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What is sustainability?

Twenty-five year ago, the International Commission for Conservation of Nature outlined a strategy for sustainable living:

Living sustainably depends on a duty to seek harmony with other people and with nature. The guiding rules are that people must share with each other and care for the Earth. Humanity must take no more from nature than nature can replenish. This in turn means adopting lifestyles and development paths that respect and work within nature’s limits. It can be done without rejecting the many benefits that modern technology has brought, provided that technology also works within those limits. (IUCN, UNEP, & WWF, 1991, p. 8)

Where are we now? How far have we come since then?

The expressions ’sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ acquired a widespread popularity across the world within the past few decades as a response to perceived threats to humanity’s continued existence (Kagan, 2014). It is commonly understood that the adjective ‘sustainable’ probably has something to do with the environment and that labeling something sustainable attributes it a positive connotation. This, however, is by virtue of the erroneous common perception that sustainability and feasibility or compatibility are the same thing (Selby & Kagawa, 2010).

The concept of sustainability remains elusive and vague and finding a simple definition can be difficult. This is because it has become an advertising slogan, marketing tool and electoral manifesto through common usage, rather that an objective with deep epistemological, cultural and scientific foundations (Pulselli et al., 2008).

In your daily life, what words do you know, have heard, read or used in association with sustainability?

As we have already discussed, sustainability is a multidimensional concept but a simple way to think about sustainability is ‘using without using up’ — looking after the earth’s limited resources so that future generations are not penalised by our actions now. The term sustainability originally belongs to ecology and it referred to the potential of an ecosystem to subsist over time (Reboratti, 1999). Although, this is an oversimplification and, the concept of sustainability is far more than that. By adding the notion of development to the notion of sustainability the focus of analysis shifts from that of ecology to that of society.

The idea of sustainable development is not new; it was formalised by the Brundtland Commission (WCED, 1987) almost 30 years ago and has since been the talking point of many scholars in different disciplines who have worked to understand and explain what is meant, and not meant, by the expression, and to find the most appropriate behaviours to ensure prosperous survival of the human species for an indefinite time (Tilbury et al., 2002).

What behaviours would ensure sustainable survival of humans?

Promoting sustainability happens at the interface between its ‘three pillars’ or the so called ‘triple bottom line’ — economy, society and the environment (Pulselli et al., 2008). This means that calculating the price of something has to take account of the social and environmental as well as the economic cost (Peacock, 2004); however, the mainstream has failed to fully unpack the problem of how ecological sustainability can coexist alongside consumerism-fuelled growth, or how indigenous cultures and societies can ever endure within the thrust of a sustained neoliberal paradigm (Selby & Kagawa, 2010). Furthermore, the foundations of sustainability must obey the laws of nature; hence, in speaking of sustainability, it is always necessary to bear in mind that ‘time, biophysical limits and relationships support its three great pillars’ (Pulselli et al., 2008, p. 34).

There are many definitions of sustainability but the most helpful is the one you create for yourself, from reading, thinking, talking and experience.

The definition that I have created for myself goes as follows:

To live sustainably means to live with love, mindfulness, compassion and peace in a dynamic balance and harmony with the self, others and all living and non-living things; it is a dream that one day, we, as a species, will be capable of the embodied understanding that inherently we are not separate, but all inextricably linked by the processes that underlie the total existence of the cosmos.

What is yours?

 

References:

IUCN, UNEP, & WWF. (1991). Caring for the Earth: A strategy for sustainable living. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, UNEP, WWF.

Kagan, S. (2014). Art and sustainability: Connecting patterns for a culture of complexity. London, England: Transcript Verlag.

Peacock, A. (2004). Eco-literacy for primary schools. Oakhill, England: Trentham Books.

Pulselli, F. M., Bastianoni, S., Marchettini, N., & Tiezzi, E. (2008). The road to sustainability: GDP and future generations. Southampton, Boston: WIT Press.

Reboratti, C. (1999). Territory, scale and sustainable development. In T. Jahn (Ed.), Sustainability and the social sciences: A cross-disciplinary approach to integrating environmental considerations into theoretical reorientation (pp. 207-222). London, England: Zed Books.

Selby, D., & Kagawa, F. (2010). Runaway climate change as challenge to the ‘closing circle’ of education for  sustainable development. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 4(1), 37-50.

Tilbury, D., Stevenson, R. B., Fien, J., & Schreuder, D. (2002). Education and sustainability: Responding to the global challenge. Cambridge, England: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). (1987). Our common future. Oxford, England: University Press.