Micro vs Macro Sustainability

Remember the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”? That expression came to mind this past week during a discussion on sustainability.

I was having lunch with a colleague and she was saying that the Triple Bottom line should be described as “Profit, People and Planet”. I mentioned that it was most commonly referred to as “People, Planet and Profits”.

She said that we were saying the same thing, that it was just semantics and moved on to another topic. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I didn’t think we were really discussing semantics.

I believe that we were really discussing something bigger. I think we were having a discussion that has been going on for quite some time and is one of the stumbling blocks of sustainability; Micro vs. Macro Sustainability. I couldn’t find any papers or articles on this topic so I’ll coin the term and try to explain it for others to build on.

In economics 101 we learned that Microeconomics is a branch of economics that studies how households and firms make decisions to allocate limited resources. Macroeconomics is the branch of economics that deals with the performance, structure, and behavior of the economy of the entire community, either a nation, a region or the entire world.

Using this structure as a framework for Micro and Macro Sustainability, we could view Microsustainability as the area of sustainable development that focuses on how individuals, organizations and business decide what activities they should engage in and how to and where to allocate their resources. Macrosustainabilty would then be the area of sustainable development that focuses on how a nation, region or the entire world would establish large scale behaviors for sustainability; the Kyoto Treaty would fall into this category.

That’s what I believe we were discussing, not a simple matter of semantics but two entirely different view points. My colleague was a speaking from her position as a corporate environmental manager. She believed that she had to first look at the profit that she could demonstrate from her activities, then determine what other departments she would need to bring into her project and then as a result of her project, the by product would be some benefit to the earth.

I had heard the term “Triple Bottom Line” and my mind had gone straight to the Macrosustainability arena and framed the discussion as a world view.

I believe that we all sometimes run into this type of discussion, or in some cases argument, when two well intentional groups come together and try to establish future sustainability initiatives and goals. We each have our own individual points of view that are created from our past experiences. We tend to frame our positions from our own individual, safe, comfortable and time tested reality.

I believe that it is important to remember what Einstein said,

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

Albert Einstein

So, now we’re back to the forest and the trees. Remember when you are discussing or establishing your sustainability projects, initiatives or goals that there are two points of view or two areas of operation that you should consider when framing your activities, are you looking at a tree or the forest.


3 thoughts on “Micro vs Macro Sustainability

  1. The analogy with economics is a very good one. What is most important to understand in practice is that we can work endlessly to make individual organizations sustainable using G3 or other tools (microsustainability) but if we don’t also support/promote fundamental societal change (macrosustainability) we will not be successful “in time”. Look at the work that the University of Vermont is doing to foster and implement fundamental (macrosustainability) change: http://www.uvm.edu/giee/?Page=research/greentax/commonassets.html

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. An example of macrosustainability question is “Why are non-energy star rated appliances even allowed to be sold in America?” vs. microsustainability question of “If I buy this energy star appliance, how much money will I save on my energy bill?” Very interesting points of view. Keep it up.

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