Integrating Inner and External Dimensions for Holistic Sustainability

Integrating Inner and External Dimensions for Holistic Sustainability

Erica A. Berejnoi Bejarano (Arizona State University, USA), Natalia Rodriguez (Arizona State University, USA), Leah V. Gibbons (Arizona State University, USA), Chloe Sykes (Arizona State University, USA), Beth Ann Morrison (Arizona State University, USA), Sarra Z. Tekola (Arizona State University, USA), Adam D. Gabriele (Arizona State University, USA), Mary Fastiggi (Arizona State University, USA) and Scott A. Cloutier (Arizona State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7302-9.ch010


Over the past century, sustainability scholars and scientists have largely focused on the complex relationships between society, economy, and environment. The authors refer to this approach as external sustainability research, which positions the built and natural environment as key to a sustainable future. Yet, our external environment is a manifestation of deeply held beliefs, values, attitudes, and perceptions of the world—the inner dimensions of sustainability. Within sustainability science, a deeper understanding of the inner dimensions could promote lasting external sustainability measures, strategies, and interventions. This chapter envisions sustainability as a holistic collection of internal and external guiding principles that can be enhanced through practice. First, the authors draw on perspectives from “Western sustainability” and Indigenous philosophies. Next, case studies integrating holistic sustainability approaches are shared. They conclude by integrating the primary literature with the case studies and call on sustainability science to more deeply consider the inner dimensions.
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Sustainability is often cited as a relatively new concept born from the 1987 Brundtland Report (Brundtland et al., 1987). Yet, the origins of sustainability science go as far back as the 17th century, if not further, when Western imperial European governments mobilized to prevent deforestation. At the time, the rapid consumption of woodland (Europeans removed about 25 million hectares of woodland between 1700 and 1850 – equivalent to the surface of the State of Michigan or a little over the surface of the United Kingdom; Williams, 2003) coupled with a disregard for nature, and an increase in population growth and civil unrest, worried European empires, propelling them to exert resource conservation measures. The term sustainability was officially coined in the early 18th century by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, founder of the Sustainable Yield Forestry principle. He is credited with sketching out the structure of modern sustainability discourse after analyzing connections among forest shrinkage and advances in technology, the propagation of diseases, social unrest, and conservation measures (Caradonna, 2014).

Since then, sustainability has been developing by co-evolving through economic, political and social revolutions that have taken place in Europe and North America; namely the industrial revolution, the social contract, the green revolution, the civil rights movements, and population booms, among others. This trajectory led to its official academic conceptualization in the Brundtland Report and the multiple redefinitions concerned with human progress and development as safeguards to current and future natural resources, social systems, and economies (WCED, 1987; Jones et al., 2011). In parallel over the last two decades, sustainability research has grown with a focus on indicator and criteria development to shape sustainability science. Recent efforts focus on the design of “solutions” in response to a comprehensive list of local and global sustainability challenges (Hartmuth, Huber, & Rink, 2008; Ingold & Balsiger, 2013) (e.g., links between food systems and local economies, connections between over-consumption of natural resources and poverty). Inherently, a trend has continued from the early days of von Carlowitz’s attempts to address deforestation. This is what we refer to as external sustainability in this chapter.

We also observe this trend outside academia, where sustainability science has been presented to the general public as strategic solutions to mobilize pro-ecological movements including recycling, community gardens, and organic foods, or strategies such as shifting to low energy light bulbs or turning to solar panels (Noppers et al., 2014; Grometa, Kunreuthera, & Larric, 2013). But a solutions-based mindset may have offset the potential to achieve meaningful and lasting results. While solutions involve important processes and actions to support the move toward a sustainable future, a limited perspective, drawing only on external fixes, can be systematically detrimental to global sustainability goals. In other words, many modern sustainability solutions may see only the symptoms of a problem, while ignoring the root cause originating from individual and collective values, beliefs, and attitudes. Sustainability science is beginning to integrate these aspects under inner sustainability — a realm that considers the root causes of sustainability challenges.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Inner Sustainability: Values, beliefs, and attitudes that serve as the inner foundation of individuals.

Collective Action: Working together with different groups in a mindful way to include everyone in the conversation and to empower every individual involved.

Holistic Sustainability: Science that integrates dimensions of inner and external sustainability for a lasting sustainable future.

Inner World: Values, beliefs, and spirituality that compose the intangible self of individuals.

Western Society: Groups of individuals who come from a Eurocentric background and who have adopted the individualistic culture from it. In the chapter, we are referring specifically to mainstream American culture.

Interconnectedness: Understanding that everything in life is connected: from humans to the natural environment, to the inner world and external reality, to inner sustainability and global sustainability challenges.

Indigenous Philosophy: Understanding of the world that past and current indigenous societies around the globe have of what constitutes good living. In general, indigenous philosophies viewed the world from a holistic lens.

External Sustainability: Science that positions the built and natural environment as key to a sustainable future.

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