Addressing issues of sustainable development can seem overwhelming for a variety of reasons. They are often inherently complex and fraught with unintended consequences. They are multifaceted and involve multiple stakeholders. Traditional boundaries are irrelevant to the problems presented by climate change, HIV/AIDS and water scarcity which pay no regard to organisational or national boundaries.
Sustainable development only reinforces the increasingly interconnected nature of the world we live in; a world where a search for an alternative to fossil based fuels can contribute to deforestation and food shortages and an issue in a factory in one part of the world can lead to a global product recall.
The temptation can be to ‘dumb it down’ or ‘keep it simple’, with sustainability practitioners urged to seek the low hanging fruit. But will this really yield the results we are seeking?
Rather, shouldn’t we focus on skilling ourselves to be able to deal with this complexity through ongoing training and coaching?
It should not be surprising that the actions required are equally multi-dimensional. Traditional models for problem solving bring with them a range of benefits and limitations. An integral sustainability framework acknowledges that all methods have advantages and disadvantages, and that all have something to offer. It proposes that it is unlikely that any theory is 100% wrong and therefore it makes sense to view an issue through a range of theoretical lenses to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the issue and frame possible responses. All justifications are valid within their context and understanding this context is vital to achieving meaningful change.
In the same way that we might use both quantitative surveys, focus groups and desk research and competitor analysis to develop sustainability strategies for our organisations, integral theory ensures that we look at a problem in many different ways to best understand what it is we are trying to tackle.
Introduction to the integral model
The model, pioneered by Ken Wilber, draws on a range of existing theories from arts, science and morality including phenomenology, psychotherapy, chemistry and biology.
It collates and maps these views along two dimensions, the interior to the exterior and the individual to the collective to develop a more holistic picture of the reality of sustainable development. All occur concurrently and are interrelated. By viewing a problem through each of the quadrants practitioners can improve the likelihood of success in designing and implementing solutions to sustainable development issues.
Consciousness – “I internal”
The upper left quadrant examines the factors that influence an individual’s experience of the world including thoughts, feelings, sensations and intentions. It looks at what an individual experiences and why they do things.
Practitioners seek to identify how well stakeholders know the behaviours required for implementation and how motivated they are to undertake them. For instance, if trying to roll out a recycling program for employees it is important to identify any beliefs people may have, for example whether they think the cleaners put all the waste streams into the same bin at the end of the day anyway.
Behaviour “I external”
This quadrant focuses on what an individual does or their required actions. For instance, the pubic behaviour of community leaders or the impact of malnutrition on a child’s ability to learn.
Analysis in this quadrant includes the individual behaviours that contribute to successful and enduring outcomes as well as the risks to the individual. People are more likely to recycle if those around them do and it becomes a peer norm.
Culture “We internal”
In the lower left quadrant the focus is on culture and worldview. It includes values, practices, beliefs, perceptions and ethics. It explores how an issue or solution is perceived and its potential impact on the final outcome. Research interviews are a key methodological tool in this quadrant.
For instance the impact of stigma on HIV/AIDS programmes or taking our recycling example again, that communities may think that recycled effluent is unsuitable for fertilising crops.
Systems “We external”
This quadrant is the realm of objective descriptions and includes explanations of how our social, economic, political and ecological systems operate. It includes modes of information transfer, architecture, legal structures and population size.
It is the quadrant of observation and of processes. For instance, people are less likely to recycle if they have to take their materials to a recycling station than if they are able to have recycled materials picked up in the same way as their usual waste.
Traditionally responses have focused on some quadrants at the expense of the others, encouraging people to recycle without putting in the facilities to make it easier, or to implement the system without explaining how it works and engaging people in why it is important in ways that are important to them. It is necessary to examine each of them in turn and how they interrelate and impact on each other.
Approaches to change
Much of what we are trying to achieve through sustainable development is change, whether it be changes to processes to be less resource intensive or polluting or changes in mindset to appreciate natural capital or workplace diversity. Much of the work the sustainability practitioner is actually undertaking is in fact change management .
Long-term commitment and action on issues of sustainable development reside in individual choice; choices that are grounded in people’s deepest motivations and values. Therefore understanding those values and how to work with them become critical dimensions for success. There is no point promoting thriftiness as a benefit of saving energy to a community that is aspirational and materialistic; they may view it as simply being ‘cheap’.
Integral practitioner Barrett C Brown argues that too often we focus on the exteriors or systems and behaviours without working through the values and motivations that create these systems and behaviours in the first place.
There are two main approaches to working with values: transformation and translation. Transformation is initially appealing as it looks to change people’s values and the hope is that a dramatic shift in consciousness would lead to a quantum leap in our ability to address sustainability. This is typically where a lot of communication around climate change focuses; only telling people they need to live their lives completely differently rather than making it relevant and personal to their own worldviews.
