Visualizations: Getting the Sustainability Picture Right

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space. 
- Edward R. Tufte
As such a vague concept, sustainability begs graphical representation. If only we could sketch it out so it all just made sense. Well, since 1987 when the concept was popularized, there have been countless attempts. Perhaps the most pervasive is the Venn diagram ascribing equal space and importance to society, economy and environment with sustainability nestled at their intersection.
  • Outdated, poor representation of sustainability's context
As with many illustrations, intent dictates the form – rationalizing but not rational. And in this case, equal weighting of considerations is unwarranted as it misplaces and equalizes a growth-driven economy which is in fact at the root of global unsustainability.

Another popular diagram posits these same elements as a three-legged stool. In their time, these views have served a useful purpose, expanding corporate attention to its obligations to society and environment – and not just profit. 

Why does it matter?
The trap of these outdated and context-limited renditions is that they stifle reflection with a comforting yet deficient worldview and diminish our prospects for achieving sustainability. They reassure us that externality-blind corporations have it figured out and are on the job so sit back, relax, and let business work its magic to deliver us all a sustainable future.

However, as understanding of our global context deepens, our framing must shift accordingly. It is time for the intersecting Venn Diagrams and the Three-Legged Stools to be seen for the self-serving, business-centric views that they are. It is time to move on.

Pioneering business sustainability guru, John Elkington, recently proposed that it is time to officially retire the concept for which he is known: the triple bottom line. Noting that it had ‘failed to bury the single bottom line paradigm’, he concluded that it and others like it ‘lack the suitable pace and scale — the necessary radical intent — needed to stop us all overshooting our planetary boundaries.’ Clearly the time has come for us to embrace more accurate contextual representations of our situation.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre did sustainability a solid when it released, in striking visual form, the Planetary Boundaries concept. The visual presents a performance dashboard consisting of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity must operate in order to thrive for generations to come.
Economist Kate Raworth enhanced the value of the Planetary Boundaries illustration by adding an inner ring to represent an equitable social foundation consisting of 12 essential needs. The doughnut region thus represents a ‘safe and just space for humanity’ in which to thrive – effectively the feasible design space for sustainability – bounded by an environmental ceiling and a social foundation.
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Accuracy and Simplicity
We find another significant recent diagram in an obscure 2017 report by the P2P Foundation. An accurate, simplified representation of our context illustrating the proper nested relationship between the principal elements. The economic sphere is a subset of the social sphere which are both subsets of our biosphere. 

Sensibly, and uniquely among its peers, it identifies the thermodynamic context for our living biosphere – an all-encompassing outer egg. Delineating a superset, Energy and Matter, which govern all subsets, it sets the stage for contextually accurate sustainability discussions. An understanding of our operational environment and its limitations is inescapable.

The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, 
not the reverse.  ― Herman E. Daly
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This “fully nested egg” is firmly grounded in biophysical reality and supported by governing universal laws. Our biosphere, and its functional integrity, is the ultimate determinant of whether we can establish sustainable systems within it or not. The laws of thermodynamics and the nonlinear, self-organizing dynamics of living systems govern all behaviours and interactions between constituent elements. 

Corporate sustainability discussions should be framed with this illustration rather than the erroneous Venn and use the inherent wisdom of the egg’s hierarchy to map our way out of the sustainability morass and into a realistic future. Context matters, biophysical laws matter, and limits and thresholds matter.

That this perspective needs renewed emphasis today is because it is so often absent from sustainability discussions. A 2016 survey of 40,000 company CSR reports, found that a mere 5% made references to the notion of ecological limits. Only a small percentage explicitly used ecological limits to define targets for resource consumption and emissions reductions. The flip side to this incredible gap is that if companies are not recognizing and reporting against biophysical limits, then how well will they be prepared when their business encounters them?

Inaccurate illustrations encourage fallacious thinking at a time in which we can ill afford it. One can only hope that the contextually accurate planetary boundaries, doughnuts or even the ‘nested egg’ sustainability diagrams find broader acceptance and replace the human and business-centric illustrations that offer reassurance but misrepresent context, distort perspectives and ignore limits.



Jim Banks

Jim is a Sustainability Advisor based in Montreal.