One of the potential difficulties with the concept of sustainability is its current context. It has become a value-laded term, employed by different, usually benevolent, interest groups. One benevolent interest is to safeguard the planet for future generations, with an underlying assumption that current human behaviour is making our planet unsustainable. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (The Institute for Sustainable Development). This is the definition, often quoted, part of the modern origin story for the word that has become increasingly present in news headlines around the world alongside its downbeat sibling, “unsustainability”. From “the planet is dying” to “there is no sustainability problem” that line is crowded with different views. In recent years the balance has tipped towards the sustainability of our earth (and our lives on it) becoming the issue of our times.
From Sustainability to Restrainability
So, things can be ‘sustainable’ or ‘unsustainable’ or somewhere along a line between those two ideas. Evidence is then brought forward, depending on different interests, to claim a position along that binary line.
In recent years the evidence for the current global model of economics (and commerce) being basically unsustainable is presented as largely irrefutable. Governments and international organisations such as the United Nations have accepted the evidence for a currently unsustainable world emanating from tens of thousands of scientific studies and reports pulled together into authoritative digests.
Groups with interests against unsustainability have usually included the oil industry and large globally focused businesses; groups with interests in favour of unsustainability are diverse including small island states (who are already being flooded due to sea level rise, countries where there is already a lack of rainfall and rising famine, as well as the green lobby and the alternative energy sector. They have recently been joined (with more or less commitment)by various governments around the globe.
Sustainability as a concept is presented in the mainstream media as a binary line of sustainable or unsustainable. international organisations such as the United Nations have developed their own models of sustainability with its SDGs (sustainable development goals) Many of these have moved the definition outside of its traditional roots of being largely about Earth’s resources, pollution and climate change, to take in gender equality and education, among others. The UN’s 17 sustainable development goals are certainly not just about rising temperatures and sea levels.
The history of the term sustainable development is often rooted back to the 1960s. “The remit of the Brundtland Report was to investigate the numerous concerns that had been raised in previous decades, namely, that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet, and that patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked. Key works that highlighted this thinking included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968), the Blueprint for Survival by the Ecologist magazine (1972) and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972).”
A far less explored concept lies at the heart of the sustainability crises we now find ourselves in with the figure of 1.5 degrees the most quoted as a ceiling to at least avoid the worst of the impacts of climate change now showing itself on the planetary stage. The world is heating up, melting ice caps, raising sea levels, causing drought, flooding, famine and catastrophic changes to weather systems. This concept, when understood and explored points to how the sustainability crises could have been avoided or limited, and must now be approached as an urgent crisis, a “wicked” problem. That word is “restrainability”. The ability to hold back from full (and even over-) commitment to a process can ensure that risk of harm is minimised and possibly avoided altogether. If it is too late and a worsening crisis emerges, restrainability can limit further harm and even enable recovery and healing. Often a better outcome can be achieved, with less resource commitment when restraint is shown. and, of course, showing restraint can also lead a process to full short, fail and also cause harm.
Words, words words …
in common usage, the word ‘restrain’ is used in many different contexts. The police may restrain a violent person from causing harm to themselves or others. We sometimes say “I just couldn’t restrain my urge to tell her what I thought of her” or to “reach for that extra slice of gateau”. The ability to restrain involves a level of real-time discernment, the ability to hold back, to go for 50% instead of 100, to delay action or curb the urge to act entirely. The purpose of restraint is to limit or prevent a negative outcome, either for oneself or those around us. In terms of the current widely shared view of sustainability, restrainability is a fundamental ability we have to a more or less degree. It is lack of restraint on the part of many that has contributed to our climate emergency, itself at least partly the result of compulsive growth. Lack of restraint can become toxic.
An inability to show restraint can arise through an addictive nature, through grasping and greed and the wish to maximise gain. It can also arise through ignorance, where a lack of information, knowledge, context or awareness of consequences of one’s actions can be influential factors. Also being unwilling or unable to act with restraint can lead to a tipping point where the lack of restraint has caused a more or less dramatic or impactful outcome. we drain the lake dry, fish the river to extinction, talk the room into silence, overwork until we collapse.
When we lack restraint
Our lack of restraint in using oil, coal and natural gas has led to severe climate impacts. In winner take all business practices, a lack of restraint can create poverty, social breakdown and many other social problems and outcomes; the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and, perhaps ironically, both end up getting depressed as a result.
Without any restraint, social breakdown can occur as the “losers” (financially) eventually turn on the so-called winners whether that be through the rising up of the masses in angry revolution or workers simplyminimising or disengaging from their work.
