The sustainability movement has disappeared. Where did it go?

Some years ago, I purchased "Sustainability.Today" from a website supplier. I thought it would be a good name for a news service and social media channel about the global sustainability movement.

But I never used that web address, and now I plan to let it expire. The reason: The sustainability movement, which I have championed for most of my adult life, seems to have disappeared.

This is good news. At least, partly.

The sustainability movement had been fading for some time. I am not sure exactly when it winked out of existence, because many important elements of the movement are still around us: this website, GreenBiz, is one example. And many pioneers and leaders are still doing important work: Paul Hawken leading "Project Drawdown," Hazel Henderson leading Ethical Markets and writing columns, Hunter Lovins and Karl-Henrik Robert and John Elkington and many other pioneers still lecturing and promoting transformative ideas.

And most of the movement’s initiating institutions are also still active. The Club of Rome, for example, publishers of 1972’s "The Limits to Growth" (one of the sustainability movement’s founding texts), released a comprehensive call to arms in 2018 called "Come On!" under the leadership of then co-presidents Anders Wijkman and Ernst von Weiszäcker — both legendary sustainability leaders in their own right, both still going strong. (Notably, they recently stepped down, making way for the club’s first female leaders, Sandrine Dixson-Declève and Mamphela Ramphele.)

So, the movers are still with us. But the movement — which I experienced as a global, loose-knit but somewhat bounded community, with a common sense of purpose, organized around a set of ideas related to systems thinking, living within limits, and transformative change — is practically invisible. How did this happen?

The short explanation: The movement won. Or rather, the movement half-won. Here is how I see it, and having just read Stephen Hawking’s final book, "Brief Answers to the Big Questions," I hope you will forgive me for adopting a cosmological metaphor.

If the half-century after "The Limits to Growth" could be compared to the first moments after the Big Bang, then the period from 2012 to 2015 — specifically, from the United Nations global conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro ("Rio+20"), to the adoption of 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals three years later — can be likened to the much briefer phase, shortly after the Big Bang, that astrophysicists call "inflation." For reasons science is still working out, the very tiny early universe made an astonishingly sudden leap in size, and the small patterns that were coded into it at that moment of rapid expansion ultimately gave rise to the gigantic pattern of stars and galaxies we see today.

Those early patterns are discernible to the trained astronomic eye, but the rest of us simply live in the resulting universe — just as most people working in sustainable development now live in the expanded universe of the SDGs, with all the national reporting processes, integrated modeling tools, school curriculum programs, SDG-adapted business management schemes and so much else that quickly filled our world after 2015.