Reform vs Revolution vs Restoration approaches to sustainability

What do we mean when we talk of ‘sustainability leadership’? This is addressed by Jem Bendell et al in a new paper, who use critical theory to unpack both ‘leadership’ and ’sustainability’. After reading it, I find myself framing sustainability as about shared dilemmas (not problems), regretting managerialist capture, and pursing a restoration approach (rather than reform or revolution). I also suspect we need to find a pragmatic, fundamental approach to change, though I’m not sure what that will be.

Prof Jem Bendell is the founder of Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria, amongst other things. I’ve known him for about 15 years, starting with the Masters I did at the University of Bath and subsequently connecting at different points on our work. Jem is has a unique position – campaigner, academic, consultant, World Economic Forum Young Leader, tutor – which means he has an interesting take on sustainability in the world.

The latest take is contained in ‘Beyond unsustainability leadership’, the lead article in a special issue on ‘Leadership, Sustainability and Wellbeing’ in an academic journal.


Critiquing ‘leadership’

Overall, it’s starting point is that “dominant paradigms of leadership are part of the cause of the crisis of unsustainability”. The middle section flays the standard assumptions of ‘leadership’ for being too much about the individual – the courageous person, with near-superhuman traits (whether masculine-seeming aspects strength or feminine ones like nurturing), no shadow side, who is definitely ‘in charge’ but definitely not soaking up autonomy or skills from followers, that is to say people lower in the hierarchy and whose purpose is for their organisation to achieve its economic goals.

When you hear those assumptions of leadership you can see them in every news article about a CEO or politician (who take all the praise or blame) and many exhortations for change – we need leadership!


‘Problem’ vs ‘Shared Dilemma’

More interesting to me was the critical unpacking of sustainability. First, the paper argues for a shift away from ‘challenges’ or ‘problems’ to ‘shared dilemmas’.

“dilemmas to reflect both their complexity and to recognise a growing worldview that no longer regards them as problems to solve… shared, because they involve collective causation, affect the many (albeit differentially) and will need collective action to address or adapt to them.

Now I like this pivot. Over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to think from a complexity (and therefore evolutionary) point of view (see my review of Embracing Complexity for more). Nature doesn’t have problems; it has situations and on-going processes of becoming mediated through evolution. This also accords with what Orit Gal has written as a shift from what we have inherited from the Ancient Greek to the Ancient Chinese. 

There is a deep history in the West of coming up with strategies that overcome barriers in order to reach an ideal end-state (think Plato’s shadows in the cave). Rather than thinking in terms of interventions from outside, we need to understand that all choices (large and small) are either maintaining the status quo or helping things unfold differently. Instead of a fixed ideal end point, we can pursue ever-greater potential that doesn’t have a final destination. We will need to consider the whole of a system over the long-term, while acting on this part here in front of us now.

Framing as shared dilemmas, rather than ‘problems’, helps us to move into that complexity mode.


The managerial capture of sustainable development

The paper argues that sustainable development:

“was offered as a coherent agenda for governments around the post-Cold War world. It also coincided with the rise of another idea for public policy, called New Public Management (NPM), which regarded citizens as users of services and incorporated practices from the private sector. Looking back, NPM (and its closely related tropes of leadership and entrepreneurialism) can be seen to have colonised the process of learning and change for sustainability, reducing it to a problem that can be solved by management and technology driven by leadership in a process dominated by capital. Intentional or not, this colonisation was aided by the growth of voluntary corporate engagement with sustainability which then influenced the understandings of policy-makers, experts and campaigners on how to approach social and environmental problems.”

Now NPM is not a phrase I had come across, but the managerial and technocratic approach to politics was very much the vogue of the 1990s and 2000s. At the time, Blair and Clinton’s Third Way was hoped to be an approach which delivered Left-ist ends using Right-ist means – social justice through market competition. 

In the aftermath of the financial crash and subsequent austerity in the UK, that notion looks naive. Third Way was more like a continuation of the neoliberal claim that “increasing globalisation and liberalisation, combined with waves of new technology, does empower everyone”, though with a human face. As Michael Sandel says, we went from market economy to market society. Market values have crowded out non-market norms in aspects of life – medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations – which our parents or grandparents would have found bizarre.


Three paradigms of sustainability


The paper gives three broad approaches to sustainability. The first comes form this technocratic capture: reformation.

In most intergovernmental organisation reports and popular writings on sustainable development inthe 80s and 90s, forms of regulated capitalist market economies were assumed as the norm,where a sustainably developed economy would involve a mixture of enterprises,cooperatives, state owned companies, stock markets, private banks and single fiat currencies.”

Sustainable development came to mean reforming these givens. Of course, prominent amongst them was multinational corporations. I still think the people I worked with in big business while I was at Forum were honest in their desire to reform the status quo for a sustainable world. The question is whether that is possible. What I realise now is that we had a very limited “explicit perspective on economics”, which allowed for powerful incumbent trends to influence what sustainability came to mean.

“Therefore, sustainable development increasingly came to mean sustaining economic growth in the medium term. This process was effectively crowned when economic growth became central to some the new SDGs in 2015. Therefore, the mainstream discourse on sustainable development today may reflect a moral imagination but a weak Reformation Approach to our socioeconomic systems.” [emphasis added]

Well, ouch.

But hands up, this is accurate. The SDGs imagine a destination of a new Eden (to borrow Alex Evans’s description in The Myth Gap) but the way to get there is more of the same, just better.

