The Sustainability Laboratory

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The Five Core Principles of Sustainability

An essential road map to developing model sustainability practices.

The Five Core Principles are derived from The Lab’s definition of sustainability; the five domains represent key dimensions of the underlying interaction.

Material Domain

Our current industrial economy is wasteful and hugely entropic in nature. It ought to be redesigned to secure a lasting advantage for all.

The First Principle: Contain entropy and ensure that the flow of resources, through and within the economy, is as nearly non-declining as is permitted by physical laws.

Examples of Policy and Operational Implications:

  • Strive for highest resource productivity
  • Continuously recycle non-regenerative resources
  • Amplify performance with each cycle of use
  • Affect an unbroken, closed-loop flow of matter and energy in a planetary infrastructure conceived as a whole
  • Control leakages and avoid stagnation, misplaced concentrations or random diffusion of chemical elements during cycles of use

Economic Domain

The accounting framework presently used to guide our economy produces a grossly distorted view of the impacts of economic activity. It does not account for externalities, it is driven by a narrow concept of growth, and it even allows us to account for consumption as though it were income.

The Second Principle: Adopt an appropriate accounting system to guide the economy, fully aligned with the planet’s ecological processes and reflecting true, comprehensive biospheric pricing.

Examples of Policy and Operational Implications:

  • Employ a comprehensive concept of wealth related to the simultaneous enhancement of five key forms of capital: Natural, Human, Social, Manufactured and Financial
  • Align the world’s economy with nature’s regeneration capacity and incorporate critical externalities in all cost and benefit accounts
  • Embody a measure of well-being and human development in economic calculations
  • Design regulation and taxation policies to accentuate desirable and eliminate adverse outcomes, optimizing the whole
  • Rely on transparent market mechanisms, calibrated to reflect “true” costs, for allocation of capital assets

Domain of Life

The adaptive success of our species comes at the expense of other forms of life– from individual organisms, to species, to whole habitats. Science tells us that the very complexity of complex systems is the source of their resilience and long-term viability. Yet, at our own peril, we are reducing the richness of our planet’s complex fabric of life.

The Third Principle: Ensure that the essential diversity of all forms of life in the biosphere is maintained.

Examples of Policy and Operational Implications:

  • Assume a responsible stewardship for our planet’s web of biological diversity
  • Ensure that the essential diversity of all forms of life in the biosphere is maintained
  • Harvest species only to regeneration capacity
  • Conserve the variety of the existing gene pool
  • Shape land use patterns to reduce human encroachment on other forms of life and enhance biological diversity in areas of human habitat

Social Domain

Social systems depend, ultimately, on their internal variety for robust viability and long-term health. This alone reinforces the still-fragile idea that open processes, responsive structures, plurality of expression, and the inalienable equality of all individuals should provide the cornerstone of social life.

The Fourth Principle: Maximize degrees of freedom and potential self-realization of all humans without any individual or group adversely affecting others.

Examples of Policy and Operational Implications:

  • Foster tolerance as a cornerstone of social interactions
  • Enshrine universal rights within a framework of planetary citizenship
  • Provide for inclusion and effective democracy in governance
  • Ensure equitable access to life nurturing resources
  • Establish cooperation as a basis for managing global issues

Spiritual Domain

The human spirit has consistently sought to transcend apparent limitations, striving to encompass progressively more into its field of vision, and to integrate an increasingly more comprehensive reality. The extent to which this drive is allowed to manifest affects the choices we make and the quality of our actions in the world.

The Fifth Principle: Recognize the seamless, dynamic continuum
Of mystery wisdom, love, energy and matter
That links the outer reaches of the cosmos
With our solar system, our planet and its biosphere
Including all humans, with our internal metabolic systems
And their externalized extensions —
Embody this recognition in a universal ethics
For guiding human actions.

As a guiding principle, the spiritual dimension does not carry the connotation of conventional religion. Rather, it evokes the integration of mind and heart in realization of the essential oneness at the center of being.

Examples of Policy and Operational Implications:

  • Acknowledge the transcendent mystery that underlies existence
  • Seek to understand and fulfill humanity’s unique function in Universe
  • Honor the Earth with its intricate ecology of which humans are an integral part
  • Foster compassion and an inclusive, comprehensive perspective in the underlying intention, motivation and actual implementation of human endeavors
  • Link inner transformation of individuals to transformations in the social collective, laying foundations for emergence of a new planetary consciousness

The Five Principles as an Integrated Whole

The set of five domains and five primary principles is fundamentally systemic in nature, meaning that each domain affects all the others and is affected by each in return. By anchoring the essence of human motivation and intention, the spiritual principle acts as the causal root, which sets the tone for the whole. It drives the integration of the other four principles, those related to the material, economic, life, and social domains. If integrated in a balanced way, it can infuse a common purpose, provide a common foundation, and stimulate common resolve. Lacking the ethical commitment implied by the spiritual principle, considerations of questions related to the four other domains, no matter how elaborately expressed, are reduced to mere technicalities.