Finding balance with sustainability
Several years ago, a colleague introduced me to the Iron Triangle. Although it rings true, it’s hardly musical. It is a model that illustrates the constraints of project management. The triangle’s lines represent the qualities of good, fast, and cheap. The rule is that two of them may be chosen but always at the expense of the third. For example, you may have something good and fast but it will not be cheap. Or, you can have something good and cheap but it will not be fast. Or you may have something fast and cheap but it will not be good.
While rooted in business, the triangle has applicability to a wide range of issues including most consumer decisions we make every day. Say I want a tomato. I can buy a two-foot tall tomato plant already setting fruit for $8, plant it in my garden and have delicious homegrown Indiana tomatoes pretty darn quickly — good, fast, not cheap. Or I can buy a packet of tomato seeds for $1.25, plant them myself and have excellent homegrown Indiana tomatoes in about three months — cheap, good, not fast. Or I can go to my grocer in the dead of winter and pay $1 for a tomato that grew in a hothouse but it will lack flavor — fast, cheap, not good.
The real conundrum with this model lies in the myriad criteria that could define good and cheap and fast. Take, for instance, the lowly hot dog. Some may say that it meets all three criteria. It’s fast, it’s cheap, and it tastes good.
But is it really cheap? What about the cost to our health of consuming something of questionable origin loaded with more sodium and fat than we should eat in several days, and nitrates that have been linked to cancer? Yes, we can get healthier hot dogs but they’re far more expensive. Cheap isn’t so cheap all of a sudden. And just what does good mean? Is it just what tantalizes our taste buds or does it factor in health? And what about the environmental cost of animal production and food processing and shipping?
We make choices to satisfy our needs and desires every day and use the Iron Triangle unconsciously as we do. And let’s face it, we live in a society that most values fast and cheap. Many of us are not in an economic position to make the best choice or to have a choice at all. What we choose often is not fully good or truly cheap nor do we take the long view in assessing its impact. Our knowledge, awareness and our available time make fully evaluating each and every decision impossible and impractical.
But failing to assess the full cost and the real “good” is a prime source of environmental, social and economic degradation and has long-term consequences for the viability of life on Earth. Finding balance with an eye to the long-term when weighing environmental, social and economic factors is at the very heart of achieving sustainability.
No definition of sustainability is universally accepted and entire academic programs and institutes have been developed for its study. The topic is as deep as it is broad.
Ultimately, we have to define for ourselves what is good and fast and cheap and understand the consequences of our definitions on our social, economic and environmental systems. The Sisters of Providence have done so and it is embodied in The Land Ethic. In it, they outline their guiding beliefs and principles and lay out their criteria for decision-making. Helping to enculturate the Land Ethic throughout the Congregation and its ministries is the role of the Land Ethic Committee.
Decision-making most often boils down to consciousness and developing our own Iron Triangle criteria with sustainability in mind. Thinking about what we’re consuming and evaluating whether we need it at all and whether it’s worth the cost on the front end and in the future is a great start.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)