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Sustainability and the value of inclusion

Sustainability has often been described as a ‘normative science.’ This means that sustainability asks what we should do to make things better for present and future generations and the planetary systems that support life. Embedded in the notion of should and better is a sense of fairness, or equity.

Sustainability is a powerful idea because it starts with the principle of inter-generational equity, meaning that current generations need to think of the well-being of future generations, not just their own, as they make decisions.

It also includes the need for intra-generational equity, or fairness within present generations of people, both as a principle of fairness and for what is necessary to get us to a sustainable future (gross inequities can undermine the ability of societies to think and act in the interests of long term viability of people and the planet).

The sustainability principles of fairness and equity are best achieved through deliberate acts of inclusion. I use the term ‘deliberate’ deliberately because inclusion rarely happens on its own. This is not necessarily because of bad intentions, but because people will often seek out those who share the same values and experiences and even physical appearances.

But the pay-offs of deliberate inclusiveness are too important to ignore. We have ample evidence that demonstrates that innovation and group productivity is enhanced by greater diversity and inclusivity. To be clear, these pay-offs occur not simply from grouping diverse people together — there must be opportunity for all individuals in the group to participate, have a voice, or state an opinion. A key role of leaders is making sure that all–not only the loudest or the most senior–are deliberately invited to participate. It is also critical that people are treated with dignity and respect, and know they are valued.

In sustainability, we benefit from teaching in a field that requires inclusive approaches in order to succeed. In the School of Sustainability, inclusivity is built into our curricula, whether in methods (e.g. stakeholder engagement) or as core content (e.g. justice and ethics in sustainability).

Principles of equity, diversity, and inclusivity cannot be ‘add-ons’ or afterthoughts if they are going to be taken seriously. In my experience, the best way to engage meaningfully with these and other principles is to integrate them into the curriculum, which is something we have worked hard to do over the last dozen years in the School of Sustainability. This is not about imposing one’s set of morals on another — it is about recognizing what makes institutions effective and what motivates people so that they can continue to grow, learn, and be successful.

For sustainability to succeed, it must be an all-in endeavor.