of caveats but the basic message was that, if we so choose, we can have our cake and eat it! You can read their conclusion in their Nature paper at
    It’s an interesting counterpoint to Joern’s reflection.

    • Thanks David, for highlighting this paper, which I had not yet seen. What I find so fundamentally troubling is these kinds of analyses just muddle up and miss some very important points. Yes, we should use modern technologies and intelligent policies to minimise our environmental impact. But to not see the ultimate limitations of a philosophy grounded in “you can have your cake and eat it too” strikes me as painfully short-sighted. In addition, the framing of values vs. the economy is unnecessarily polarising. Showing that using some clever combinations of policies allows for a cool combination of different kinds of indicators does not imply that a change in values would not be beneficial for Australia, sustainability, or the world at large. That’s my first thoughts, without even looking into the science (for that, I’d have to read the paper much more carefully). So, in short: assuming the science is technically flawless, the framing is short-sighted and polarising. Perhaps a clever piece of research, but not a wise one.

  2. Thanks Joern. I think you are right in that we have to change ourselves to fundamentally change our systems. I also think that sustainability science can benefit (and already benefits) from the work that is done in “happiness science”, i.e. what is it that causes feelings of happiness and well-being. That is what life is supposed to be about. And most of this is about having good social relationships and a feeling of a meaningful life, not about having more stuff.


  3. I want to explore a contrarian view for a moment… but first I also want to thank David for pointing to the Ausie article in Nature – looks interesting.

    Perhaps I’m operating with a different set of sustainability concepts, but I’m not as convinced we HAVE to change ourselves to fundamentally change the systems around us. We can easily point to all sorts of woes inflicted on planet Earth that have come from one or another human activity. By the same token one might just as easily point to all sorts of incredible feats accomplished by humans, many of which have been accomplished without serious harm to the planet. We have been stupid, but we are still learning. What prompts us to learn and try to do better? I’ll suggest there are many motivators, with greed and competitive drives among them.

    It seems fabulous to dream of a day when all of us sit in a big circle and sing kumbaya together, but I fear that may actually work against us in an important way. Differences of opinion are important. To make changes as a large (extremely large) society we have to hammer through so many differences it’s no wonder it seems an impossible task. I’d suggest it’s a bit shy of impossible, and as such offers some glimmer of hope. It is difficult to observe the world from our tiny little perches and accept that some of the things we dislike are happening with little we can do about it (in the immediate term). We don’t have perfect knowledge concerning much and projecting our feelings upon others can have negative consequences where none were intended.

    Matt’s offering of Gandhi’s quote seems most appropriate here. And thanks also to Jon for mentioning the happiness research. If there could come a time when our motivations are strong enough to keep us focused without resorting to greed and killer competitions to drive us then we might have something. Until then there will be change whether we transform ourselves or not.

    Finally, thanks Joern for sharing the bicycle near miss story. Just yesterday I had a similar encounter where I was the one at fault. My feeling ashamed for my absentmindedness couldn’t have been known to the other, and had it been the other way round I would have been pretty hot. Fortunately no physical damage resulted. But impressions had to have been made… 😦

    • Hi Clem, thanks for your thoughts. I think you’re right that differences of opinion are normal, and probably very important. Perhaps those differences could be worked through most constructively, however, if all of the participants had a generally empathetic, caring outlook on “life on Earth”. That would amount to having a shared “intent” regarding sustainability, though perhaps with different views on how this intent should be put into action. Incidentally, you may have read some of my disagreements with Ben Phalan regarding land sparing and sharing. This, to me, is an example of disagreement on “details” (in the grand scheme of things), not so much on intent. It can still feel like a heated disagreement at times, but those kinds of disagreements (I think) are not fundamentally problematic for sustainability; they may even be helpful because we can learn from them. Am I making sense? … J.

      • Yes, that makes sense. And to me it often seems the most productive discussions and arguments take place between folks who are not too far apart on an issue; where some “shared intent” does exist and both parties appreciate it.

