In late June those with an interest in global sustainability may have become aware of the headlines that greeted the publication of the UN’s World Investment Report for 2014. A typical article would be headed “The UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) will fail unless governments and businesses find an extra US$ 2.5 trillion a year to support them.” It would then be pointed out that the predecessor Millennium Development Goals only had a shortfall of $120 billion a year leaving readers to draw their own conclusions, conclusions which no doubt would feature a meditation on the theme ‘hope springs eternal in the human breast’.

Over the last 15 years I’ve become less certain about what sustainability is. It’s not that there is a shortage of definitions or a poor supply of related economic models, business practice or even supporting political theory. My problem is that, by most measures, our world – specifically the great majority of humanity – continues to augment the way they live in a style that negate the definitions. I am beginning to wonder whether our focus on sustainability is the right approach.

Sustainability is a word that implies continuity, it’s a rather comfortable, passive, plodding sort of word. In evolutionary terms any life form that concentrated on sustainability would probably become extinct. Perhaps we should be paying greater attention to a more functional adjective, adaptability. The big advantage of adaptability is that it can be defined relatively easily and doesn’t need to have goals or objectives – which themselves become the subject of intense debate and dispute. Adaptability is itself the goal, the objective, the ability of an entity or organism to alter itself or its responses to the changed circumstances or environment.

In fact much of the work undertaken by Sustainability First has pointed to adaptability as the key to sustainability itself – a necessary precursor. Unless we, as individuals or organisations, have the capacity to change then treading lightly on the earth or meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs will remain wishful thinking.

Richard Adams

Richard Adams OBE is the first to take up the challenge in our blog of 19 June to give his views on what sustainability means to him. As well as being a Trustee of Sustainability First, he is currently President of the EU’s Economic and Social Committee’s Permanent Study Group on a European Energy Community.