Sustainable development demands a multi‑stepped way to achieve recovery and improve the quality of life for everyone. You know you are being sustainable when you concurrently limit waste and pollution, improve the opportunities for disadvantaged peoples, conserve natural resources, make valuable connections among groups, promote cooperation and efficiency, and develop local assets to revitalize economies. In acting sustainably you also encourage reliable, responsible economic activity that considers tradition, a cyclical view of time that looks backwards as well as forwards, emphasize the significance of place, and the importance of natural ecosystems. You follow the integrated application of specific ideas so that your actions can better serve the protection and equitable distribution of resources in the interest of human equity, while identifying and prioritizing real needs before wants that leave options open for future generations.
Those who successfully promote the idea of sustainable development have embraced and advocated the following concepts as those ideas framing their mindset in acting and thinking more sustainably while transforming debate into constructive discussion. A brief discussion of these concepts follows the list.
- Ecological Integrity
- Social Equity
- Sufficiency and Opportunity
- Full Cost Accounting
- Citizen Engagement and Democracy
- Communication and Cooperation
- Integrative and Adaptive
Ecological Integrity – Human relationships with the environment must serve to sustain the ecological integrity of natural systems in order to preserve the life-supporting functions upon which socio-economic fitness depends. Ecological health is the most important foundation element of sustainability because all economic and social systems are dependent upon well-functioning biophysical systems and humans view themselves as an integral part of the ecosystem.
Social Equity – Development of programs that are intended to be fair must emphasize greater equity within and outside the community, as well as between present and future generations (equity over place and time). Social equity is the second most important foundation concept of sustainable societies, for without equal access to resources, opportunities, and good environments envy and/or conflict have historically prevailed among those who have and those who have not. Many communities around the world face persistent constraints on their access to materials and economic opportunities, such that their means of making a livelihood and security are in constant peril. All persons should have the opportunity to escape extreme want and vulnerability to economic oppression.
Sufficiency and Opportunity – Bob Gibson states that the idea of “living-off-the-interest” to guarantee a resource will not fall below a threshold required to perpetuate it through time should be a basic premise to insure all people have sufficient resources to achieve a decent life and that everyone has opportunities to seek improvements in ways that do not compromise future generations. Too often human improvement is encouraged that correspondingly degrades the ecological integrity of those locales where improvement is being sought. This “leaves the community insecure over the long-term and concurrently has impacts well-beyond the boundaries of targeted improvement”. Doing better with less is a means of beginning to implement this idea. It involves reducing, reusing, and recycling.
Efficiency – Minimize stresses on socio-ecologic systems by maximizing the sustainable use of renewable resources and human capital through reduction in the material and energy use intensity of goods and services. Irrespective of what is possible with current technologies and what is plausible with imagination and creativity, material and energy efficiencies could be increased by a factor of four or even ten. Individuals, companies, product producers, and community builders are now beginning to re-define the economic equation in our society. For example, ours is the first generation to gain awareness that every community within the larger global landscape has an “ecological footprint.” Understanding the nature and limits of that footprint is to live in a sustainable manner. The idea of Industrial Ecology is now being seriously considered as a holistic and integrative approach to the traditional take-make-waste practices. It involves tracking energy and material flows through industrial systems (e.g., a plant, region, national or global economy) with a view for more efficient operations; from the standpoint that instead of cradle to grave views, companies are now considering cradle to cradle perspectives, where waste from one process is food for another.