For the most part, business owners and shareholders have understood the consequences and risks of “winner takes all” and exercised necessary restraint. However, in terms of our planet’s current overall health, we have clearly demonstrated poor collective restrainability as a human race. We have been poor stewards despite decades of emerging knowledge and calls to exercise collective restraint on planet Earth. We didn’t show restraint when we could have been in preventive mode, and we are struggling to agree internationally how to show restraint when the problems are right there before us.
When the first signs of a problem emerge, exercising restraint can, in some cases, be the best course of action. We turn down the volume on our music in order to avoid a bang on the wall from the neighbours. We change our diet and eat more healthily before we get a cholesterol problem (or worse). We slow the car down as the road becomes more hazardous with sudden rainfall. Restraint in advance, being preventive can diminish, even eliminate a growing problem. We can act instinctively (often our survival instinct comes into play, if we are in touch with it) or we can act on prior and emerging knowledge, information and advice from other people. Restraint kicks in to prevent a problem getting worse, or even developing in the first place. Restraint acts in creative opposition to going “too far” and over the cliff. Restraint can stop the inflation turning into an explosion, the riskiness becoming a crash or a fall.
We can go back even further in time. Before a specific problem has even shown itself we can act with restraint. This can also be instinctive or it can be through the value of history and hindsight. Stories from the past and from our peers can inspire is to consider risks and possibilities in advance of any overt showing of a problem. we can prevent another conflict by engaging in pre-emptive talks and signing cooperative agreements. we can change the controls on a product to make it even safer.
Showing restraint can be a personal act, almost in each moment of our lives. We slow down as we walk along a garden path in order to avoid treading on small insects and other tiny creatures. We eat more slowly to avoid indigestion. We make something last longer in order to savour it for longer. We create a simpler design for a product.
We hold back on being too direct with a friend in order to avoid hurting them. We save some of our money for a more difficult month to come, or we hold back from buying a new product straight away in order to wait for the upgrade, or the winter sales. Restraint is often goal-based and can be used to ensure better outcomes and avoidance of poor ones. It’s a natural behaviour, and some of us are better as it than others, based on our parenting, education, peer pressure, the goals and pressures of the organisations and businesses we work in.
Restrainability needs more attention right now
Without restraint we are greedy, grasping, fearfully short-term, and often closed to challenge and new information which might signal the need for restraint. With restraint we are often more discerning, future-aware, opening to new knowledge and information and more in control of ourselves and our behaviour. When restraint becomes compulsive we can be equally dangerous, avoiding opportunity and actions that can authentically benefit ourselves and our communities. Restraint itself can be applied in an unrestrained way to our cost!
In our current global crisis, restrainability needs more attention. Giving the concept more prominence focuses us on our own behaviour and the impact a lack of skills in acting with restraint is having on our planet.
Restraint in advance
Without the exercise of restraint in advance, of a problem appearing or worsening in the present and without being open to learning from the past, unsustainability gets worse. The problem-causing behaviours continue and assumptions lie unchallenged or questioned. And this is where the world sits today in terms of our sustainability crisis. Restrainability remains largely low, and happens too little and too late
What the world currently needs is restrainable development, not only our knowing when, why and how to hold back when making commitments of the Earth’s resources to human activity, but also through developing systems and processes that have built-in restrainability.
Tipping over the edge
We should design nothing that tips us irreversibly over the edge towards damage and disaster. A new definition of sustainable product and process innovation will be one that describes systems that have inherent, in-built restrainability. Some already do, like volume controls, like emission chimneys, but we have much legacy system and process that does not; we are still designing and marketing too many products that are largely unrecyclable and we are coding some products such as those based on artificial intelligence right now that may well get out of control. What if we design a robot than is inherently both unrestrainable (by us) and unable to restrain itself? we are still acting as if we are in a world in which restrainability is a low priority skill and behaviour set.
Restrainability became unfashionable during the era of growth. Unlimited growth and restrainability are not generally compatible with each other. As marketing and advertising promoted growth as a virtue in what became the ‘whoppa’-sized and ‘all you can eat’ culture of the ’80s and beyond annual upgrading to new smartphones and other gadgets alongside long distance holidays and ‘buy two get one free products’, exercising restraint was often presented a boring, even party pooping, just as abstention was confused (deliberately) in advertising and marketing with austerity and misery. exercising restraint was being a ‘meanie’.
Growth without limit was fashionable, obvious to all, even courageous in TV food shows that pit “man versus food”. The new Mile High Club was who could eat five Big Macs without vomitting. Double digit growth in business became (and often still is), not even best practice, but the expected norm. Restraint was portrayed as being weak-minded and over-cautious, lacking ambition and holding the business (and the planet) back.