        More difficult perhaps, but no less important, are the conversations and debates between sides that either do not share a common intent or are so belligerent toward each other that even listening to the other side is very stressful. Even in these more extreme conditions, however, I think there can still be some value in considering, investigating, and appraising thoughts we might otherwise dismiss. Two reasons come immediately to mind in this regard. First, we are not always right. By the same token then it might be understood that our adversary is not always wrong. This realization takes some personal fortitude especially in instances where one side has studied and researched an issue very extensively (say an academic) while the other side is inspired not by intimate knowledge of a topic but by some belief or other that engenders a strong stakeholder’s ‘ownership’. I personally find it very difficult to not be dismissive of those who merely parrot the arguments of others in their camp. But this behavior is one I have to work against. I am not always right.

        The second reason I find some value in trying to appreciate where a belligerent is coming from philosophically is that it may help me formulate a message that will at least be heard by the other side. I can remember more than one instance where after ‘walking a mile’ in another’s shoes I found something we both shared and which could then be used to illustrate something I found important (and the other previously hadn’t). No minds were converted on the spot, but a new thought was accepted and perhaps served to shorten the distance between us.

        As much as we like to bash our rivals I think learning how to negotiate and communicate is far more important. If belligerence escalates to violence there is still a winner. But I’ve not been persuaded that the winners in violent exchanges are necessarily those with the most caring outlook for “life on Earth”.

    • It seems odd to me to say “some good has come, some bad has come” of our actions and attitudes to date. If we include externalities, it seems like we are quite clearly and consistently doing more harm to our long-term sustainability than we are generating sustainable possibilities.

      If you’ve not listened to or read Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies”, it is worth doing so:

      As a former engineer, I have always been highly compelled by Tainter, and by Herman Daly, who point to our ultimately very dissipative economies, and it seems nigh-incontrovertible to me that we are proceeding on a path that countenances indefinite development-as-growth rather than development-as-evolution. Growth ultimately consumes the resource base on which it depend and causes collapse. Evolution, arguably, is more balanced towards changing configurations, with some configurations, and entities, “collapsing” but total footprint not necessarily growing.

      One need not think Costanza et al. have externalities precisely right ( ; ) to believe the evidence is robust that we are destroying more “capital” than we are creating. So we must either believe
      a) we can, without changing mindsets/culture, go from a system that does not countenance limits but is undermining itself to the tune of between 5 and 25% of total system value each year, based on Costanza et al.’s estimates and a nominal world GDP of $75 trillion) to one that is in something like a dynamic steady-state;
      b) that in fact the many lines of evidence that we are destroying more capital than we’re creating are incorrect (I have never seen this argued empirically while taking externalities into account), and so we don’t need to change mindsets;
      c) we can indefinitely undermine the “capital” of the ecosphere, either through near-infinite improvements in efficiency or indefinite discoveries of exploitable new resources;
      or d) we need to change mindsets.

      “e” could possibly be “we don’t need to change mindsets because we can do what we’re doing well enough until population starts decreasing and consumption peaks such that we don’t have to worry about any of this any more”

      And of course, Tainter believes “f”, collapse is an unavoidable part of the human societal system, and so collapse and “recovery” will come no matter what. I would argue that evolutionarily/socially novel configurations (“new mindsets”) are not at all impossible, or even implausible on a long time scale, and so collapse is not inevitable and intractable.

      And of course beyond even that, the question beyond sustainability is can we improve things we want to improve without changing mindsets? One of the current mindsets is that absolute (not relative) poverty can never be ended. I certainly believe we need to change this mindset in order to progress.

      Another inevitability is that capitalism will, sooner or later, become obsolete just as feudalism, mercantilism, and colonialism did before it. We can’t know what system of organization will come “next”, but just as a belief (or tolerance/enforcement of) hereditary hierarchy was the norm for quite some time in human history, it seems like our beliefs in greed/competitiveness/markets as we currently see them will, with near absolute certainty, become obsolete as well. When, who can say, but we both can’t know and, by believing it to be possible, make it more likely sooner.

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  5. Hey Joern, thanks for the great input. I have come across Hedlund De-Witts paper almost two years ago and have been researching about this topic ever since. I have to say, unfortunately, that you are right, there just isn’t a lot of research about this topic yet. But, just recently, some really interesting research came out form Tania Singer. She is a neuroscientist and used meditation to improve compassion and is now trying to get it into macroeconomics.

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