Triple Bottom Line Approach to Individual and Global Sustainability

By G. Venkatesh
January 2009

The Author is a Research Fellow, Industrial Ecology Programme, Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway.

Industrial ecology is founded on analogies and lateral thinking, borrowing and adapting, and opening up the frontiers of imagination and innovativeness to make the road to sustainable development more tractable. Talking of the key role mankind needs to play to make sustainable development a reality, a wonderful analogy is uncovered – between holistic individual human development and the triple bottom line approach (economic, social and environmental) to sustainable progress of humanity as a whole on the surface of the earth. An individual starts off from gross materialism (body) but needs to aim for the right blend of physical, emotional and spiritual advancement in life. When all individuals do so, a lop-sided socio-economic techno-sphere will gradually metamorphose into a fully-evolved one. Paradoxically, individuals need to delve in and comprehend their spiritual selves, for the technosphere to fan out and embrace the earth of which it is just a small component.

Key words: Economic, environmental, physical, social, spiritual, sustainability


Industrial ecology borrows from and bases itself on Nature and natural processes. There are analogies that run between natural processes and the desirable, recommended, prescriptive ways of performing activities in human society and industry. As Rajeswar (2001) states, integration of the traditional ecological knowledge with modern technology could lead to a better understanding of nature and its complex processes. In other words, the technosphere needs to continuously learn from the interactions among the biosphere, atmosphere, pedosphere (lithosphere) and hydrosphere. At the centre of this process of lateral thinking and problem-solving lies man with a set of duties towards Mother Earth and the sustainability of human welfare and the power to act on his will and volition to fulfil these duties. Just as industrial ecology attempts to incorporate phenomena which obtain in Nature – reuse, recycling etc. – to move towards that elusive goal of sustainability, it cannot be overemphasized that the collective macro-good (global sustainability) will result from several individual micro-developments, reinforcing and complementing each other. It is the parts that make up the whole; and at the same time, the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. It is the interactions among the atoms and molecules of a substance which determine its functional properties. A fully-magnetised piece of iron has all its “tiny magnets” aligned in the same direction.

If charity begins at home, sustainability starts with the Self. A wonderful analogy is uncovered – between holistic individual human development and the triple bottom line approach to sustainable progress of nations or of humanity as a whole on the surface of the earth. Holistic human individual development entails the physical, mental-emotional-psychological, and the spiritual – the body, mind and the soul in other words. One moves in from the visible, discernible gross to the invisible subtle. Spiritual development is usually relegated to the sidelines and often falls by the wayside while mankind pursues its materialistic goals. When the edifice starts crumbling – which invariably happens in the absence of spiritual development – the need thereof is at once sensed. While it certainly is not as easy as ABC, it is often never too late to mend. As the Bible says, “Ask and it shall be given unto you; seek and you shall find." Of course, the later one starts, the greater will be the effort required.

Analogy between individual and global sustainability

Physical development – proper nourishment, active lifestyle and temperance inter alia – contributes to a capacity for hard work. Work translates into economic gains. Man works hard and long, earns and pays (taxes, costs of living, salaries to employees etc.) and contributes to the virtuous chain of growth. Physical vitality manifests as money which turns the gears of economic development. However, no individual even though he may be strong and robust, can move mountains without garnering the support of fellow human-beings. This is where the mental-emotional-psychological component of individual development comes in.

Co-operation and co-existence are sine qua non for a civilised society. Social growth is impossible without emotionally mature and wise citizens who live and let live, abide by rules and regulations, help each other, stand up united to quell anti-social elements that threaten peace and harmony. Culture, education, art and language – different manifestations and expressions of the mental, emotional and psychological – also play a positive role in social development. Here, when one talks of citizens one also refers to the administrators / politicians who run the society. The definition of “society” here is subjective. One may refer to a village, city, province or country or for that matter the whole inter-connected world taken together as the so-called Global Village.

