On Social Sustainability: Defining our Collective Identity as a Society

Luca Silipo
11 min readApr 5, 2019
Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates is passionate about revitalising disenfranchised communities in the city’s South Side. And he is doing it building by building, some of which are utilised to capture the histories of the people who had arrived, lived, then departed. He is rebuilding communities — the crucial building blocks of society — through art, urban planning, and collaboration. (Photo from New York Times)

When kids grow up, they start asking questions. Many questions. And they can be adorable but also testing. So last night, my nephew — after quietly listening to a conversation I was having with my brother about a book I recently completed — presented this innocent (but of course nowadays, very loaded) curiosity: “What is sustainability?”. Myriads of possible answers instantly popped up in my mind — environmental, economic, corporate, social sustainability — only to fade away with proportional immediacy, for I felt that I did not have the perfectly linear reasoning to establish credible authority with kids. So, as I always do when I seek alignment, I decided to write about it.

In the current climate, we immediately associate ‘sustainability’ with environment. According to KWFinder, in the last month “environmental sustainability” has been looked up in search engines 22,000 times worldwide, the most out of all phrases associated with sustainability.

These two boys on the Berlin subway are just a few of the many students who regularly skip school on Fridays to participate in the international climate movement originated from the “Skolstrejk for Klimatet” protest in Stockholm. The inaugural protest placed climate change activist Greta Thunberg on the center stage of our climate discourse — Photo my own.

Environmental sustainability is a reactive trigger to the concept of climate change, a set of familiar and measurable phenomena that directly engages our senses. The extremely visible decay of nature’s beauty — think about the bleaching of coral reefs — , the increasing stench of our metropolises, the fading taste of fresh tomatoes, the hot and hotter air on our skin, and the diminishing chorus of birds in our cities all participate in a multi-sensorial experience of the causes and effects of climate change.

The fact that the increasing need for environmental sustainability is perceived so physically makes it very powerful, and it incessantly feeds our cognitive process, the ground-breaking moment being Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” from 2006. It also makes its mark on our affective empathy, as proven by Greta Thunberg who is mobilising youth all over the world to an unprecedented extent.

Achieving environmental sustainability, however, extends beyond reversing climate change. It is about how we can limit polluting activities, recycle/reuse waste, restore an ecosystem where other animal…



Luca Silipo

I am an economist and author dedicated to finding applicable solutions to achieve social sustainability while preserving economic growth.