A Placemaking Journal

Sustainability’s Triple Bottom Line: Tool for Commit-a-Phobes?

As a recovering journalist, I’m working hard to suppress old impulses. But habits of a couple decades are hard to shake. Which is why I’m struggling with familiar twitches of cynicism when it comes to “sustainability.”

We’ve reached a point where just about everybody is laying claim to a sustainability strategy, whether we’re talking mining companies blowing up mountaintops or guys selling eight-mile-per-gallon SUVs. Let’s give them this: They have a point, provided sustainability goals are tied to the desire to keep on doing whatever you’re doing in perpetuity.

I don’t think I’m being too cynical by noting the irony. Folks making claims on sustainability are, well, folks – human beings, each of whom are guaranteed from birth to be unsustainable. We’re all gonna die and flunk the test. So if sustainability is to have the transcendent implications we intend, we’d better agree on a definition that implies a multigenerational warranty. And that gets me to my gripe about the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) language we’ve been leaning on for the last couple decades.

The TBL metaphor is an earnest attempt to bust us out of single silo thinking. Sustainability is not just about securing a future for Nature without humans. It’s not just about building an economy that ignores the natural environment or social responsibility. And it’s not just about privileging social relationships and ignoring the environment and human ambitions for individual and collective prosperity. It’s about doing all that at once. Hence, the three-legged stool: People, Planet, Profits.

Okay, that gets us out of a single silo. But it sticks us with three. It makes us tri-polar, which in itself is unsustainable. Another irony.

And how has TBL thinking affected decision-making so far? Not so much. At the moment, we’re having trouble imagining a sustainable economy, a natural environment that will sustain human life as we know it, or healthy social relationships on the neighborhood scale – let alone globally.

I think one reason we’re stuck is our reluctance to commit to perspectives that force hierarchal decision making. We are biased towards egalitarianism. Love that three-legged stool.

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What nudged me out of cynicism recently was what I take to be a better metaphor, rendered in a simple graphic. It appeared in one of the foundation documents for a coding charrette we organized with the City of Revelstoke, British Columbia. Instead of the three-legged stool, the TBL was arranged as a hierarchal nest, with the environmental component forming the surrounding context. Then, contained within the environmental nest was the one representing human society. And then, within that, the economic component. Simple, elegant, powerful.

Representing the TBL in that way implies a commitment. To be sustainable in even the most basic sense, an economy demands the context of a healthy society. And society, in turn, cannot be considered outside the context of the natural environment, which includes and encompasses the other components.

As self-evident as this organization appears, it’s a tough one to honor in everyday political and business practice. We want desperately to believe that we can wag the dog from the tail. It’s where we can most easily get a grip. But if debates over global warming or the effects of the recent BP oil spill tell us anything, it’s that the struggle towards sustainability is likely to require a shift in perspective. The three-legged stool won’t stand. I’m for promoting a new metaphor. Or at least a better graphic.

–Ben Brown

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