Spiritual growth which usually follows the other two entails the acceptance of the fact that each one of us is an infinitesimally-small stitch in the fabric of the universe; yet contributes to making it work shipshape. The realisation that “the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth; all things are connected like the blood which unites family,” (attributed to Chief Seattle’s 1854 speech in the 1972 Hollywood film Home, and also used by Al Gore in his 1992 book – Earth in the Balance); that it is a home one would rent for a while before leaving it for good; that one has a responsibility towards leaving it better than what it was when one occupied it, entrenches itself firmly as man ascends the ladder of spiritual advancement. The use of the terms – “religion” and “theology” – are avoided here though it should be said at this juncture that if religions were roads and spirituality was Rome, all roads lead to Rome. It is the end-goal of all religions – quite like the ocean receiving the waters of many rivers flowing into it. Delio (2008) writes about the French theologian Bonaventure’s efforts to integrate spirituality and theology. Bonaventure, in the 13th century, referred to the incompleteness of the scientific elements of study (the ones on the mental and intellectual planes) – reading, speculation, investigation, observation, work, knowledge, understanding and endeavour – in the absence of the corresponding spiritual counterparts – unction, devotion, wonder, joy, piety, love, humility and divine grace. Mankind needs to tread on these cross-links as well as he ascends the ladder of holistic personal development. Bonaventure opines that the height of theology is wisdom – spiritual knowledge deepened by love. However, it is worth pondering over the impediments posed by religious dogmas and ceremonial rituals to sustainable development. Thereby, the sooner humans transcend religion and attain to spirituality, the better it is for sustainable development.

The “earth” referred to above includes everything other than human beings and anthropogenic systems; and thus is synonymous with the environment in which human beings live and work. It follows that the environment is the home in which everyone dwells and the upkeep of which, all of us are responsible for. Taxes paid by man contribute to economic growth. Those are the gross payables. The subtle ones are the non-monetary obligations towards the environment. Thus, spiritual growth is analogous to environmental sustainability. And quite similar to spiritual growth which demands greater efforts, the later one starts on the path leading to it, the costs of corrective action to undo or mitigate the damages done to the environment increase with time, making prevention better than cure and the present, the best time to act. Figure 1 captures diagrammatically what the earlier paragraphs described textually.

Fig 1
Fig 1 · Mapping holistic individual growth to global sustainable development

Elusive equilibrium

The subtlest for an individual is also the all-encompassing and most difficult to comprehend and attain to. The grossest is the easiest to cater to – materialistic pursuits to pander to the sense organs. The analogy to the environment is easy to grasp – overlooked and prejudiced against at the altar of consumptive growth and affluence (bias in favour of socio-economic development). A greater propensity towards the gross will end up affecting the subtle and hence overall stability and sustainability. Gram-Hanssen (2007), observes that modern hedonism is based on sense-gratification, and pleasure as opposed to needs, is in principle, insatiable. One can dream of having or doing new things, however, actually having them does not necessarily give any satisfaction and new consumption dreams will inevitably arise, leading to an infinite spiral. Kemp & Martens (2007) writes about the imperativeness for people to first differentiate between “real” needs and assumed needs, jettison the latter, and then find out sustainable ways to fulfil the real needs. For instance, Gram-Hanssen (2007) identifies personal hygiene as a real need and concludes that overdoing it entails the adoption of unsustainable practices with respect to material and energy consumption.

If one, of his/her own free will, decides to lean more towards the subtle and spiritual, masters the mind and trains the body to abstain from hedonism, he/she would have fulfilled the need of the century. The equilibrium which is sought is dynamic in nature – on individual, societal and global levels. Tuning and re-tuning at regular intervals of time will be vital to the sustenance of this dynamic equilibrium. What would be mandatory is the subservience of the gross to the subtle; socio-economic growth to environmental conservation; physical vitality and mental prowess to spiritual development. Spiritual growth or its analogue – environmental conservation – would be the broad canvas on which physical-mental development (or its analogue – socio-economic growth) is fashioned and fabricated. This is in keeping with the argument of Giddings, et al (2002) that the nested depiction of sustainable development (Figure 1) is more accurate than the common three-ring sector view. Rajeswar (2001) refers to the term “ecosophy” coined by Arne Næss, the founder of the Deep Ecology Movement, who opined that human cultures have been adjusting to the technology, while it should actually be the other way round. Giddings, et al (2002) also refers to the Deep Ecologists’ contention that it is not right to view the environment from a human standpoint. The paper further observes that humanity’s well-being depends on the environment, but the natural world, although it may change without humans, will continue to survive without them. There is a stark parallel here to what Das (2005) says about the soul – The soul along with its consciousness is eternal and they do not cease even after the body (and mind) have come to an end. As Swami Vivekananda said in a lecture delivered in London in 1896, too much attention to the spiritual may affect our practical interests a little; but too much attention to the so-called practical hurts us here and hereafter; it makes us materialistic. (Vivekananda Vedanta Network)

