On ‘The Environment’ and ‘Sustainability’: An Interdisciplinary Re-Framing

By Thomas Hench and John Betton.

Published by The Sustainability Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

It is axiomatic that how problems are solved depends greatly on how they are framed (Lakoff 2004, Nunberg 2006). This is why the framing of sustainability is so critical. The more people try to find some kind of ‘balance’ or ‘fit’ between themselves and their environment—as if environments were not only already set in place but also separate and independent of the organisms presumably contained within them—the more the present discourse fails to keep pace with recent thinking in a number of key disciplines informing our understanding of sustainability.
Building on recent work in the biological sciences— i.e., Wilson (1996, 2002), Lewontin (1991, 2000), Odling-Smee, Laland and Feldman (2003), and Erwin and Krakauer (2004)—as well as in architectural theory and cosmology (Alexander 2002a,b, 2004a,b, 2005), we propose to re-frame our understanding of both “the environment” and “sustainability” while still honoring the definition of sustainability adopted in the 1987 Brundtland Report.
In this re-framing, the challenge of sustainability shifts from a focus on control to a focus on creation. In fact, it shifts to a focus on co-creation through organism:environment interaction. In Lewontin’s words (1991: 109), “Just as there is no organism without an environment, there is no environment without an organism. Organisms do not experience environments. They create them.” Ultimately, this re-framing fundamentally changes the challenge of sustainability from one of control to one of joint creation—a change of significant import for how sustainability itself might actually be achieved.

Keywords: Sustainability, Environment, Framing, Niche Construction

The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Volume 3, Issue 5, pp.51-66. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.794MB).

Dr. Thomas Hench

Associate Professor of Mangement, Department of Mangement, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA

Tom Hench is Associate Professor of Management at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where he teaches a broad array of management courses. He received his Doctorate in Management from the University of South Carolina in 1997. His dissertation, "An Evolutionary History of the Office Systems Furniture Industry and the Nature of Strategic Change," examined evolution, entrepreneurship, and strategy as emergent, self-organizing processes. Tom also holds Masters degrees in Management and International Relations from Vanderbilt University (1973) and Boston University (1971), respectively. Before earning his doctorate, he worked for nearly two decades in product management and product development for high-growth manufacturing companies, with much of his time spent in the office systems furniture industry. Tom is most interested in change management and changing paradigms and how we frame the problems we hope to solve.

Dr. John Betton

Professor, College of Business, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA

John Betton graduated with a doctorate from the University of South Carolina following twelve years working in Europe. He is Professor of Comparative Mangement Systems at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse where he teaches classes in business and human rights as well as occasional courses in the environmental studies program. His research has appeared in The Academy of Mangement Review and Labor Law journal as well as more interdisciplinary publications such as Social Forces and Journal of Genocide Research.

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