Full Cost Accounting – Move beyond the traditional economic application of market costs by incorporating net environmental gain as an objective of decision-making to guarantee environmental and social benefits. Market costs rarely reflect the inclusion of environmental or social cost components, such as resource replacement costs or the potential costs associated with clean-up or environmental damage. In the absence of “full-cost accounting” decision-making to ensure that unavoidable or inevitable projects at a minimum guarantee environmental and social benefits is flawed, not representing the true cost of environmental goods and services. The result is net ecological loss. (Daly, 1996). Net environmental gain, as represented by the concept of full-cost accounting, should be an objective of decision-making to insure that unavoidable or inevitable projects at a minimum guarantee environmental and social benefits. Paul Hawken said the most damaging aspect of the present economic system is that the expense of destroying the Earth is largely absent from the prices set in the marketplace. A perfect example is when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1990s. The millions of gallons of spilled oil killed millions of animals and cost millions of dollars to clean up. The jobs created and materials manufactured related to clean‑up activities of the polluted water and beaches, as well as the aid provided to impacted communities, made the U.S. GDP go up. If full-cost accounting practices were in effect, the Exxon Valdez oil spill would be viewed in terms of a cost, not as a benefit reflected in the GDP.
Citizen Engagement and Democracy – Develop processes such as informed decision-making that improve society’s capacity to understand and apply sustainability principles through enhanced citizen engagement, transparency, and the taking of responsibility. Sustainability is not entirely, and perhaps not even chiefly, a matter of government and administration. The majority of sustainability problems will not be solved through mandate, but rather are most tractable by activities at the grassroots level where stakeholders become better informed, willingly change their behaviors and attitudes, and find things in common to agree upon. The success of civil society function is directly proportional to the degree of stakeholder engagement in support of democratic processes. Long-term change requires a civic critical mass of community participation.
Communication and Cooperation – Society needs systems of accounting and means of communicating to encourage cooperation. When we enact new programs, how do we know that they are successful? We must provide metrics for whether things are getting better or worse. Responsibility for systems that affect the needs of other people and future generations demands accountability and the indicators to tell us we are achieving sustainability. And we must be able to talk about the state of committed sustainable activities through a common language understood at expert and lay levels. Policy-makers and leaders can raise public confidence by sincere communication.
Precautionary – Respect scientific uncertainty by making decisions that anticipate and prevent surprise, which Bob Gibson states is preferable to reaction and cure, where causality is poorly understood and there are risks of serious or irreversible damage to the environment as well as future inter‑generational equity. As we come to better understand the concept of sustainability it becomes apparent that we should adopt a philosophy which “anticipates and prevents” environmental degradation at the planning stages of development projects and when we make consumption decisions. The complexity of biophysical and socio-economic systems, however, limits our forecast horizon causing a degree of uncertainty about our scientific predictions. Such uncertainty underpins the arguments both of those exploiting resources, who may manipulatively demand evidence that exploitation causes harm before accepting limitations, and those who seek to limit exploitation in the absence of clear quantitative indications of sustainability problems. Uncertainty suggests the need for considering the idea of precaution in the actions we take, rather than the desire to “minimize” damage which we may not be able to define. As Gibson explains, the “precautionary principle” is a response to uncertainty that involves the willingness to act on incomplete but suggestive information where social and ecological systems that are crucial for sustainability are at risk. This anticipatory and preventative policy approach should err on the side of caution, placing the burden of proof on technological and industrial developments to demonstrate that they are ecologically sustainable.
Integrative and Adaptive – Decision‑making that serves the development of a common framework for experiential learning, as a basis for sustainability problem-solving, should effectively integrate both long‑term and short‑term economic, environmental, social, and equity considerations. Assessment of progress toward sustainability requires a methodology for repeated measurement to determine trends, and be iterative, adaptive, and responsive to change and uncertainty. Bob Gibson says this methodology should be able to adjust goals, frameworks, and indicators as new insights are gained, promote development of collective learning and feedback to decision-making, and never be considered absolute (fully definitive) because systems are complex and changing. To lessen concerns for acting out of precaution, without always possessing full information, the idea of adaptive management has been advanced. This strategy is built upon the premise that people learn from their successes, as well as their mistakes. An adaptive, learning‑based approach to the practice of sustainability implies the constant attention to and evaluation (monitoring) of activities to ensure one’s continuous awareness and understanding of changes in circumstances, looking for ways to maintain flexibility by identifying feedback loops, making sure they give timely and relevant information, and then paying attention to them, being prepared to abandon unsuccessful strategies .
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Moon from Belize
Moon from Belize