Here, one is not labelling the physical/economic or the mental/social as unwanted or undesirable. Far from it, human civilisation cannot be sustained without these. Albert Einstein’s famous statement made at the Symposium on Science, Philosophy and Religion in 1941, would capture all this succinctly – Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind (Clark (1972)). Religion here could be considered to be synonymous with spirituality (as mentioned earlier, it is a tool or instrument to attain to spirituality); and science can be considered to be synonymous with technological progress facilitating materialistic growth and socio-economic development. Kemp and Martens (2007) quotes from the Brundtland report of 1987 that ecological sustainability cannot be achieved if the problem of poverty (can be defined as lack of social and economic well-being) is not successfully addressed globally.

Stemming the rot with spirituality

If the world is grappling with problems, as in the case of all evils which are more the offspring of human temptation and an absolute failure of the self-control mechanism of the mind than anything else, the solution rests entirely with man. Minds and brains which have equated capability to domination and supremacy, should comprehend that modesty and austerity can solve even the most gargantuan of problems which are insurmountable with intellect and rhetoric. (Venkatesh (2006)) As Oriental spiritualists have averred from time immemorial, the answer is always to be found within. Take the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path taught by Gautam Buddha for instance. The crux is that suffering (interpreted in the present context, as the lack of global sustainability and the problems which humankind is encountering in the 21st century) arises from attachment to and craving for materialistic possessions with the primary aim of gratifying the mind and the body, at the expense of spiritual advancement. Consider the Muslim practice of fasting during the month of Ramadan. The motive of this is to awaken individuals to understand their ability to conquer the urge to eat and also comprehend the truth that if the temptation of the palate can be curbed, avarice in general can also be similarly overcome (Islam, S. (year unknown)). Swami Vivekananda lectured that there have been many great men and women in this world perfectly sound, moral and good, simply on utilitarian grounds. But, he averred, that “the world-movers, those who bring, as it were, a mass of magnetism into the world, whose spirit works in hundreds and in thousands, whose life ignites others with a spiritual fire – such persons we always find have that spiritual background.”

Kemp & Martens (2007) observes that sustainable development derives from social consensus on what we consider to be unsustainable and what constitutes progress. It can however be stated with certainty that Technology, Logic, and Rhetoric (manifestations of mental and intellectual development) are all imperfect and limited, and are tools which can at best be used for temporary patchwork. Manmade systems which cater to man’s ever increasing appetite for sense enjoyments break down at some point or the other, revealing the inherent deficiencies which existed all along, unknown to and unseen by the men and women who were exploiting them for their materialistic ends. The realisation of certain truths which mankind, at the moment, is not courageous enough to accept and face, is vital. The “Eat, drink and make merry for tomorrow we die” escapism which characterises modern hedonistic thinking needs to be replaced by a more responsible outlook towards life. The captains of industry will continue to flood the markets with commodities at cheaper prices, and compete with each other in the world market for a greater share of the pie. Even if a few producers agree to stop burning more coal, oil or gas, and are able to reduce their outputs, and give up the greed for greater profits, there will be others who will capitalise on their retraction and flood the market with their outputs, to sate the appetites of the consumers. It is only when the buying stops, that the selling also will. So, it is the common man – the lay consumer – who has to take the lead and experiment with a dose of spirituality. The realisation that manmade systems have never been perfect, and the quest for satisfaction in the material world has often ended in frustration and despair – as documented in the history of mankind – should set one and all thinking and pondering over the purpose of human existence. (Take the economic depressions for instance which force individuals to change their lifestyles. If they had never aspired to ever-richer lifestyles in the first place, there would be no shocks and truly, no “economic depressions”!) Mastering Nature – which man wrongly believes he has been able to attain to – with the sole aim of exploiting its bounties for his material prosperity, has not been just an illusion, as Nature has proved time and again, but has also brought in its wake, offsetting agents which have defeated the very purpose of the utilisation of these bounties. Maiming, taming, plundering and subjugating Nature merely for the “assumed human needs’ is not the purported stewardship of Nature on God’s behalf. Grey (2004) laments that driving consumerism and greed have become substitutes for authentic fulfilment. She states that the Spirit is the green face of God moving us towards compassion, embodied relationships, celebration of diversity and a concern for the common good. What she labels as Spirit is what the Hindus refer to as the soul. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, one needs to develop spiritual intelligence to control the mind. The mind is instrumental in latching one on to materialistic dreams; emotions and sentiments often come in the way of objective reasoning which is a must for attaining to the common good, referred to in Grey (2004). The body, mind and heart are subservient to the Spirit Soul which every individual needs to identify with.

