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Ecosystems, the biodiversity that comprises them and the benefits they provide to people are the fundamental units for life support on earth. They are the foundation for the natural processes of climate regulation and are a vital support for water quality, food security, and flood protection, amongst many others. Currently there are severe pressures on the health of our ecosystems. The drivers of these pressures include climate change, biodiversity loss and resource demands by people. Natural ecosystems are being converted to other uses rapidly, for example over 40% of today’s terrestrial surface is now in agriculture. At the same time climate change is posing a further substantial risk to the health of ecosystems and therefore their ability to provide ecosystem services, whilst human population growth and resource use per capita is increasing. Developing policies and economic strategies that place ecosystems and the services they provide at the centre of future economic development and climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts will result in multiple positive benefits to all people globally. An ecosystems approach is an essential part of the ‘tool kit’ to tackle climate change and to progress towards long-term economic sustainability.
Now what exactly does sustainability mean? Something is sustainable when it protects, restores or regenerates our resources and assets rather than degrades it. Sustainability is not about size and scale. Being big does not make something sustainable. What makes an institution sustainable is not the scale and size it reaches, but how it does its business, how it relates to its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers. Sustainability is about the disposition, the mindset, and behaviours which shape and develop relationships – relationships with family, friends, customers, investors, employees, borrowers, fellow citizens, the community, the environment and with nature. In both the natural world and the financial world, it means thinking and then behaving in a way that literally sustains – sustains the natural world around us, sustains business relationships, sustains personal relationships, sustains the community, the country, the planet, sustains the relationship with our grandchildren and with generations to come. And that mindset automatically leads to the values that connect us deeply as people to other people and as people to institutions, to communities, and to the environment – values such as transparency, integrity, honesty, and shared responsibility. This mindset also leads us to think about the impact our actions will have over the long term.
Sustainability is an outcome – we want our best institutions and companies, and as much as possible of our natural world, to be sustained. And sustainability is a practice – a set of principles for growing companies and ecosystems that will endure. When we act with sustainable values we make it more likely that our natural world and the institutions and companies that undergird our lives and improve our standards of living will also stick around. Practicing an ethic of sustainability, in other words, produces institutions that are too good to fail and too strong to fail – not institutions that are too big to fail.
There are really only two kinds of business relationships: situational and sustainable. Situational relationships take only into account what one can get out of here and now – right now. They are all about pragmatically exploiting short term opportunities rather than consistently living the principles that create long-term success.
That is why we need to inspire more and more people to embrace sustainable values and then to live those values with sustainable behaviour. Laws and regulations tell you what you can do but values tell you what you should do. There is a difference between doing what you have a right to do and doing what is right to do. Sustainability requires us to be more than just situational. But if you are not in the grip of values, you will only act according to your own best interests. Of course we need regulations to govern society. But you need values of sustainability to go along with regulations.
NEP Policy brief 2-2010: “The role of Ecosystems in Developing a Sustainable Green Economy”
Thomas L. Friedman: “Hot, Flat and Crowded