We might restrain dangerous criminals, we might even restrain hyperactive dogs, but restraining business practice and the quest for limitless growth was irresponsibly antisocial and anti-business. Google the word “restraint” and that’s pretty much all you’ll find about a word that lies at the core of what we need to do to save our planet.
Restraining was something queens, kings and emperors did back in history when they stayed the hand of execution out of mercy. In the days of growth, restraint was hardly mentioned, almost taboo and certainly confined to the fringes of the spoilers and the scaredy-cats of a fun-loving society.
Renewing restrainability for modern times
So for many (and certainly many of the emerging generation on Earth), restraint, rarely used in recent decades in mainstream conversation, now feels like an archaic, official, even medical or military word, with a reek of parental language and telling us what (and what not) to do at a time when we (and certainly in the West) feel free to do pretty much whatever we want). it’s a bit culturally clumsy to use the word which is similar to how ‘sustainability’ sounded to many when it came into wider use as far back as the ’60s and ’70s and really made a more prominent appearance after 2000.
As a result. restrainability feels negative, concerned with the bit of the glass that is half empty (or overflowingly too full). It’s a bit of a ‘downer’ word, intent on stopping the fun and spoiling the party that was never supposed to end.
Similarly, many people , when they hear the word “sustainability’ these days they associate it with disaster scenarios, cutting down on the treats and indulgences, and even stopping stuff that makes us comfortable and abundant-feeling.
Developing a positive view
Yet sustainability in the spirit of its original appearance (and quoted above) was a positively focused thing, all about legacy and leaving the world in a better state for our kids and grandkids to inherit. It was (and is) about enjoying the process of sustainable living, of nurturing and living with our planet rather than treating it as an enemy. Acting with restraint can be a joyful thing as it opens space for possibility, creates latent resource, allows processes to settle, engenders healing and recover, can lower risk, can be more satisfyingly efficient, can result in benefit other people, animals and all aspects of nature to be less negatively impacted. It can even foster a longer term and, get this – more sustainable – growth.
When we show restraint we hold back from what we may have been about to say. Or we say it differently, perhaps with more subtlety and less pressure or force. Restraint can open up space for different kinds of conversation, a more considered response, space to pause, breathe reflect and even be silent and just ponder. Restraint can often reveal that a pause lets the land recover and that longer term yields of crops in our fields are better in the longer run. Restraint is a founding stone of sustainable farming. Restraint can make us more patient, able to see a longer view and to consider other paths to the same or a different outcome.It can apply the brakes, reduce the acceleration and let us take in more of the landscape of possibility.
Showing restraint in setting hard and often harsh, inflexible laws for people to follow can open space for people to learn and become more self-responsible. Freely willed following of guidance can often lead to better and more effective and efficient outcomes than harshly enforced rules and laws. Restrainability has always been a latent skill in all of us. To restrain is usually a choice. The word is used in medical and legal settings and, though a fundamental part of such fields of practice, the ability to self-restrain is a different use of the word.It is time for this key aspect of restrainability to be revived for, without free decision to practice restraint, our planet is truly in trouble. we must decouple ourselves fro the distorted view that restraint is always an imposed, forced thing. Of course it isn’t.
Restrainability makes use of the tools of dialogue and conversation and only rarely applies n iron grip on holding something back. Why? because dogmatic, fixed and unchanging restraint is, paradoxically, a form of its opposite. Punishment is aimed at compliance with varying degrees of success and often less and less restraint in enforcement and sanction. Taken to its extreme, unrestrained law enforcement becomes the tools of life incarceration and execution. if we become to restraining in our restraint it no longer becomes a contigent skill. Education and dialogue often can achieve the same compliance and usually a better volunteered, conscious participation in social norms and behaviours. Less can be more (note can). Ultimately, to exercise high ability restraint requires us to be flexible, agile and restrained in our restraint!
The benefits and urgency of a restrainable world
Restraint is usually less resource-intensive over time, leaner and grows a sense of personal and social responsibility in those exercising restraint. It isn’t the same as exiting, becoming indifferent, detaching for their own sakes. Restraint is an ability, developed with experience and practice – it is an ability to restrain oneself in different situations for a better, more sustainable outcome. Which is why sustainability is less important as a current set of environmentally focused practices, than a desired outcome or ongoing state. Restrainability is one of the keys to sustainability.
Our world is currently and desperately seeking to become re-balanced, to recover and heal. Restrainability is the priority to be taught in our schools. We also need to develop and reward a wider practice of it now, in our daily and working lives.