Fundamentals of Social Sustainability - synopsis

Hypothesis as Introduction

If we can discover what has sustained our species for over 40,000+ years, could we then embed that into our social institutions, organizations, and processes to give them the same sustainability to remain viable in the term of centuries and millennia? 

The following articles are very brief explorations into the topics of my new book, Fundamentals of Social Sustainability – Designing Sustainable Societies, Democracies and Economies (unpublished). 

  • What is it about our species that has sustained it for so many millennia? 
  • Could we use the answers to that question in the design of all things social to create sustainable societies, sustainable democracies, and sustainable economies? 
  • Wouldn’t we also need a decision-making compass to assist us individually and as social organizations to make consistent decisions and take actions that move us in the right direction toward social sustainability? 
  • And, wouldn’t we then need a methodology that takes advantage of those decision-making rules to invent and design social processes and institutions to become socially sustainable?  What would that methodology look like?  How would it work and who would exercise its use? 
  • Lastly, if it is really possible to design sustainable societies, sustainable democracies and sustainable economies, who would take the necessary actions?  Who is ultimately responsible for the sustainability of our societies?  If we know who they are, how will they be trained, what will they be trained to do and who will provide the training? 
  • Is it possible, then, to design social structures that have the potential to eliminate or resolve the problems of “social justice” and poverty?  If that is possible, then surely sustainable peace cannot be far away. 
  • What are the consequences if we do not answer these questions to develop sustainable families, communities, nations and a global civilization?      

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
1.  What has Sustained Our Species for over  40,000 years?

The Homo sapiens species has survived and thrived for over 40,000 years.  What is it that has given us this incredible urge to continue generation after generation?  Despite wars, famine and diseases our species now fully occupies the whole planet.  Some scientists have said that it is our large brain and opposable thumb, while others have said it is our capacity to adapt, invent, and join in working teams to overcome immense challenges.  The answer is much deeper than that.  The answer involves the values that are specific to our species and none other. 

Those core values are:    Quality of life,     Growth,     Equality

The values of our species drives us through the entirety of our lives, whether that means our physical, social, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual life.   Remarkably these values are universal to all members of our species of every nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, culture, age, or religion.  As our species is so highly social, our original hypothesis needs just a bit of tweaking:  If our species has been sustained by these values, can they be embedded in the design of our organizations so that they too become sustainable and capable of contributing to the social sustainability of our species? 

A well educated man asked me just a few months ago, “What proof do you have that these three values are core to our species’ existence?”  I replied,  “They are self-evident similarly as those stated in the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   These values are self-evident because human existence is impossible without them.  Everyone wants a better quality of life in all regards; we want to grow, we need to grow; and we want to be valued equally and to live equally as any other person.  When these are withheld from us, we will move heaven and earth to fulfill them. 

Conclusion:    Three core values  =  species sustainability.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability  —
2. QUALITY OF LIFE, the Primary Value of Social Sustainability

Once survival is assured, the primary value that has promoted the advancement of personal, social, and civilizational improvement is our urge to improve the QUALITY OF LIFE.  Though our immediate consideration is usually for us personally, altruism and self-sacrifice have played a substantial role in the development of an improved quality of life for families and communities.   This value and the other two are universal solely to Homo sapiens.  No other species exhibit these qualities, not horses, pigs, bats, elephants, or porpoises, for example. 

Example:  The time is tens of thousands of years ago.  The setting is the rock covered shelter or cave that you and your kin live in.  You wear fur-skin “clothing” and moss–filled footwear.  You and your family do not have fire.  One day you and your kin come upon a small clan of individuals who are sitting around a campfire.  You like the feeling of the fire, but you are chased away when you try to secure a burning limb. 

That evening you approach your neighbor’s camp to see how they make fire.  As the hours pass the fire slowly dies out as the evening rains soak the fire.  Still waiting in the chill of dawn, you observe your neighbors make fire when the small sparks blaze up.   Going to your own shelter, you secure the rudimentary tools you need to make fire.  After a day of trial and error experimenting you finally succeed.  Now you and your kin can stay warm, cook the meat you have killed, and live more easily during cold nights. 

