by Jennifer Gilhool - Gender Economics Lab —
Sustainability refers to an organization’s ability to sustain earning over time. At the end of the 20th Century as enormous populations like China, India and Brazil began to enter the global economy and climate change became a more mainstream topic, sustainability took on a broader definition. Institution and governments began talking about “sustainable development,” which is defined as the ability to meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the next generation’s ability to meet their needs.
In truth, this is not a new idea. It is the very idea upon which our form of government was fashioned. Sustainability is as applicable to governance as it is to business. And, it is a lens through which we can view and even begin to understand how we, as a nation, came to this turbulent and unsettling time in our history.
Benjamin Franklin was an admirer of the Iroquois Confederacy or the Six Nations. He and Thomas Jefferson borrowed from the Confederacy’s Great Binding Law also known as the Great Law Of Peace (Gayanashagowa)(1) when drafting the United States Constitution. Under the Great Binding Law, the Confederacy established a three-part governing system consisting of executive, legislative and judicial branches. This should sound familiar to virtually every American.
Our founding fathers, however, did not adopt the Great Binding Law and its principals in its entirety. Changes were made. Women were excluded from participating in government. The issue of slavery was ignored. A representative democracy (a republic) was chosen over a participatory democracy.
The effects of those decisions can be seen today. Some are good and some are less good.
Peace is the Law; The Law Is Peace
The core teaching of the Great Law of Peace is that peace is the law, and the law is for peace. The Great Law of Peace provides:
“[E]very deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”This is the essence of sustainability: making decisions with an eye toward the impact of that decision on the future. Short-term gains at the expense of long-term success are antithetical to the Great Law of Peace. This idea hardly requires explanation. When men (and women) make decisions based solely on optimizing personal gain, they not only sacrifice opportunities to optimize sustained success for the larger group but they risk survival itself. Evidence of this fact can be found throughout history.
We don’t need to be historians to understand this point however. Every year, millions make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Some spend hours in the gym working out while others might cut back drastically on calories. Through sheer will, both groups are able to sustain this effort for six to eight week and some see results. Virtually all, however, experience fatigue and dissatisfaction with the speed of their weight loss as compared to the effort invested. Consequently, most give up. We quit because we expect long-term results in the short-term. We focus on only one aspect of weight-loss: exercise or calories and ignore the behavioral aspects that must also change to support our goal.
Sustainability Is More Than GreenToo often we focus on only one element of a more complex goal expecting our intense focus to overcome any other obstacles. It doesn’t.
Sustaining long-term earnings while protecting the next seven generations encompasses more than protecting the planet. Sustainable decision-making requires leaders to focus on:
- Economic Goals: Help people and organizations meet their economic needs;
- Environmental Goals: Protect and restore the earth;
- Social Goals: Address conditions that affect humanity, e.g, violence, poverty, injustice, public health, education, labor and human rights; and
- Cultural Goals: Protect and value the diversity through which communities manifest their identity and cultural traditions across generations
Focusing on only one of these goals risks compromising one or more of the remaining goals. Sustainability is holistic and requires leaders as well as individuals to consider not only specific needs but also the interaction of those needs in order to achieve the broader goal of protecting for the needs of succeeding generations.
Diversity & Inclusion Are Essential to Sustainability
The Iroquois Confederacy has no formal legal system. Rather, the core-governing tenant, peace, and its enforcement are entrusted to members of the Iroquois Confederacy best positioned to ensure peace for future generations: Women.
Tom Porter of the Mohawk Bear Clan explained why women are entrusted with this power:
“Women deserve 90 percent of the credit in raising the children. Oh, we men do a little. We might change a diaper or two, but in the middle of the night, when a baby cries and we men are sound asleep, momma gets up and rocks the babies back to sleep. The mothers watch the children carefully as they are growing up. The ones who are kind, unselfish, and always helping others are considered for future leadership positions. Honesty is the first requirement for leadership.”
Mohawk Bear Clan Chief Tom Porter, 1986
Iroquois women are vested with this power because of their womanhood not in spite of it. Contrast this with our society – even today – and the way powerful women are discussed, assessed, and depicted. One society clearly values and protects diversity while the other diminishes and fears diversity.
Some may argue that this is an over-simplification of a complex issue but I disagree. For all of the accomplishments of the founding fathers, our failure, as a nation, to achieve the promise of opportunity and freedom for all people regardless of identity status is rooted in our founding fathers’ failure to consider the impact of expedient decision-making on the next seven generations as well as succeeding generations to timely recognize and resolve that mistake.
Our founding fathers ignored the pleas of women to include them in governance thereby granting them equal status with men. They also remained silent on race equality by failing to address the divisive issue of slavery, leaving that to be resolved by later generations.
In contrast, the Iroquois Confederacy values the diverse points of view of its community members. For example, women are entrusted with significant responsibilities within their society and government:
- Iroquois women nominate tribal leaders and are entrusted with the power to impeach “because they devote the most time to raising the babies.”
- Iroquois women have veto power over war “because they give birth and respect the sanctity of life in a special way.”
- Iroquois women pass title to land “because one always knows for certain who the mother is.”
It is beyond dispute that our nation has work to do on recognizing, valuing and protecting the diversity through which all of us manifest our identities and traditions.
Seven Generations Hence
Our nation is still young at 240 years old. However young we may be, we are still nearly 10-generations removed from our founding fathers and their first decisions for us as a nation. Today, we feel the impact of many of those decisions as well as succeeding decisions by future generation of leaders. Not all of the fruit born of those decisions is sweet, as this election season has demonstrated.
- Income inequality continues to grow and divide the nation not only in terms of economics but also in terms of opportunities;
- Race relations have returned to a place of violence and distrust;
- Gender, sexuality, religion and immigration status are more likely to threaten than to enrich our communities;
- Access to heath care, education, and employment are more likely to divide us rather than unite us;
- Environmental resources are unequally divided and increasingly scarce;
- Discourse is rooted in mistrust, innuendo, and bravado rather than respect, fact, and humility
A focus on sustainability and all of its elements is essential to achieving long-term success not only as a business but also as a society. We have the opportunity today to make decisions that can deliver a more prosperous, a more harmonious, a more peaceful tomorrow for future generations. It is incumbent upon us to look beyond ourselves toward the next seven generations so that we might deliver peace as well as prosperity to them.
Jennifer Gilhool is the founder of the Gender Economics Lab, a consulting firm specializing in sustainable human capital. Jennifer is former sustainability and regulatory affairs executive with Ford Motor Company, author of Sheryl Sandberg China & Me, and an attorney.