The dictionary states sustainability means the ability to sustain or capacity to endure, implying a relationship among generations. The noun, sustainability, represents the outcome of actions of sustainable development that are successful. In discussing possible working definitions of sustainable development often people will refer to the Brundtland Commission’s activities in 1987, part of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The Brundtland Commission, a meeting of world heads of state led by Gro Brundtland the Prime Minister of Norway, recognized two over-arching world situations: (1) natural resources and the environment were being degraded at alarming rates, and (2) human poverty was rampant throughout the world. The Commission effectively reduced most discussions to “sustainable development” in addressing these issues, stressing that sustainable actions are those directed at “meeting the needs of future generations” in our daily living – the basic necessities of life, such as clean air, clean water, viable forests, fertile soil, oceans, and so on.
Unfortunately, we really have no way of knowing what the “needs of future generations” might be, as we can’t predict what kinds of technology they might possess, which has left the Brundtland definition fairly useless from an operational perspective. The relationship among generations, however, is such that the activities of people in the present to meet their wants and needs must not destroy or close off vital and treasured choices for people in future generations. When, therefore, a community recognizes the need to craft a shared vision of social-environmental responsibility in the form of a desirable future condition, it is simultaneously affecting the world for its children’s children.
In envisioning how to move forward there appears to be a real gap among people on the urgency of creating a more sustainable world. Just how this is to be accomplished in light of continuing increasing global population numbers has been and continues to be a matter of disagreement and debate, commanding attention more than 30 years after the Brundtland Commission called for sustainable development, because many signs that alarmed the Commissioners back in 1987 are still with us and now other new global concerns have also grabbed our attention.
Interpreting sustainability as simply as possible in order to move forward with cooperative planning and action is to see sustainability as a function of the degree to which members of society will not carry-on actions that decrease opportunities or increase constraints (in comparison to present conditions), for people in other places or in the future. Sustainability includes both a descriptive component – it says something about what will be left for people of the future – and an evaluative component – it expresses moral concern about whether our legacy is fair to future people.
The confusion about sustainable development and our failure in the past to act sustainably is indicative of the lack of a fully inclusive and cohesive representation of society and environment. For convenience, often there is a decoupling of the two. In most cases a reductionist, piecemeal approach is taken to problem-solving where a particular problem is categorized according to one of three major points of view: economic, social, or environmental. These points of view can be distinguished as the triple threat to sustainability when they are dealt with as separate, intact sectors in our world with no apparent relationship to one another.
But these sectors of our world cannot be separated when searching for sustainable solutions to our local and regional problems, as has been the case in traditional problem-solving. Take for example the popularly cited conflict of “jobs versus the environment.” The end objective of this traditional, piecemeal approach to problem solving is the “mitigation of adverse effects” rather than the outright absolute solving of problems.
A new model of problem-solving must consider each point of view systematically and strategically, addressing primary concerns and how these relate to one another. In other words, the potential success of any societal activity should be judged in terms of its contribution to human and ecosystem health together. A Venn diagram can illustrate this line of thought. A drawing of three overlapping circles (as shown in the adjacent figure) is often used to help visualize the interconnectedness of modern humanity’s economics, social equity, and ecology. In this illustration “cultural and political” actions are included in the social sector. And the social sector emphasizes “equity,” implying that fairness is an absolute necessity to achieve sustainability.
By the 3-overlapping circles model we are guided to link economic, social, and environmental parts of the community to strengthen its overall fabric. The 3-overlapping circle symbolism reveals how the core of sustainability demands equal consideration of all sectoral issues in a synergy relationship, rather than simply striking the best balance one can achieve among sectors. Each decision toward problem-solving or for improvement has an impact on all three. Fully combined, the common roots of economic, social, and environmental problems can be found and the various issues integrated in a holistic, sustainable solution.
From this perspective, the concept of sustainable development is much more than environmental protection in disguise. We are increasingly accepting that we must fully appreciate and relate to the environment’s connection to our economic and social systems. Sustainability represents a multi-dimensional way of thinking about and acting upon the economic, social, and environmental dynamics in a system context and acknowledges space-time relationships in decisions that involve a complex, dynamic system. This perspective distinguishes between environmentalism, which so often focuses only on ecological integrity, and the sustainability movement, which is more holistic (comprehensive and systemic) and inclusive.
But as Bob Gibson notes it is extremely difficult to comprehend the complexity of the topic and take action when problems often don’t fit nicely into our traditional perspective of the world. To help with converging on a description of sustainability in the adjacent figure we observe the idea that sustainability is like a 3-legged stool; in order for the stool to remain standing all three legs of the stool must be involved in supporting its seat. All three sectors need to be considered in sustainability discussions: to advance and strengthen the interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection. Focus on only two does not get the job done – the stool falls over!
Jeffery Sachs states that as an intellectual pursuit, sustainable development tries to make sense of the interactions of three complex systems: the relative economy, the society, and the Earth’s physical environment. Sustainable Development also represents an ethical outlook on the places where we live, meaning that it recommends a set of goals to which people should aspire. In this sense, sustainable development calls for economic progress to be widespread; extreme poverty to be eliminated; social trust to be encouraged through policies that strengthen the community; and the environment to be protected from human-induced degradation.
Sachs goes on saying to achieve economic, social, and environmental components, a fourth objective must be achieved: good governance. Governments must carry out many core functions to enable societies to prosper. From a moral perspective then, we could say that a good society is not only an economically prosperous society (with high per-capita income), but also one that is socially inclusive, environmentally healthy and well governed. The fundamental question is how to take our knowledge of the interconnections of the economy, society, environment and governance to think through how to produce prosperous, inclusive, sustainable and well-governed societies. It’s a lot to ask for, and there is no shortage of challenges to achieving sustainable development in practice.
Sustainable futures are not clear in advance but must evolve from a program of participatory social experimentation and learning. Amongst any group of people with competing interests, you rarely would observe agreement on a formal definition for sustainability. Everyone sees the world through their own pair of glasses and these glasses often present different views. Dialogue will always cause special interests to surface. Beyond the uncertainties and countering views that fuel this debate, to overcome the obstacles in agreement regarding where to start with a simply stated meaning for sustainability that meets the values of the community or organization involved, people need to begin by talking about the simple things they agree upon, to think about and discuss the things that are universally important to their way of life in their communities and that affect their core values: such things as their homes, their children, their jobs, nature, where their water comes from, the air they breathe, the food they eat, etc. These topics are what sustainability is really about.
The essence of the individual and community search for a meaning to sustainability relevant for their setting therefore, is to take the contextual features of economy, society, environment, and governance – the uncertainty, the multiple competing values, and the distrust among various interest groups – as givens and go on to design a process that guides concerned groups to seek out and ask the right questions that will help them progress through incremental improvements toward common goals despite challenges. This process should be characterized by features that include: flexibility; diversity and stability (ecologic, economic, socio‑cultural); respect for other people’s dignity; consideration of unintended consequences (change is the norm, not the exception); and notions of enoughness and reversibility. When not hindered by a definition for sustainability that has been derived someplace else and used in the context of “one-size-fits-all,” community deliberations are free to consider many different concerns, including changes in their own core values that will affect the opportunities of people in other places and future generations.
This public analysis, to truly establish the values important to a particular community through their own dialogue and struggle for agreement, must be developed from the bottom-up. The analysis will promote a community’s solidarity around a simplistic definition of sustainability. This simple, or as Norton suggests, “schematic,” definition of sustainability can be turned into specifics by real communities of people that choose important actions and indicators based upon their particular values.
What would a simple, graphic definition of sustainability look like for a community embarking upon this journey? Sustainability implies a defined relationship among generations. And the nature of this relationship is such that the actions of the present generation to fulfill their wants and needs do not destroy or close off important and valued choices for people in other places or generations in the future. The identifying of needs for future generations can realistically only go as far as maximizing their opportunities while minimizing their constraints by what we do in the present. We can move towards sustainability when we understand the connected economic, social, and environmental consequences of our actions and make deliberate, informed choices that allow all people to lead healthy, productive, and enjoyable lives, now and in the future, without experiencing unintended consequences (3 Cs of sustainability). We can shape a sustainable future, using resources less intensively by combining social, economic and environmental strategies that produce opportunities and minimize constraints for future generations and people in other places through the practice of sustainable development.
Thus, living sustainably is maintaining the important mix of options and opportunities while creating no new and onerous constraints; living unsustainably is losing opportunities, narrowing the range of options that people in other places or subsequent generations can choose among in their attempt to adapt, survive, and prosper. As Gibson states, these interdependencies require new ways of thinking about things and taking action that will truly create a sustainable future where society and nature coexist with mutual benefit, and where the suffering caused by poverty and natural resource abuse is eliminated. If it is unsustainable – we are not selfless enough!
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