Intrinsic sustainability suggests that it requires an intrinsic element to achieve self-imposed sustainable behavior in human beings.


Intrinsic Sustainability

There are theories that describe a process of inclusion that allows human beings to add certain internal traits to their personality. Intrinsic sustainable behavior is based on a set of such traits. A personality like that can be characterized by a high level of complexity. This being said, the importance of personal development within the discussion of sustainability issues can be assumed to be of quite significance. This would mean that we are discussing an anthropological problem. And to solve this problem we may have to take a deeper look into the human being.

Development of Intrinsic Sustainability

From different concepts we learn about the connection between personal maturity and sustainable behavior. The process of personal development depends on the human beings ability of finding solutions to a series of existential problems that unfold throughout a lifetime. With every problem solved the personality grows more complex including more worldly substance. Research helped to define several aggregates or stages of personality that follow a designated order. There seems to be a specific level of complexity that demands the inclusion of sustainability.

Clare W. Graves refers to these as levels of human existence – in Spiral Dynamics defined as Memes. Within the person the levels of existence cannot always be determined clearly. Not only are usually several of these levels active at the same time. In addition the personality of a human being can be divided into different components, like cognition, affects, moral, spirituality and so on. Ken Wilber refers to these components as developmental lines of the personality. Each component has its own level of existence. This means that the personality of a human being can be composed by various components of different levels of existence.

Certain conditions or experiences can lead to a shift of the development level. But there are obstacles that prevent the personality from proceeding. One of the main obstacles in this theory is defined as the ego. Explained in a simplified fashion, the ego holds on to a certain set of characteristics which it refers to as its identity and which it defends with high emotional attachment. Due to that mechanism the development of the personality can come to a halt and wont be able to reach intrinsic sustainability.

Intrinsic Sustainability and Moral

Concerning intrinsic sustainability the moral development of a person seems to be a crucial factor. Moral represents one component of the personality of a human being. Lawrence Kohlberg defines 6 moral stages in a model of a similar type as Graves levels of human existence. The 6th and highest moral stage is of particular interest. It represents a universal moral. Its primary objective is the equality of all claims in all situations. This contains the collective responsibility to realize and mediate between all stages, the pedagogical commitment towards individuals of lower stages and the self-expectation to actually realize the 6th stage for ones own life.

It gets interesting when we take a look at the lower moral stages. In an abbreviated form the pre-conventional stages are defined as follows: Stage 1 is directly oriented towards punishment, obedience and reward. Desired are actions that avoid punishment or deliver reward. At stage 2 an action is just, if it can be claimed by the involved parties and brings advantage or serves to prevent disadvantage reciprocally. The mutual relation is of exploiting nature. If we compare these two stages to the definition of extrinsic motivation by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan we obtain similar descriptions: Extrinsic motivated behavior is of exploiting character and serves to acquire a consequence, which is separable from the action. The behavior depends on external incentives and controls. The primary objective is to avoid punishment or to receive reward.

Intrinsic Sustainability - Moral and Behavior
Intrinsic Sustainability – Moral and Behavior

Let’s take a look at the behaviors in the business world. It seems that major areas of our economy are designed by this pattern. Rewards, for instance, are payment, status, respect, influence or power. Punishments can be sanctions, dismissal, demotion, humiliation and others. And if it is true that the majority of this system is executed by the laws of the lowest moral stages, then this can be suspected to be one reason that prevents us as a collective from reaching higher moral stages of more universal ethics that could allow us to incorporate behaviors of a more sustainable nature intrinsically.

It requires an Inner Frame

In consideration of the theories of Kohlberg and Deci/Ryan a set of rules and obligations that is administered extrinsically is not enough to fulfill the requirements that the concept of sustainability demands on a global and long-term basis. It needs an intrinsic set of rules that is transferred into every single action and decision of an individual. Sustainability as intrinsic premise of action. What group of individuals in our society need to have such an inner frame? At least the ones that make the decisions with the biggest impact. The people that represent the top of our power hierarchies, like managers and owners of companies, political leaders, or in short: the ones with the greatest responsibility.

How to develop such an inner frame? The individual has to learn to reflect on its intrinsic value base. Abraham H. Maslow, for instance, defines a fundamental value base that can’t be reduced to any deeper reference level. In contrast to this approach, companies are run differently. Quite common are the three levels of decision making: strategy, tactics and operative. In top down manner the leadership level sets the strategy and with it the main course on a long-term basis, referring to global trends, economic cycles, legislative initiative etc. The tactical level is represented by the middle management to ensure that the strategy gets translated into short- and mid-term directives for the operative level to deal with immediate processes. Every link of the chain seems to be focused on an exterior reference point.

What could an interior reference point look like? Intrinsic values represent an ultimate inner base. If an individual is able to transfer its true values into its actions, he or she would act with integrity. The result is an operative level which is completely run by its interior base. A reasonable value base doesn’t need a superordinate authority and makes the strategic level obsolete. A strategy could still be identified by the sum of all actions. But it wouldn’t need a planning body. In such an idealistic approach an internal control unit is of high importance. The self-reflecting consciousness needs to run control loops continuously. And this seems to be the critical point: a self-reflecting consciousness that intrinsically considers sustainability in every decision making process.

Intrinsic Sustainability Values
Intrinsic Sustainability Values

How to realize?

How to create intrinsic sustainability? This seems like a major question. In theory there are several levers and entry points. Dealing with these is very individual. Let’s have a chat and see where it takes.


Please contact me via email:
intrinsic-sustainability [at] posteo.de

Steve Windels, PhD Intrinsic Sustainability
Steve Windels, PhD Intrinsic Sustainability

Für deutsche Inhalte besuchen Sie bitte Intrinsische Nachhaltigkeit.