“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need … roads.”

Wild-haired scientist Emmet “Doc” Brown famously uttered those words at the end of the 1985 classic Back to the Future — at the time, just the latest representation of a decades-long fantasy society has held of a future filled with servant robots, floating cities and a flying car in every spaceport.

In recent years among the environmental community, a parallel vision of the future has emerged. Everyone, from CEOs of progressively minded companies to activists on the street, is talking about “building a more sustainable future.” Often, though, if feels like we’re closer to the Jetsons’ version of the future than to a sustainable one. That’s because, unlike dinner in a pill and jet packs, sustainability still often feels like an amorphous topic discussed mostly in vague declarations. It’s like peace or hope. Everyone wants it, but no one really knows what it looks like.

The most common definition comes from 1987’s Brundtland Report:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But this leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Whose “needs of the present” is this referring to? The needs of a family of four in a
United States suburb are quite different than those of a similar-sized family in sub-Saharan Africa. And regarding the needs of future generations, a world with 10.8 billion people in 2100 is drastically different than our current world of 7 billion. Figuring out how to meet our needs while simultaneously considering the uncharted territory of such a large future population is a massive undertaking.

Most importantly, though, this definition doesn’t tell us what sustainability actually looks like in practice. How can we motivate people to move toward more sustainable lifestyles if they can’t envision what they’re moving toward?

The Many Faces of Sustainability

Further complicating the topic of sustainability are the myriad aliases it operates under — sustainable development, resilience, sustainable entrepreneurship, Triple Bottom Line, corporate social responsibility, etc. Looking closely at the last of these, Dutch researcher Marcel Van Marrewijk wrote back in 2003, “Too often, CSR is regarded as the panacea which will solve the global poverty gap, social exclusion and environmental degradation.”

That’s a lot to hang on one underdefined term, which Van Marrewijk recognized when he went on to write, “more specific definitions matching the development, awareness and ambition levels of organizations” should be developed.

And yet more than 10 years later we continue to speak in sustainability generalities.

Steps Forward

As communications expert Matthew Nisbet previously suggested in this magazine with regard to climate change, perhaps it’s more effective to break the issue into smaller, more manageable chunks than to speak of sustainability in grand pronouncements.

To that end, here are four suggestions to help advance the “global sustainability” narrative.

1. Break sustainability down by sector

When throwing around phrases such as “building a sustainable future,” it’s critical to identify the sector you’re talking about. The sustainability of the transportation sector obviously presents a different range of challenges and opportunities than, say, the sustainability of global agriculture. And if one becomes more sustainable while the other becomes less sustainable, are we truly moving toward a more sustainable future overall?

Even within sectors there are challenges. If your goal is to create a more sustainable energy system, does that mean reducing carbon emissions — thus including nuclear energy — or are you referring to “clean” sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind? Once again, details matter greatly.

2. Speak in specifics

Ask a hundred people if they’re interested in living in a “more sustainable world” and I bet the vast majority would respond, “Yes.” The trouble is, they’d probably all have a different idea in their heads of what that meant. We need to start talking about a sustainable future in specifics. Sustainability over what time frame? Where? For whom? Which brings me to my next point…

3. Clearly identify who benefits

We need to clarify who benefits from sustainability efforts. For example, does sustainable apparel benefit someone making dollars a day? If so, explain how. Does sustainable energy help the millions living without access to electricity? Are we talking about sustainability for humans, animals, plants and/or other natural systems? If humans are living “more sustainable lifestyles” while the extinction rate for plants and animals continues its upward trajectory, can we call that a success?

4. Paint a picture

What does sustainability look like in practice? How does it actually work? What’s different from the world we live in today? And, perhaps most importantly, what are the trade-offs? Walking and biking might be the most sustainable forms of transportation, but they’re probably not the most time-efficient if you need to drive 10 miles across town for work or an appointment. No matter how different we want the future to be, we can’t simply ignore the way people actually live today. We cannot simply wish for a world we want.

The most cogent vision of the future I’ve seen actually comes from a work of fiction (let’s hope it becomes nonfiction!) published last year by environmentalist and writer Jonathon Porritt. In The World We Made Porritt’s lead character Alex McKay reports back from the year 2050 and explains how we managed to overcome the “wasted decades” of the early 2000s to arrive at the narrator’s vision of a more sustainable future.

While the book at times paints a “green utopian” vision of the future, writing in the postscript Porritt himself acknowledges “the gap between what is actually happening [in terms of moving toward a more sustainable future] and what needs to happen remains deeply disturbing. Windows of opportunity don’t stay open forever — and this one does seem to be closing fast.”

Still, for anyone wishing to peek into the future and explore a hopeful vision of what sustainability in action might actually look like over the next 36 years, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The World We Made.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability

Part of the problem with designing a vision of sustainable future is that the future is so darn hard to predict or imagine. Raise your hand if you grew up in, say, the ’70s or ’80s thinking someday you’d walk around with a mini supercomputer in your pocket. See what I mean?

That’s why it’s good to know that people such as Jamais Cascio and organizations such as the Institute for the Future are busy mapping out future scenarios for the planet, while the U.K.-based Forum for the Future is working directly with businesses, governments and others to put sustainability into action today while outlining possible visions of tomorrow. Whether predictions from organizations such as these and others hold true is obviously to be determined, but at least they’re providing a collection of possible road maps with time for course correction.

It’s also good news that there’s a movement afoot to get more specific about sustainability. For example, “The Future We Want,” a road map for the future of sustainable development, was an official outcome of the 2012 Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. And in 2015 the U.N. will convene member states to outline Sustainable Development Goals aimed at building upon the earlier Millennium Development Goals.

Meanwhile, the not-for-profit organization The Natural Step has long touted the concept of “backcasting,” or imagining a more sustainable future, and then asking, “What do we need to do today to reach that vision of success?” The organization has worked with thousands of companies, academic institutions, thought leaders and others to move sustainability from idea to implementation.

Looking ahead, we need to start an honest conversation about what sustainability actually looks like in day-to-day life today and in the future. So, why not get started right now: What does a sustainable future look like to you? And please be specific. View Ensia homepage