Another example:  In those early millennia our species were nomads who secured their living by hunting and gathering.  We would secure our drinking water at streams and lakes; and defecate and urinate wherever it was convenient.  As our species became sedentary, we still gathered our water from streams, but we learned to dig latrines in the dirt in which to leave our bodily solids and fluids.  Later, we built houses, dug wells and used hand pumps to secure our water, and built outhouses.  The trek to the pumphouse and to the outhouse in cold weather was inconvenient.  Decades later we had “indoor plumbing” with pressurized water delivered indoors by pipes, and our outhouses moved indoors to the “water closet.”  

Examples of improving our quality of life by learning from experience and growing in our skills could also be extended to transportation, cooking, and hundreds more.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
3.  GROWTH, a Secondary Value of our Species’ Sustainability

GROWTH is a subordinate value that contributes to the primary value, the quality of life.  Growth is essential for improving our quality of life.  It is self-evident that growth is essential to our existence and personal and societal fulfillment.  To be human is to grow!  Having children provides us with a very immediate perspective of growth.  As the child grows physically, mentally, emotionally, intellectually, culturally, socially and spiritually they become more human.  We did not become who we are without growing.  The marks of growth are inherent in children who are full of energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and inquisitiveness!  An improving quality of life cannot be attained without growth. 

Do not confuse sustainable growth with social sustainability.  Just because a society or corporation has continued growth does not mean that it has become impervious to decline and death.  Growth in terms of its contribution to sustainability is related to the quality of existence.  “Bigger” and “more” do not assure longevity.  Quantitative growth has limits while qualitative growth can push the limits of the infinite.  For a social organization, whether a corporation or a whole society, to become sustainable it can only grow to the limits that it contributes qualitatively to those it serves.   

Quantitative growth is dependent upon success, but qualitative growth that assures sustainability is dependent upon learning from successes and failures.  Learning is an organic function of qualitative growth and development.  Yet, learning is not a universally embedded function in the operation of most organizations. 

Now, let us complete the original hypothesis: 

If we embed the three core values that have sustained our species for tens of millennia into the design of social organizations, would those organizations become socially sustainable “learning organizations” with the same sustainability as our species? 

Ironically, corporations, governments and even the democratic process of nations do not include “growth by learning” as an operational process to assure their longevity!  No wonder huge financial institutions and governments fail!  Do any of them have a working “library of sustainability wisdom” they can call upon to ensure their longevity?  Do any algorithms exist that analyze and organize such data?    And, if they do not, can they be written?

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
4.  EQUALITY, a Secondary Value of our Species’ Sustainability

EQUALITY is the third value that has supported the sustainability of our species.  In a previous example, I used fire as an improvement to the quality of life of our primitive ancestors.  One group had the comforts of fire while the onlooker did not.  Between them, the quality of life was unequal.  Those who did not have fire wanted it.  

It was the ancient story of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  Eventually, in the course of improving their quality of life (standards of living) fire moved from the outdoors to indoors to become a fireplace, then a woodstove, then a gas or electric stove, and now microwave ovens and flux heating ovens.  The inequality of the objects that we own is easy to point to, which has caused some societies to become highly materialistic. 

Being less obvious, the inequality of political and social rights of individuals took many decades to become equalized, but in reality they only made each of us more equal as quantities of one.  Culturally we still have not come to value individuals of our society for the quality of the contributions they could make to themselves, their families, community and society. 

Culturally, our competitive nature has caused us to view others as separate from ourselves.  Our competitive nature has become our preferred, cultural and unconscious method to improve our quality of life.  Unfortunately we have come to see others as objects to be used or simply “in the way.”  Has competition outworn its effectiveness to improve our personal, social, and corporate quality of life?  I think so. 

The option to competition is cooperation.  In a cooperative society we see the value of each person as an equally valuable social asset who can contribute to the stability and longevity of our communities — and, yes, to the whole of our global civilization.   When we see others as social assets whose quality of participation can be improved, then we will have come a long way to see equality as one of the important values of our species’ sustainability.  When we appreciate ourselves as having the quality-value as anyone and everyone else, we will see an improvement in our self-worth and self-esteem that will increase our quality-value as a contributor to the quality of our own life, family and society.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
5.  How Do We Measure EQUALITY, as Quantity or Quality ?

Few of us have ever thought of ourselves as being valued for the quality of our participation in our community or society.  It is not something we have been taught.  Our cultural roots have identified us as “quantity-objects”.  

If we examine the roots of our United States culture, we can put our finger on the document that told us that we are “quantity-objects” rather than individuals having “quality-value.”   The document is the United States Declaration of Independence:   “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

For 237 years we have blindly accepted that each of us is a quantity of one equal to every other person as a quantity of one.  The “one person, one vote” sense of equality is so deeply engrained in our American culture that it has created an extreme individualism that brings out the worst of our competitive nature, and an intolerable social separation.  Seeing our selves so separately creates a social separation that ignores the valuable qualitative contributions that others can bring to a cooperative relationship.

The opposite of being a “quantity-object” is an individual who has “quality-value.” “Quality-value” is not such an odd concept to accept.  Consider the simple example of two tug-of-war teams.  We know that for the tug-of-war to be fair we must have the same quantity-object (number) of members on our team.  We also realize that having members with more “quality-value” by being heavier, stronger, and better trained in the skills of tug-of-war make all the difference in winning or losing.  Isn’t it time we thought of ourselves, individually, and our communities in the same way?  When we do, we will begin to see that equality is a matter of choice to make decisions to increase the social value of people in our societies by improving the qualities of their participation.

Equality:  Is it measured in terms of quantity or quality?  When we are valued for the quality of our participation then the value of our presence as one becomes invested in every aspect of our social existence.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
6.  Can We Embed the Three Core Values in Social Structures?

Now that we have discovered the reasons for our species’ sustainability in these three values, it is time to pour them into the forms of our social organizations to create a sustainable society.  Is it too much of a leap of logic and reasoning to hypothesize that if  these three core values can be embedded in the design of social organizations and institutions, would they become sustainable in the term of centuries and millennia? 

Our species has invented everything that is around us, yet we have not built a better family design, neighborhood design, health care design, educational design, and jurisprudence design, for examples.  Asking “the why? question” is irrelevant.  A far better question is, “What do we need to do to invent better social designs?”  Asking that question assumes we want, desire and need better, healthier, more productive and more effective social designs.  So, do we?  For the sake of developing these concepts into systems of social holism, let us assume that everyone wants to design better social organizations, institutions and social policies. 

Though some things do not exist, their existence seems obviously necessary.  Consider that we do not have a “library of sustainability wisdom” that has secured every scrap of wisdom from history that pertains to society stability, longevity and continuity.  Considering that prior and contemporary civilizations have recorded thousands of tragedies and triumphs in hundreds of societies, where is the “library of sustainability wisdom” that has the history of “what works” to support successful, stable and enduring societies, governments and corporations?  The defeats are always highly visible, but where are the infallible social, government and business rules that tell everyone, “Doing this will cause failure!”  It seems to me that it is far past time to organize, catalogue, collate and publish “the wisdom of history” that would allow us make far wiser decisions and actions. 

Now that we have identified the values that are universal to our species, the next step is to invent a methodology, a moral compass of social sustainability that implicitly incorporates those values into the options for decision-making for all activities of human existence.  Using such a compass of sustainability would provide a consistent underlying force to organize all human efforts at all levels of all societies, which all societies today do not have.  Then societies will become sustainable.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
7.  The Moral Compass of Social Sustainability 

It seems reasonable that to make decisions and take actions that are consistent with our species’ continued sustainability, those three values must be applied to all aspects of human social existence.   A methodology that includes them would create a “moral compass of social sustainability.” 

Considering that “social” exists at three levels:

  • Personal
  • Social Entities at community and societal levels, and
  • Global Entities at national, international and global levels…

… their interaction creates “nine spheres of socially sustainable moral decision-making”:

1.  Person to person; 
2.  Person to social entity;  
3.  Person to global entity

Social Entity:   
4.  Social entity to social entity; 
5.  Social entity to individual; 
6.  Social entity to global entity

Global entity
7.  Global entity to global entity; 
8.  Global entity to social entity;  
9.  Global entity to individual.

Introducing the three values of our species’ sustainability produces “twenty-seven questions to discern moral social sustainability.”  As example, consider the nine positions of a Personal Morality of Social Sustainability: 

Personal:  A personal morality of socially sustainability asks nine questions:  Does my decision improve or diminish the quality of life of another [individual, social entity, global entity]?  Does my decision improve or diminish the potential for growth of another [individual, social entity, global entity]?  Does my decision demonstrate equal value for another [individual, social entity, global entity]? 

