I’ve always thought of sustainability as the reconciliation of our economy with our environment – because unless they are harmonised and made compatible problems like climate change and global poverty will build and ultimately we wont be able to keep human societies going. We need to change our consumer society into a conserver society, to deliver quality of life for all within nature’s means: protecting natural assets; keeping ecosystems healthy; maintaining nature’s capacity to deliver goods and services; keeping wastes and pollutants below environmental capacity; dealing with risks and costs now, not passing them on to people in the future; building social equality; seeking ever higher efficiencies; basing socio-economic activity substantially on renewable resources, managed so that use rate is less than the rate of replenishment.
Our economy clearly exists as a system within and dependent upon the natural environment, drawing its resources from it and emitting its wastes to it. As we’ve seen with floods, hurricanes, droughts and forest fires, here and around the globe, the natural world can devastate human life and activity – human power is puny in comparison. It is desirable for us to achieve sustainability because human health, wellbeing and quality of life would be greatly improved and the stability and security of our world would be much enhanced. Science is clearly telling us that it is necessary to achieve sustainability, most notably with respect to climate change at the moment, and previously with respect to ozone layer depletion. Since many of the resources we currently rely on to sustain us and grow our economy are finite it seems pretty inevitable to me that we will at some stage have to achieve sustainability, if human life as we know it is to go on and improve, and the sooner we make progress the more successful we will be in our efforts.
People often use the terms sustainability and sustainable development interchangeably. I’m not that happy with this, at least not without spelling out what I mean by development. Gro Harlem Brundtland, in her hugely important book ‘Our Common Future’, produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development following United Nations appeals, gives the most widely used definition of sustainable development:
‘… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’.
Its hard to disagree with this but it is a very broad, brief, ethically and not operationally focussed definition! Brundtland goes on to explain that by needs she meant particularly the needs of the poor, though the definition does not say how needs should be prioritised. Also the idea of environmental limits is implied in the definition rather than explicitly spelt out – you cant meet human needs, especially of the poor, on into the future if environmental limits are exceeded on an ongoing basis.
Whilst the Brundtland definition certainly involves environmental concerns, it suggests that economic growth, the way we currently develop, is not incompatible with environmental protection, a very contentious idea for people like me. The pursuit of economic growth as the key goal of governments - equating growth with progress - has certainly to date been a part of the problem. To become sustainable we need to achieve a set of economic and social goals that is not centred primarily on economic growth. Growth in the economy needs to meet conditions and be selective ie be of the right sort, in the right places, so that we attain and maintain economic stability and security.
Growing the economy in the way we have been, particularly its transport and energy intensive nature, is reducing our capacity to live without undermining the systems that support life (another way of defining sustainability). Why? It is: decreasing the overall natural assets stock; damaging ecosystem regenerative capacity and their ability to supply goods and services; emitting wastes and pollutants into the environment at levels beyond its ability to safely process them; causing high levels of social inequality; leaving generations to come with a build up of risks and costs; consistently undervaluing both humans and non-human species; not switching resource use from finite, non-renewable to renewable types on anything like a sufficient scale or at a sufficient rate; not efficiency focussed; consuming renewable resources like forests, soil or fish…at a faster rate than they are replenished due to poor management practices.
There is a great deal more that could be discussed, covering all sorts of aspects of life, centred on building a sustainable society. If you are inclined to find out more the links below aren’t a bad start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability