It is important to distinguish here between the meaning of truths and principles. The statement of a truth represents a reality in our world, a fact that is supported by scientific evidence, as we know it to be now, whether it is natural, social, or economic science. A principle, on the other hand, represents a belief that forms the foundation of a fundamental doctrine (like sustainability) or serves as a rule, law, or assumption about the nature of a policy.
To begin understanding chaotic and complex systems underlying global patterns addressed by sustainable development requires confidence in the tools of systemic analysis that include the basic truths or facts that surround any particular issue. Because of significant causal uncertainty in many instances, however, we can never be sure how systems are going to behave as conditions change. This uncertainty can make a symptomatic approach to problem-solving more appealing, advocating the evaluation of symptoms rather than underlying causes even though symptom assessment often leads to failed outcomes. For example, it is tough to convince a North American Midwest farmer that global warming of the climate is occurring when they are facing record snowfalls.
The possibility that human logic, and thus decision-making, can be affected in this way does not bode well for sustainability advocates to convince the populace at large that our global situation has problems. To overcome public inertia our conversation on sustainability has to rely on the basic truths that support the argument for a sustainable future – those facts that pull us back to the causal roots of the problem and draw us away from focusing on symptoms. It is important the public at-large confront the rational truths supporting our understanding of social, economic, and biophysical impacts. And these basic truths must be presented in a calm, peaceful, and reasoned way so that logic can prevail over pre-conceived opinions and belief systems that defend against change. These truths include the following.
1. Everything material on Earth has limitations.
Earth is a closed system with regards to material cycling such that there is a thermodynamic irreversibility of natural processes (1st law of thermodynamics – nothing is created nor destroyed, just transformed). The Earth will not grow and therefore the size of things, such as population, matter. The closed nature of material cycling implies there are ecological limits on human activity that dictate we consume less than Earth’s natural resources can provide (living within nature’s limits) in order to maintain resource continuance. Sustainability is about recognizing and working within these limits, not stressing resources by over-consumption beyond irreversible states.
2. Many components of our global system are interconnected.
Problems in the economy, environment, and society are interrelated and are subject to becoming global in context. Human and ecological well-being is interconnected by the nature of the planet’s abiotic and biotic components which are intimately intertwined and systemic. Sustainability is a systemic means of addressing these complex interconnections and interdependencies, especially in issues that appear to be separate like biodiversity conservation and social inequality. Anticipated change in one aspect of life, such as increased personal income, might affect changes in other aspects, such as the demand for food and other resources, type of housing, types of travel between home and work, and so on. Thus, planning to intervene in the operation of an isolated sector might be effective but cause undesirable results to other sectors. For example, life expectancy is affected by water, sanitation, and health care. But, improving sanitation and access to clean water and reducing infant mortality might increase the population of the hungry and discontented unless the ability to provide more food and better housing is increased proportionately. The objective of sustainability should be focused upon specific interventions as the proportional effect among all system elements.
3. Change is the norm, not the exception.
If we are to thrive in perpetuity, society and its economic systems must maintain a constant vigilance for change in the harmony of the natural world. Nothing is static. The dynamic, sometimes chaotic pattern of natural processes manifests continually changing states of materials and energy. In carrying out programs intended to enhance society or protect the environment, because of the complexity and interdependent nature of these systems, we must recognize the possibility of unintended consequences. Mistakes will be made so the adaptability of systems to significant change is extremely important.
4. All socio-economic factors are grounded in a healthy environment.
Environment is the plumbing of the planet. Nature is our life-support. There is simply no way around this reality. Without functioning ecosystems nothing else matters. Therefore, sustainability requires working to improve economic conditions without damaging or undermining the environment. Development provides real improvements in the quality of human life and by necessity conserves the vitality and diversity of the Earth.
5. Diversity within systems (natural or human) will contribute to the system’s stability and resiliency (includes ecologic, economic, and socio-cultural diversity).
The multi-faceted make-up of society and nature are important to both long-term stability and resilience. Species diversity in ecosystems, with all its varied functions, is one of the more important factors in sustaining the quality of the natural environment acting to absorb insults to the system and maintain a healthy momentum vital to the community that depends on the environment. In high biodiversity situations the failure of one species does not necessarily mean a system’s collapse. The same can be said of a particular form of economy or a human civilization in history. A sustainable human community possesses a healthy and diverse economy (variety of businesses, industries, and institutions which are environmentally sound) that adapts to change, provides long‑term material security to residents, respects ecological limits, and is redundant in that if one business fails others are able to supply its goods and services. Likewise, a healthy human community is characterized as one that supports people of different cultures and ethnicities to offer a wide variety of social experiences. Resilience in human communities as well as natural ecosystems is dictated by the state of diversity and redundancy represented in different community characteristics or species’ functions, in the context of a “complex system.”
6. Equity is the foundation of healthy functioning systems.
Opportunity for social equity is an important foundation element of sustainable societies, for without the potential for equal access to resources, opportunities, and good environments envy can generate conflict between those who have and those who have not. Social equity implies that diverse social, cultural, and ecological systems are more easily preserved because tensions are able to be resolved by having access to a means for distributing costs and benefits equitably, creating a sense of the availability of fairness. Even in nature there is fairness among species in the form of competition processes that will ultimately lead to “survival of the fittest.” With regards to people, as Robert states “the bounty of the Earth – food, raw materials, natural systems – must be used equitably, fairly and efficiently so that the basic needs of all humans are met locally and globally.” Material and economic disparities and the associated disproportionate impacts they exert on different societies has resulted in the degradation of ecological resources as well as the potential for conflict, often growing into circumstances of war and terrorism.
7. Uncertainty and ignorance are often associated with complex systems.
There should be a general recognition that science and knowledge are intrinsically uncertain, with new information continually altering and improving our perceptions and beliefs. Therefore, decisions based on scientific information must be made in the context of uncertainty, but with the recognition that further experimentation and monitoring could lead to more certain outcomes through learning-based management (e.g., adaptive management). And of most concern is the fact that lack of public familiarity with scientific methods hinders a ready translation of science into personal choices. In order to deal with uncertainty and protect against unintended consequences, we must have appreciation for the precautionary principle.
Despite inherent uncertainty, truths from science must underpin public conversation if global solidarity is to be achieved. These seven truths about our world are the reasons sustainability has become a global phenomenon. By focusing on these areas of strong consensus we can align constituencies with vastly different viewpoints because all the evidence of dysfunction is irrefutable according to scientific understanding (as we know it now) of how nature and society interact. Using these evidence-based truths as a starting point, it becomes much easier to have a dialogue about environmental and socio-economic issues, especially when the true concerns of society are often controversial and cross traditional boundaries of economic, social, and environmental interests.
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