However, whilst it can be easy to inspire change, achieving actual change is very difficult – think of your own new year’s resolutions or pledges to break old habits. This actually has the potential to be damaging as people feel guilty about not doing what they know they should. It’s always interesting to ask a room of sustainability practitioners how many have made significant changes to their own home – low energy light bulbs, dual flush toilets or rainwater tanks. Whilst it may be higher than the average you may be surprised how few are walking the talk in their own lives. We’re not bad people; its just that transformational change is hard and takes time.
Whilst transformative change is not unachievable many argue that we simply don’t have time to wait. There is another route available that is worthy of consideration. This involves the translation of an issue into existing value sets. It is about understanding people’s current values and communicating objectives in a way that appeals to their current worldview. It is argued that this can lead to lasting behavioural change
Whilst it might be considered the ‘low road’ in that the aspirations are not as lofty as transformational change it may provide a faster path to sustainable outcomes.
Three broad value systems have been identified – traditional, modern and postmodern – and understanding how sustainable development relates to each can be useful in shaping programme development. That is not to say that individuals or societies do not change their predominant system over time but that understanding where they currently sit can be very useful. These are described as levels within the integral model as outlined below .
Sustainable development is largely considered a postmodern goal but by translating it into traditional and modern values it is more likely to receive widespread support. This is important given that approximately 40% of the population holds traditional worldviews and 30% modern.
How to make the translation
There are a number of options when thinking about how to engage different worldviews. They are summarised here and are also explored in this edition’s second briefing paper.
Potential motivations for sustainability
|Conservative, purposeful, authoritarian, focuses on the ‘one right way’
- Common sense, we should not destroy the basis of our existence
- Threat to national security, for instance energy security
- Need to be prepared for the future, e.g. peak oil or instability arising from poverty
- Responsibility for the world we leave our grandchildren
- A leader we respect tells us we have to; for many Al Gore has personified this in his work on climate change, or Bill Clinton on AIDS
- Rules and regulations require it; for instance, OH&S and building codes or emissions trading
- Moral and spiritual obligation
- Pollution as a sin against creation
|Materialist, achievement, high rationality, strategic, improvement orientated
- Far less expensive to act early; for instance, the Stern Review
- Scientific consensus, e.g. the IPCC
- Universal human rights and environmental stewardship are completely rational and a sign of a modern culture
- Ultimate technical and social challenge that will bring with it profit and opportunity; for instance, new vaccines or renewable energy
- Better for my status to be environmentally aware; it’s hip, cool
- There is competitive advantage from energy saving and cost reduction for my business
- The biggest companies are choosing sustainability, becoming a societal norm
- As we get wealthier, we deserve a clean environment
- If we don’t, the government will regulate
|Relativistic, communitarian, egalitarian, seek peace within the inner self and value diversity and multiculturalism
- How many planets do we need?
- Strive for intergenerational equality
- The choice is ours
- Our environmental, economic, political, social and spiritual challenges are interconnected, what we do can make a difference
- We have a universal responsibility
These levels reflect the predominant values of stakeholders and together with the quadrants enable us to map and understand the complexity of the system to help understand what solutions may work best.
Implications for practitioners
Typically practitioners will have stronger competencies in some quadrants over others. It is important to be cognoscente of all when working on sustainability issues and of the dynamics between them. This may require coaching in some areas to improve capabilities in areas of relative weakness. Today’s practitioners come from a wide range of backgrounds and sustainability as an area of study is only relatively new, therefore there are likely to be some areas where enhanced understanding can be crucial to professional development and outcomes.
For those of us fortunate enough to be working in a team or establishing working groups on issues from areas across our organisations it means thinking about the skills of those teams. Bringing together people with different experiences and natural strengths can create a more holistic picture of the issue on which the team is working and challenge the way we naturally tend to think about things.
The commitment to continued learning is an important one. This is an ever evolving, multi-disciplinary area. Models such as the integral model are not static but improve and develop as our understanding of the component theories and their interplay is informed by learning from the field. So we invite you to share your thoughts on this with us and we will continue to include more information on this exciting area of sustainability theory in practice in future updates.
All materials in developing these comments were taken from:
- Brown, Barrett. C (2005) "Theory and Practice of Integral Sustainable Development: Part 1 - Quadrants and the Practitioner", AQAL Summer 2005, Vol 1, No 2.
- Brown, Barrett. C (2005) "Theory and Practice of Integral Sustainable Development: Part 2 - Values, Developmental Levels, and Natural Design", AQAL Summer 2005, Vol 1, No 2.
© Article 13 - April 2010
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