Making practical sense of strong sustainability

How do we translate the ideas of Strong Sustainability into concepts that can practically assist and guide business leaders in the running of their businesses?

This is a challenge we have grappled with for many years at Blue North. As sensible as the tenets of Strong Sustainability may be, the world of economics and business appears to be moving at an increasingly rapid rate in the opposite direction. Clearly there is a significant disconnect between our acknowledgement that we do in fact live on one finite, materially-closed planet (except for the entry and exit of solar radiation), and our economic and business models that behave as if ongoing compound growth is not only achievable, but is the ultimate, and it sometimes appears, the only, goal worth pursuing.

Farmers practically and implicitly understand the concept of “carrying capacity”. They know (and so do us non-farmers if we take some time to think about it) that there is a limit to how much one can utilize a land or field. Going beyond this limit – for example, by adding just too many head of cattle –unavoidably results in the incurring of a significant ecological and economic cost. We have all seen the devastation of landscapes that are over-grazed – we see the ecological impact; the barren earth, erosion furrows, stunted vegetation etc. – and it does not take an economics professor to conclude that the users of that land must have also borne a significant economic cost.

Simply put, Strong Sustainability is about living, doing business and running economies with an understanding of carrying capacity – an understanding that we can function well only in as much as we operate within the natural limits and constraints of the natural systems, processes and functions upon which we depend (see Figure 1 below) – just like the good cattle farmer.

Figure 1

Figure 1: It is clear that the economic dimension is a subset of both the social and environmental dimensions.


We have developed a model or “system map” (see Figure 2 below) to help us in the development of our various interventions and tools. It contains 5 Principles – 3 environmental and 2 social – and simply defines the key interconnections and flows between the business, society and the environment.


Figure 2: The System Map which contains 5 Principles - 3 environmental and 2 social.

Figure 2: The System Map which contains 5 Principles – 3 environmental and 2 social.


There is much talk these days of “strategies for Shared Value”. Our contention is that unless these interconnections, dependencies and impacts are understood and the 5 Principles are designed into a strategy and earnestly pursued, “Shared Value” amounts to nothing more than, at best, good intentions masking business-as-usual (i.e. just more of the disconnect between the reality of nature’s absolute limits and our business and economic behavior based on the illusion of limitless growth).

I (David Farrell) will be exploring the Blue North System Map and its implications for us as individuals and as organizations in our newsletter in the weeks and months ahead.

If at any stage this subject appears overly theoretical or technical can I ask two things of you? Firstly, please let me know because I will have miserably failed my commitment to the title for this piece, and secondly, remind yourself of that farmer and the concept of carrying capacity…it really just comes down to that!