When we replicate this process for social entities and global entities, the morality of social sustainability leaves very few exceptions.  The traditional morality our societies have used for over 4,000 year old was never designed to guide the behavior of corporations or governments.  It was designed solely as a person-to-person morality.  A moral compass based on the values that have sustained our species would provide a universal guide for all activities for all individuals and all organizations whether local or international, including governments and corporations.  It would provide a means to organize all human decisions and activities to assure the continuity of our species and our societies while also addressing the social justice of individuals and families.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
8.  Wouldn’t We Need to Examine more than just Values?

To make moral decisions concerning social topics for a society, we must fully understand everything that emanates from each value, including their related beliefs and assumptions, expectations and criteria of fulfillment of those topics. 

Values:  Quality of life, growth and equality.  These are the values that have sustained our species for tens of millennia; and, they are irreducible. 

Beliefs:  What emanates from our values?  Beliefs!  Lots of them.  

Assumptions:  An assumption is a statement or interpretation of a value or belief that is assumed to be true and from which a conclusion can be drawn.  The reasons why one individual holds beliefs about a core value so differently from another person is due to unexamined assumptions that the person holds as true.  Most people have not had their assumptions questioned by someone, nor have they examined them.  If we are to design social structures that are sustainable into a long future, then it is imperative that our methodology helps us reveal all aspects of our beliefs, particularly our assumptions, about all things relevant to the topics and designs we are endeavoring to create. 

Expectations.  Every belief and its subordinate assumptions have inherent expectations about how and what we must do to fulfill and satisfy that belief and the value it relates to.  If we have a specific belief, then we also know what we are expected to do to satisfy that belief. 

Criteria of Fulfillment.  Every expectation of every belief has specific measurable actions and behaviors that fulfill those expectations.   The primary question we must ask in order to make rational decisions is, “Do these criteria help or hinder the fulfillment of the three core values of our species’ sustainability?” 

Designing a sustainable social process, organization or even a social policy that contributes to social sustainability may seem tedious and require rigorous attention to detail, but it is a procedure that need not be repeated when it is completed accurately.  Our next chore will be to invent a methodology that incorporates all of these elements of values to help us begin designing sustainable societies.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
9.  A Methodology for Designing Stable Social Structures

The schematic below puts the three values and subordinate elements in relationship.

~ Schematic for Validating Social Sustainability ~

Project: ____________________Page:______

1.     Global Statement of Project: ____________________________________________________________________________

2.     AREA OF SUSTAINABILITY:     a.  Social  or  b.  Material ?   (Circle one)

3.     State the social project being designed for sustainability (e.g., family, childrearing, community, education, health care,
        economy,  commerce and trade, governance, or other)
:  _______________________________________________________


         State the material project being designed for sustainability: _____________________________



4.     VENUE:      ¦ Individual/Family           ¦ Community             ¦ State/Region           ¦ National          ¦ Global  Region           ¦ Global

5.     STATEMENT OF INTENTION  (briefly):________________________________________________________________________.

                     - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

9.  VALUES              8.  BELIEFS                         7.  EXPECTATIONS                      6.   CRITERIA FOR FULFILLMENT  (See #1)

                                               (and assumptions)                                                                                             (This should be measurable.)

  We value….           *We believe….                     *We expect….                           We observe ….


*Quality              ____________________________________________________________________________________

  of Life              ____________________________________________________________________________________


*Growth             ____________________________________________________________________________________



 *Equality          ____________________________________________________________________________________


© Copyright Daniel Raphael, Ph.D. 2014 USA.

[email protected]


When all beliefs and their underlying assumptions, expectations and criteria of fulfillment are validated as being consistent with the three values, then the Project can be validated as supporting or contributing to the social sustainability of the larger goals of this project.  Validation or invalidation should be documented and forwarded to a “library of sustainability wisdom,” where it would be collated with similar topical (in)validations; and become available to others who are working on similar or related topics.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
10.  Who Will Exercise this Methodology for Sustainability?

Almost all social innovations begin at the local level, initiated by someone who senses that the time and circumstances are right to support the innovation.  Designing sustainable social processes, organizations and social policies is not any different.  When we ask, “Who is ultimately responsible for our social existence?”, the answer once again comes back to us as individuals in our communities. 

A good place to start is a local team setting.  A local team provides a miniature representation of a community and society, where varying beliefs and assumptions can be exposed and examined openly by several people for validation by the three values.  The configuration of such a “Social Sustainability Design Team” may look like this: 

  • 5-11 members – Optimum for an interactive team setting. 
  • Facilitator – Facilitates effective dialogue of the team. 
  • Recorder – Records the significant discoveries and lines of inquiry. 
  • Consultant – Keeps the team focused on the long-term aspects of its inquiry. 
  • Inquiring Members – Ask diligent and probing questions. 

