With intrinsic sustainability I try to describe a sustainable mindset that bears sustainability within as premise of action. Not as replacement for other premises, but as an additional one. And this premise will reflect in every action and decision a person makes.


Intrinsic Sustainability

There is a large number of notions, ideas, approaches and concepts already in existence – some of them have been there for many years – that describe the paths of achieving sustainability. And many people don’t seem to know about them. People, that are actually quite eager in their doing to pursue or at least contribute to a sustainable human world. Learning about this got me confused. I would assume, that many people with an intrinsic belief in sustainable solutions, like myself, are or were searching for not an but the answer to this problem. And when I opened myself up to this world I realized how rich it already was and that it is not about one compelling idea but about the person to put into practice one of the many ideas that are already out there.

There is a certain set of internal traits a person must have or develop within his or her own personality to allow this person the consideration of environmental concerns in its behavior. This personality is characterized by high complexity. This being said, the importance of personality development within the discussion of sustainability issues can be assumed to be quite significant. We then might agree that we are discussing an anthropological problem. And to solve this problem we may have to take a deep look into the human being.

Development of Intrinsic Sustainability

Clare W. Graves describes different levels of human existence – in Spiral Dynamics defined as Memes. These levels develop in human beings in a specified succession. Each level brings about new traits that cause new behaviors within the respective person. In theory there could be a certain level that allows humans to consider sustainable issues in their own actions intrinsically.

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 the cognition, affects, moral, spirituality and many more. 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. One might agree that this research topic is a rather complex one.

Certain conditions or experiences can lead to a shift of the developmental level. And there are also 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 human beings personality. 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 very 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

If we keep that in mind and take a look outside and into our reward systems at work and start to analyze the behaviors in the business world we might start to think. It looks to me that major areas of our economy are designed by this pattern. Rewards, for instance, are the pay, status, respect, influence or power. Punishments are 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 I strongly suspect this to be one considerable reason that prevents us as a group 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 my opinion and 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. The managers and owners of the 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 would seem 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? That is a major question and I would like to discuss it with you. There are several levers and entry points. And to be honest, every individual could require a different approach depending on the level he or she currently is to be located.

  • Let’s get started and see where it takes us or
  • feel free to pick up the readings and find your own way.

To me: Please don’t expect a consultant. I am not (yet) a consultant and have never worked as one. What I could be to you is an advisor, companion or maybe just a partner for discussions.

Für deutsche Inhalte besuchen Sie bitte Intrinsische Nachhaltigkeit.


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