If one can shed his attachment to, and preoccupation with material pleasures, which entangle him endlessly in this “wheels-within-wheels” world, and divert attention to the subtle soul beyond the body and mind, one would realize firstly, that the pursuit of happiness had all along been misdirected. When one would comprehend the divinity of the soul and its interrelationship with the souls of all life on earth through a common strand which the Hindus would identify as the Supreme Soul or Brahman and the Christians would label as The Lord, one would at once understand that every action of an individual affects the lives of others, through the said “common strand”. The realisation that clothing the body with expensive apparel, and attempting to augment one’s status in society by feeding the mind endlessly with the pride of owing material possessions and riches, can never bring lasting peace, will dawn. As Das, 2005 says, maintenance of the body (and mind) just allows one to perform the activity of existing in it (and working through it) and this does not really denote any accomplishment of a goal. However, quite similar to the temptations which Satan thought Jesus Christ could be defeated with, or the confusions which befuddled the Pandava warrior Arjuna in the Mahabharatha, one may wonder if one’s individual efforts to turn away from materialistic desires would be in vain, being as it may possibly turn out to be, a drop in the ocean, and try to posit this wonderment as a pretext for not “dematerialising”. This is a very commonly encountered “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, associated more with minds and hearts not trained in spirituality. A spiritually-aware person believes in the Absolute Good and guides his mind accordingly, unlike an individual trapped in materialistic quagmires and enslaved by his heart and mind. What we thus are seeking is a spiritual revolution.

Common strife

All the “tiny magnets” (individuals) need to orient themselves in the same direction (develop spiritually in addition to emotionally and physically) to fully magnetise (move towards sustainability) the piece of iron (earth) they belong to. To start off, economic benefits could serve as drivers for moves towards environmental sustainability – with resource depletion, increasing raw material and energy costs, and even the “green” advantage in the marketplace making it mandatory to be eco-friendly – but in the long run, when the economic benefits would lose their appeal, a spiritual outlook will be the indispensable for global sustainability. The term “dematerialisation” was originally coined from a manufacturing and production (socio-economic) point of view. However, it can also be construed from a spiritual standpoint as a move away from materialism. A move away from materialism does not necessarily mean a plummeting economy and a discontented society – especially if the economy is run by and the society comprised of spiritually-enlightened individuals.

As Rajeswar (2002) states, scientific adventurism should give way to holistic wisdom. Quoting St. Matthew (Matthew 5.5) from the Holy Bible, “The meek shall inherit the earth”. “Meek”, here is of course not synonymous with “weak”, but the contrary when viewed from a spiritual point of view. It can be concluded and averred (borrowing from Dempsey, 2004) that integrated and informed theology and spirituality can and must play a major role in shaping attitudes about how we are to live life on planet Earth. Quoting Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore from the film – An Inconvenient Truth, “I believe this is a moral issue…it is our time to rise again (and tap into our spiritual reservoirs) to secure our future.” Year 2009 is being designated as the year of change (Ganesh, 2008); change on the individual level to incorporate spirituality into everyday living, to adapt to the environment, will assume paramount importance.


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