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Models for understanding how sustainability relates to us

To help us relate sustainability to our lives, a number of models have been developed. All of these models are about interconnections – about the relationships between our environment and our well-being, our ability to live comfortable, productive and happy lives that do not create problems for our descendants. They try to change our rhetoric (particularly in the western world) from growing our wealth to improving our quality of life:

“The environment may be the real bottom line, and we humans might theoretically be in control of the design, values and operation of our economy, but manifestly this is not the case. It is the economy that wags the tail of both us and the rest of life on Earth” (Parkin, 2010, p.291).

The ‘4C’ model

The ‘4C’ model was devised by Plymouth University, UK (Jones et al, 2010, p7) to capture the relationship of sustainability to higher education but it can easily be adapted for other organisations.The idea is that the culture of a university (e.g. is it a culture of opportunity, of equality, of commitment to positive action and impact?) is reflected in how it manages its estates (campus), how it treats its stakeholders (community – students and staff but also neighbours and partners) and what it prioritises within its curriculum and what it sees as the purpose of its curriculum (e.g. to develop students as lifelong learners able to contribute to society, or as a means to high earnings upon graduation). Achieving harmony and balance between the 4C’s is a step towards sustainability.

At Nottingham we have taken Plymouth’s model and added the 5th ‘C’ of contribution (See below). Our Global Strategy 2020 talks of our commitment to social responsibility and purposeful citizenship and to ‘sustaining and improving the places and communities in which we are located’.

5C model from University of Nottingham

Threading concepts

Sara Parkin is a co-founder of Forum for the Future, a UK-based not-for-profit organisation dedicated to working with organisations to develop strategies for sustainability. She uses the ideas of ‘Threading Concepts’ or ‘habits of thought’ (2010):

Resilience – the capacity to bounce back after shocks (e.g. evolution)

Relationships – which, if good, can help you to be resilient

Reflection – our ability to recognise our learning (and therefore to use it)

Reverence – having respect for the natural world and recognising that we are in a relationship with it. As Parkin says, ‘we are less likely to hurt what we love and revere’.

Parkin’s four habits of thought put our abilities and attitudes at the heart of the journey towards sustainability. She also introduces the helpful idea of sufficiency and being good enough – comforting thoughts for those who may feel overwhelmed by the challenge of sustainability.

The 5 capitals

Parkin (2010, chapter 8) explains how the 5 capitals model incorporates the categories of resource that we need to live. The idea is that if we care for these resources, we can gain benefits. If we neglect them, this is when problems develop. And in making our decision, we have to consider the impact of investment or neglect of one capital on both itself and the others.

The five capitals are:

  • Financial: money and financial services, that exist to support the economy, not as ends in themselves.

  • Manufactured: what we make to support our lifestyles (e.g. roads, bridges) and what we need to make these with (materials).

  • Social: the relationships that make societies function – families, communities, organisations.

  • Human: individuals, our knowledge, skills, our contributions.

  • Natural: the renewable and non-renewable resources of the planet, but also the tools that we have invented to support natural capital (e.g. recycling mechanisms).

The 4 ‘care instructions’ for our planet

The 4 ‘care instructions’ have been devized by The Natural Step, a not-for profit organisation that advises institutions and businesses seeking to achieve sustainability. They are to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and heavy metals; reduce our dependence on synthetic chemicals that persist in nature, reduce our destruction of nature and ensure that we are not preventing people from around the world from meeting their needs. The ‘care instructions’ stress the interrelationship of environment, society and economy and suggest that if we follow them, we can improve life for all.

If you can, have a look at The Natural Step explained in 2 minutes or read the transcript below. View the video here (hosted on YouTube) (The video can be found in The ‘Basics of Sustainability’ section and is available in English, Francais, Svensk, Deutsch, Türkçe, Dutch, 中国的 / Chinese)

All of these models or frameworks can be used to help us think about our values, how we behave and what contribution we as individuals, citizens, community members, employees and employers can make to the furtherance of our nourishment, balance and longevity.

Think about: Do you find these models useful? Do you use any of these or another model in your work?

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This article is from the free online course:

Sustainability, Society and You

The University of Nottingham