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  • Writer's picturekarri winn

Stewardship of Human Culture, (i.e., not Sustainable Development)

I’ve studied this idea of development, and then development cum sustainable development, and sustainability all of my adult life. Initially, I was inspired to make the world a better place; now this study has become more than anything, a philosophical inquiry into who we are, what it means to be civilized and what it means to become fully human.

Development is a contemporary idea first defined in publication in the 1850’s as the natural or biological process of unfolding toward maturation.

Development as a political prescription and programmatic agenda is barely 150 years old.

Once used to describe a biological characteristic, development became something that was done unto people during the Victorian Era. Buoyed by Social Darwinists and the Theory of Evolution, certain people now began using the term to describe the entire natural evolution of groups of people. This cannot be understated in terms of the enormous shift in worldview that emerged. It was a huge conceptual leap of metaphor to take a term describing a specie’s biological maturation cycle and apply it to whole groups of people. Further, to make claim that civilization as evidenced by cities, banks, parliaments, businesses, writing, laws, churches, commerce and so forth were natural extensions of a biological-cum-cultural process in retrospect is clearly philosophically and logically incoherent. But then, it was successfully used as justification for transforming the world’s “savage populations” into developed, “civilized peoples”. Interestingly, the etymology of civilization means not a barbarian. Civilization has come to mean a definitional (and supposedly naturally logical) end state for society. By WWII, being developed and being civilized were established synonyms.

And during this short time, while humanity has progressed beyond any kind of imagination, the unintended consequences - or rather the price of civilization - is impressively catastrophic.

· We are facing unprecedented ecosystem decline,

· desertification and salinization are threatening agriculture worldwide,

· oceans are replete with nanoparticulate plastic,

· we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction,

· deforestation is a nightmare, and,

· every two weeks we lose another language of the human family – imagine the library of Alexandria in a perpetual fire.

We exist sans purpose having already achieved. Fukuyama was correct – we have arrived at the end of history. Without a direction to travel, without new growth to aspire toward, we have achieved the end. Even if we become more genius with the tools and products of civilization – SpaceX rockets, AI, Virtual Reality, Bitcoin, etc., this is just more of the same: civilization, which exists because and for the maximization of markets. Civilization is a dead and deadening manifestation of power, imperialism and hegemony. It is the realization of modern indentured means of production and with production comes taxation and the elevation of the rich to ever-greater heights of wealth accumulation.

Moreover, and I think more relevant to humanity at-large is the fact that civilization, development and sustainability are all Western ideas; but very specifically the ideas of Western elites. This is not to imply that they are bad but that they represent only one culture’s belief system and unfortunately these ideas are supplanting the entire world’s innate ingenuity and cultural autonomy.

Wait! I know some people are going to debate me and say that sustainability is a good thing. I wish it was – but it is not.

I want to make a conceptual distinction between sustainable development and sustainability.

By the end of the 1970’s, (3 decades after the launch of modern development policy/programs), people were confounded by the reality that the lives of billions, were in fact, getting worse. This led to the formation of the Brundtland Commission by the Organisation for Cooperation on Economic Development who, in 1987, declared that we need a sustainable development – one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. And years later, still no one agrees exactly what this definition means – development is a complex issue largely because it is absolutely heterogeneous and it inherently invokes the uncertainty of what we don’t know and can in truth barely anticipate, i.e., future. Every human being develops, every human being has a future; the same two things are true of every plant, animal and place.

The point is that sustainable development in policy terms focuses on the plight of the underdeveloped becoming civilized in the process of having basic needs met. If we were going to be truly holistic about development for human beings and human cultures, we have to begin with a truly broad view of living systems science that is first void of class, and secondly, that is not attempting to right a wrong according to an imperialist’s definition of what the world should look like.

In the West, as we are already civilized, here the idea of sustainable development has transmogrified into sustainability. Sustainability in the most generic context is the new environmental movement. Instead of protecting the environment, now we talk about how to sustain natural resources and make green jobs. And even so, there is nothing wrong with this idea – it has led to myriad social and economic innovations from solar photovoltaics, hybrid cars, urban re-wilding projects like Tanner Square in Portland’s Pearl District and education programs – even I, for example, have an MBA in Sustainable Management.

Yet, people in the developed world are also suffering. People hate their jobs. They hate their bodies. They are dying of stress and obesity and depression. With all of the stuff in the world, people in the West are still in fundamental need.

To be human is to have needs. Not all needs can be satisfied through a business innovation. Arguably the most important needs for human beings are intangible – being loved, belonging, identity and a sense of purpose.

A National Geographic study of Blue Zones – places where people live 100+ years - determined that having a purpose was one of nine key attributes to long life, health and vitality.

One of the long problems with development programs, which sustainable development did not solve, is that human beings and communities are subject to biological laws and natural cycles – we are not machines and most of the time our lives cannot fit neatly into grant periods. And as much as we apply standards, every human being is unique, and humans collectively because of this one truth, cannot be standardized. This means that the delivery then of needs, that is programmatic development, cannot be standardized and the delivery of intangible needs satisfaction is almost impossible.

We can also look out at the great destruction that Western development has made of the earth, her many peoples, places, animals, insects, fungi and so forth. Civilization is not a satisfactory conclusion to human history and I think, if honest, people will conclude that civilization cannot in any way be a natural (and/or destined) extension of human societies.


I want to go back to the original definition of development – the biological and natural process of unfolding toward maturation. Maturation can also be described as fruition and flourishing – what does it mean for a human being to flourish? What are the conditions that make human flourishing possible?

If the world we live in today, and the purpose for humanity, has largely been defined by the Social Victorians, what would the world look like if we created a new purpose for humanity, a new raison d’être that valued the aspirations and potentialities of all cultures? Perhaps our purpose as a global but diverse humanity sharing a single planet with finite resources might be simply to optimize the conditions for all life to self-actualize.

In the discourse today that surrounds development and sustainability – these philosophical issues are given scant attention. Entire voices of indigenous populations and marginalized peoples have not been included in setting these agenda and policies.

I think that everyone should have the birthright to participate in the conversation that shapes how we as a species live in relationship to the planet – individually and collectively. We know that belief affects ideation and perception directly; we know that having multiple views and perspectives at the table increase creativity and enhance problem solving. That is bonafide biomimicry – nature always prioritizes heterogeneity.

The stewardship of human culture and our intangible heritage belongs to all people.

And, I contend, that if we were able to successfully integrate the world’s diverse perspectives on what it means to develop flourishing human beings, we would actually unleash massive new innovation potential for business and human culture that would in large part resolve the unintended consequences of civilization.


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