The initiator who solicits others to join the team and orchestrates the organization of the team and its topic(s) may not become the facilitator of the Team.   His/her function is to organize a team of individuals who have a common interest, then develop the team into a bonded group who have learned they can depend on their teammates. 

Time, place and setting are important as this is a person-to-person activity where the full participation of the members will be needed to achieve positive outcomes.  Remote connections via video conferencing are discouraged because so much of the interaction in the team is subtle and non-verbal.  This work becomes very personal when members rely upon their experiences, education and wisdom, as demonstrated in prior experimental work using this team configuration and methodology. 

Who will take responsibility for creating innovative solutions to local social, political and economic problems?  The answer lies with self-initiating local leaders, that 1% of every population who are self-starters, who seek to create solutions rather than fixing the same problems over and over again.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
11.  Who Will Train and Form Sustainability Teams?

Several ironies need to be considered by anyone who wishes to train Sustainability Design Teams and members.  First, potential users will almost immediately discover that the three core values do not support personal self-interest, special interest, partisan, or influenced special interest agendas.  The three values only validate actions that benefit our species’ sustainability.  It will require ingenious business innovations to see sources of ongoing income and profit within these processes. 

Second, because pursuing socially sustainable options to social action projects does not have a profit motive, who will be interested?  Almost no one, yet everyone may be interested because pursuing socially sustainable options in social action programs benefits everyone!  In the beginning, producing the training would require deep pockets and an altruistic inclination to approach the training project as a gift to society.  An organization that seeks to investigate a social topic of its choosing must as well be an altruistic organization. 

If one were to take “social justice” and poverty as major social action projects to investigate using these sustainability tools, the roots of poverty would be disclosed very quickly.  The remedies will take a bit longer to create.  Because all facets of social sustainability are holistic in nature, what will develop in attempting to move a society through the rigors of a culture change that removes poverty will also install long-term social stability, peace.  Does there exist an organization that already has an altruistic mission, global organization and incredible intellectual resources and compassion as its motivation to begin this work?  

Perhaps the Catholic Church is a candidate.  It has incredible human resources plus a head of state who has an interest “…to resolve the structural causes of poverty….” 1.  Surely this would help the Church organize and focus its energies on its visions for the future, rather than wrestling with the ghosts of its past.

Fundamentals of Social Sustainability
12.  Culture Change — Innovating the Structures of Society

Innovating structural changes in society probably will not occur from the top down.  Hierarchical organizations strive to achieve ongoing success by supporting their existent structures.  Also, most citizens are very comfortable with their society as it is, even considering the many compromises that a complex and unorganized society requires.  The structural changes that will occur when social sustainability is initiated will create culture change; and culture change is always accompanied with culture shock. 

Our social sciences have researched past cultures, societies, and civilizations with increasing diligence giving us a clear perspective of past cultures that have formed our contemporary civilization.  Today, we have the awareness of our existence as a continuation of past cultures.  And, we are aware of ourselves observing ourselves making the same mistakes of past nations, societies and civilizations, yet without the prescience to ask,  “And then... ?” 

The last 50 years has provided us with futurists who have predicted dire circumstances for this century2.   Numerous reports3  suggest that our time is limited to fix our global problems, or to create innovative solutions. 

Whatever occurs will surely cause a culture shock as we have never experienced before.  For nations that are already experiencing social, political and economic disintegration it will be just another cataclysm.  But for nations that have enjoyed many decades of reasonable social, political and economic stability, their collapse will be unlike any previous experience. 

What do we choose?  Do we choose culture shock due to social disintegration or culture shock due to social, political, and economic innovations?  Or are we going to hedge our options and say, “Forget about it!”  It truly is a choice.  If you are under age 70 and reading this, you will be one of those who will make that decision.


2Strauss, William and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning, 1997.  Broadway Books, Doubleday Dell Publishing

3 - Sustainable Population Levels Using Footprint Data  Dell Ericson© 2000.
     Meadows, Donnela, Jørgen Randers, Dennis Meadows  2004.    Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update., Chelsea Green Publishing Company and Earthscan.

* * *
Daniel Raphael, Ph.D.


Library Wisdom: