Integral Sustainable Development

Barrett Brown Cognitive, Ecology, Journal of Integral Theory & Practice, Sustainability 8 Comments

This is a two-part paper that offers an overview of Integral Sustainable Development, explaining the rudiments of a practical framework that integrates the crowded conceptual and operational landscape of sustainable development and enables practitioners to 1) identify the full-range of needs and capabilities of individuals and groups, and 2) tailor the specific developmental response that fits each unique situation. The fundamentals of this framework are four major perspectives (explained in part I) and three waves of natural evolution (part II). The framework maps out and integrates human consciousness and behavior, culture, systems, and the physical environment. Drawing upon cross-cultural and transdisciplinary studies, as well as data from field researchers, this framework is shown to be vital for a comprehensive and accurate approach to addressing our social, environmental, and economic challenges. Included are introductory analytical tools for practitioners (parts I and II), as well as synopses of current sustainable development initiatives—by organizations such as the UNDP HIV/AIDS Group, and UNICEF Oman—which use the Integral framework (Appendix).


Never before in history have we had access to so much information. The knowledge, understandings, and experiences from every sector of society and every human culture (past and present) can now contribute their part in solving the complex puzzle of existence. At the same time, never before in history have we faced such complicated and pressing social, environmental, and economic challenges. Now, more than ever, we need action based upon the deepest possible understanding of our global situation, the stakeholders involved, and ourselves.

This article introduces Integral Sustainable Development—an inclusive approach to sustainable development (SDv)—and shows its potential impact as a comprehensive method that differs from those in use today. The core of Integral Sustainable Development is a framework that can be used to:

  • Organize knowledge concerning SDv by offering an expansive understanding of reality that draws on as many disciplines, worldviews, and methodologies as possible;
  • Map SDv challenges of any scale—and their solutions—from the most inclusive vantage point we have to date, taking into account the major dynamics—interior (psychological and cultural) and exterior (behavioral and systemic)—which influence an initiative;
  • Tailor application according to the unique interior and exterior dynamics of stakeholders and the initiative, thus helping to optimize resources and achieve more durable and appropriate solutions.
    Integral Sustainable Development practitioners recognize that the more dimensions of reality a SDv initiative takes into account, the greater chance it has of becoming a long-term, sustainable solution. For example: a solution based on economic analysis alone is less sustainable than one that incorporates economic, ecological, and social understandings; this, in turn, is less viable than a solution that also includes psychological, cultural, and religious perspectives. Thus, Integral Sustainable Development practitioners are guided by the simple commitment to include as much knowledge about reality as possible, in the most sophisticated and pragmatic way available.

Part I of this two-part article offers the following: an overview of the state of sustainable development; a basic explanation of the Integral framework and its advantages; an introduction to the four major perspectives within the context of sustainable development; and a look at the importance of personal development for the sustainable development practitioner. Part II first explains three waves of natural human evolution as related to environmental sustainability; it then looks at the vital role of values and suggests two ways to work with them (transformation and translation); finally, it introduces the concept of Natural Design for sustainable development. The appendix to Part II gives a synopsis of national and international sustainable development initiatives and organizations that use the Integral framework.

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Barrett Brown

About Barrett Brown

Barrett specializes in leader development and organizational change. For 20+ years he has supported individuals and organizations to navigate complex challenges and unlock deep capacities. Barrett is often asked to speak about leadership, and has presented worldwide to hundreds of CEOs and government officials. Barrett has been on the leadership team or advisory board of 16 companies, NGOs, and foundations, working in consumer goods, manufacturing, finance, energy, health care, media, and international development.

Notable Replies

  1. Love it! Let’s get that Conveyor Belt built!

  2. Corey - I’d challenge you to really think about these three words used together.

    Do you mean Development as in Economic development, or in what sense do you mean it? I assume economic, because other kinds of development such as spiritual or intellectual or emotional do not need a redundant “sustainable” added on. Spiritual development IS sustainable, and is quite difficult to make unsustainable, lol. Similarly with Moral development, intellectual development, and so forth.

    So what is it behind the American mindset making economic development as some kind of sacred cow? The answer is that our modern form of Capitalism is unsustainable without Growth (falsely equated with development). We take something that is not sustainable, and because we are addicted to it, as a culture we are still in the denial and bargaining stages. We either deny that sustainability is necessary, or bargain that growth can be sustained, when it cannot. As a planet, we are already past the point when even zero growth is sustainable. The only way for humanity to continue on earth for another 1,000 years is to reduce our population and impact on the earth. If we just take a look at two of our most basic needs - food and drinkable water - further development reduces the chances higher life will survive at all. Eight billion people cannot all eat steak dinners. It’s mathematically impossible from simply an acreage point of view. Eight billion people cannot all have personal vehicles, and eight billion people cannot all live in a single family house in the suburbs. All this framework of economic development is mathematically impossible.
    Yet if we want to survive as a species and stop making cars, stop building houses for individual nuclear families that only last 50 years or less, and move all 8 billion people to a plant based diet - the global economy will collapse.

    There is no way out for humanity through economic development.
    The only way for humanity to survive through development is through developing waking up, cleaning up, growing up and showing up.

    When those are in line, the economic system becomes irrelevant to the individual, and as more individuals join stage 2 or 3 they will form communities who will then be able to interact in another form of economic system that will be sustainable.

  3. Hey Ray,

    First I should mention that this is not my title, it is the title of this academic JITP paper by Barrett Brown.

    And I am wondering if you think the paper itself adequately addresses your concerns! Barrett seems to agree with you that taking an economic view alone is too narrow an approach. And yet, because people are inherently social beings, and there will always be some form of social autopoiesis (self-organization) that creates both material and conceptual systems of exchange, we will always have something like an “economy” in our lower-right quadrant. The trick, as I think you may be pointing out, is that our economy should be working for us — which means for our interior health as much as our exterior physical and environmental health — rather than vice versa.

    It is my hope that articles like this can help us take a few steps back and reassess our current neoliberal capitalist system a bit more clearly, which is indeed based on the sorts of unsustainable “extractive capitalism” that we were discussing in another thread, which tends not to take a long view at all in its development, focusing instead on maximizing short-term quarterly profits for stakeholders while forcing taxpayers to subsidize their losses (such as America’s largest employer, Walmart, relying on the taxpayer welfare system to keep its employees fed, clothed, and housed).

  4. Yes, reading it he does address differing views of sustainability.

    Basrrett Brown:
    Sustainable Development is that with a large enough perspective, everyone is partially right: all
    definitions address an important dimension of reality, each approach focuses on a necessary
    area of SDv, and all justifications are valid within their context. This inclusive approach helps
    dissolve fragmentation in theory and practice

    I would add and / or disagree that some definitions, while partially right, should also be evaluated in better / worse and stated as inferior / counterproductive when they are. He doesn’t actually say some ideas are better and some are worse, so I’m not sure if I should infer from what he isn’t saying if he is from the “all contributions have equal value” camp.

    IDK - if I’m honest I don’t agree with the “everyone is partially right” thing. I can say it only when I have my fingers crossed. Deep down I feel that some ideas are just plain wrong and letting them believe they are partially right can be a bait and switch technique (or pace and lead or other better sounding phrase)

    But yes, when the author actually gets into the paper - by the way - how do I petition Ken to add into his theory something about getting to the actual point faster and more clearly and that using 10 pages instead of 1 is a symptom of unbalanced Orange? lol

    Barrett Brown quoting Gail Hachika:
    Self-reflection and Personal Growth: The psychological and cognitive processes
    involved in making meaning, constructing identity, structuring reasoning, and
    forming worldviews. Also involves self-reflection or contemplation on roles
    within the community, society, environment and world, and shifts within and
    between value systems. Includes self-empowerment, personal growth,
    emotional and moral capacity building, introspection, contemplation, and

    Barrett Brown:
    Innumerable forces emerge out of every stakeholder’s interior that directly impact any
    approach to sustainable development. These forces influence both the cause and cure of
    systemic imbalances. Thus, mindfulness of individual consciousness (belief system, mental
    model, motivations, etc.) is vital when attempting to address all the major influences on a
    sustainable development initiative.

    Again Hochika:

    Rather than fostering dependency and the expectation that exterior entities
    (NGOs, government, etc.) would solve the community’s problems, which was
    particularly the case in Jiquilisco Bay, the Integral framework made room for
    “self” in the process of community-directed development. We did not utilize
    self-development methodologies as described in developmental psychology but
    instead created conditions for personal growth, self-empowerment and selfreflection throughout all phases of the project. The domain of “I” arose during
    the house-to-house visits, where community inhabitants discussed their lives,
    families, every-day activities, thoughts and perspectives, and our research team
    cultivated openness to truly hear what was said. The Upper Left quadrant of
    Wilber’s AQAL [all-quadrants, all-levels] framework was also present in the
    focus groups, in which we created a trusting and expansive space in which
    participants shared inner reflections. As a practitioner, my own selfdevelopment practices (of yoga and meditation) helped to foster my own
    expanded awareness, to be clear of my intention and to be receptive to
    intuition regarding the project… Including the domain of “I” in development
    enables individuals to better understand their current and potential role in
    effecting positive change in their community or society, as well as their
    individual impact on each other and the environment.

  5. Oh, I see I forgot to include the link in the post. I just edited it, you should see it now :slight_smile:

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