Even the most well-regarded corporate sustainability leaders talk in these terms. Where I shared a stage with Unilever CEO Paul Polman in December last year, he concluded with this video called ‘No point going halfway’. The core concept: we need to finish the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015) to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030). Nevermind that the MDGs only covered developing nations, rather than being universal, only covered 8 targets (allegedly, so that each UN agency had at least one), not 17 goals, that they were mostly delivered by the once-in-a-century rise of China and that most of the low hanging fruit is picked. 

Don’t worry. More of the same will get us there. Definitely. Absolutely. 



The second paradigm is the long-standing critic of capitalism and the need for revolution. Their fundamental question to reformers:

“How can economic growth be reconciled with environmental constraints or meeting basic needs beprioritised over the endless potential desires of humankind?”

At various points there have been bursts of activity on this, like the Anti-Globalisation Protests in the late 1990s and the responses to austerity in Greece that are difficult for outsiders to know about. 

Interestingly, the last few months in the UK have seen people on the Right defending Capitalism from the threat of Corbyn revolution (from website Unherd to Chancellor Hammon’s speech to the Conservative Party conference). The odd thing about that (and in some ways about the revolutionaries too) is the presumption that there is only one sort of capitalism, the neoliberal free markets of Ayn Rand and Milton Freedman. Instead, surely there are a many flavours, from the Anglo-Saxon ultra-free markets to Sweden’s social democracy through to China’s state-managed version and back again. 



In many, many ways, the most interesting is the final paradigm: restoration. This takes as its starting point the anthropocene (human forcing is the largest driver of change in the earth, more than the sun, or plate tectonics, or the ocean, or other life – think about that for a second). It also takes as real the possibility of ‘near-term collapse’. That, despite the astonishing achievements of the last few centuries, more of the same will take us over a cliff.

From these perspectives, sustainable development is seen as a concept that has already failed and was destined to fail, as it ignored the inherent contradictions between our form ofeconomic development and the achievement of environmental sustainability or social equity.”

Instead, the paper claims “the Restoration Approach to collective dilemmas can involve at least four elements: the restoration of humility, wildness, of wholeness and of resilience.”

humility “recognises the hubris that humans could control nature or each other comprehensively and indefinitely”. 

wildness. “In the environmental sphere, that involves greater emphasis on working with natural processes, such as the rewilding of landscapes. In the social sphere, this concept is being used to invite us to consider how a less domesticated approach to our own lives might look as well as suggesting we need to become more awake to our interdependence with nature”

– our wholeness. “the assumed separation of nature and humans is challenged as causal in our malaise and thus transcended. There are variants on this theme, with differing emphases on how we understand and talk about nature and humans within that. Some draw upon both ancient wisdom traditions and new sciences toexplain the limits of viewing humans as separate from and manipulating of other life.”

– resilience. “That has been defined as ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance andreorganise while undergoing change, so as still to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’.”


Straight off the bat, I think these are brilliant.

If you have seen my April talk on industrial strategy, then you will know that I am convinced by the evidence on Anthropocene and the risks of near-term collapse and that we need to be nature-like. And, without having read this paper or many of the authors quote, the draft I wrote of path to a sustainable 2050 implicitly touches on humility and resilience. My description of the retreat at the Quadrangle Trust dives into wholeness. So, I read this Restoration Approach a a validation of aspects of where my thinking has been going.

For a while now, my working definition of sustainability has been in two parts:

  • the ability for natural and social systems to be coping with the challenges they face (i.e. resilience)
  • individuals have access to the capabilities they need to choose their own lives (following Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach)

So, very much in this Restoration space. Even so, I’m uncomfortable. The implication is restoring from a near-term collapse. I certainly see the need for a sense of crisis (see that draft chapter), I hope that an actual collapse won’t be needed. I hope we use our imagination in the way Roberto Unger suggests:

“The task of the imagination will be to do the work of the crisis, without the crisis” 

Perhaps my assessment will prove to be as naive as what I thought of the Third Way in the early 2000s.


The need for pragmatical and fundamental change

At one point, the paper says sustainable development “is a linguistic device to provide a meeting place for different people and ideas to work on the shared dilemmas of our time.” This implies a coming together and engaging with each other, respectful to other views and finding pragmatic ways forward that are good-enough.

But there is tension within ‘pragmatic’:

Many involved in inter-governmental processes today argue that it is pragmatic to maintain this approach to arrive at agreement on such initiatives as the SDGs. However, as such, limited progress is made on critical issues like climate change, the avoidance of deeper questions of political economy and of belief may not have been so pragmatic after all.”

So, we need combine being pragmatic with something more. We need to go beyond marginal or incremental, which are too small and too slow for situation. As an alternative, people advocate for radical change but the word derives from the Latin for ‘root’. If you are a practitioner of systems thinking, then you should be looking for root causes but pulling things up by the root is different. There are reasons revolutions eat their children. Imposing untested Utopian ideals from scratch has not worked in history. There is no reason to expect it to start now.

I find that ‘systemic’ confuses as much as it illuminates. So, the best I can find for the moment is ‘fundamental’. Implication, we need to change things throughout society, not just on the margin, and a lot, not just incrementally. But not pulling things up by the root (i.e. radical). And not having a fixed set of beliefs that are impervious to feedback (i.e. fundamentalist). In this sense, I am tending towards Durkheim, at least as explained in Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. And towards the Ancient Chinese notion of action to always increase potential, rather than aiming for an ideal end-state.


There’s a lot more to dig into here. But, I suspect, through experimenting rather than writing. For now, I thank Jem and his co-authors for their stimulating paper. And wonder how we can act in ways that match the shared dilemmas of this historic time and place.


1 thought on “Reform vs Revolution vs Restoration approaches to sustainability

  1. Pingback: Investor Relations & sustainability: glacial pace is gonna change | David Bent

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