Sustainability: What is it?
The widespread use of “sustainability” and its sister term “sustainable development” arose during the 1980s. Sustainability was originally intended to mean maintaining environmental life support systems and the natural resource base to provide a sufficient livelihood now and into the future. 1Based upon the work of the Brundtland Commission (also known as the World Commission on Environment and Development) at that time, sustainable development is intended to be a means of proceeding with economic and social development so that meeting the economic and environmental needs of the present generation does not impair the ability to meet the needs of future generations.
Many observers and practitioners, particularly in the business community, began describing sustainability in terms of a “triple bottom line” for environmental, social and economic sustainability; and they have tried to identify business practices which met defined criteria. From this perspective, however, economic sustainability did not refer to meeting the economic needs of the population, but rather profitably sustaining the enterprise.
Moreover, it is important to recognize that many current uses of the word “sustainability” deviate from the original context, including “sustainable growth” (which the Federal Reserve Bank uses to mean the maximum achievable amount of economic growth without causing excessive inflation),” sustainable budgets” and “sustainable business”. Throughout this website we try to view sustainability from the more comprehensive lens of its original meaning.
Sustainability: Why Is It Important
Although in the case of sustainability the stakes of survival and prosperity are arguably much greater, the reasons why sustainability has become recognized as being so important are similar to many other precepts of human life and thought: self-interest and moral imperatives. With respect to self-interest, human survival is dependent upon the environmental life support systems noted above. Countless examples abound of damage to all of these in all corners of the earth. Concerns center on whether whole natural systems will collapse as increased efforts to improve material standards of living place increased demands upon the environmental life support systems and natural resource base. Moreover, human self-interest also requires conservation of the natural resource base and genetic diversity pool for human well-being into the future.
Another, related human self-interest reason for promoting sustainability is to lessen conflicts among peoples and nations requiring access to natural resources for their needs, or sadly in some cases, for a proliferation of their economic and political power. So-called “resource wars” are already prevalent all over the world, as so aptly studied and demonstrated by author Michael Klare in a book of the same name 2. Unfortunately, these conflicts threaten to become more widespread as water shortages develop, drought and deserts proliferate, tropical forests are removed, fisheries decline and oil reserves and strategic metals and minerals become scarcer.
With respect to the moral imperatives which argue for sustainability, they center upon the “right” of non-human life to exist and proliferate; and for all humans to realize better standards of living and quality of life, which only a minority of the world’s population currently enjoy. Growing global populations are morally entitled to their share of the world’s finite resources of land, forests, water, energy , metals and minerals. Yet, as we have noted elsewhere, the human ecological footprint has already become “unsustainable”; and as environmental limits are approached and exceeded, concern centers upon severe extinctions of species and possible collapse of natural systems. What of a world with two billion more people and increased standards of living? Thus, the moral imperative dictates that we must live more sustainably in our use of natural resources to permit better access and distribution for the majority of the world’s population who suffer in poverty or substandard living conditions.
Elsewhere in the website section that discusses “ecological footprint”, we note that the Global Footprint Network has calculated that with current human use of ecological resources, it would require four earths if everyone in the world had the same standard of living as the average American. Moreover, leaders in the growth-oriented business community have recently reached a similar conclusion. For many years The World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), composed of many multinational corporations, promoted sustainability through efficient use of natural resources to improve both the environment AND corporate profitability. And, yet, a basic contradiction persisted: that the economic system could indefinitely produce more of everything for everybody without constraints so long as the production was “efficient.” However, based upon a landmark study which addressed the availability of global natural resources, global population and consumption trends, the WBCSD concluded that even with improved technology we lack enough global resources to meet anticipated demands. (WBCSD, “Sustainable Consumption Facts and Trends: From A Business Perspective, Nov. 2008)
It should be noted that with the above examples that I deliberately referred to the U.S. “way of living” as being unsustainable for the whole planet. This is due not only to a U.S. culture and economy which allows inefficiencies in the use of natural resources and energy, but also promotes and advertises that human wants are insatiable and that more is better and “bigger is better”. As we discuss in other sections, to become more sustainable it would be more desirable for us as citizens of the global community to quality pursue of life and what truly brings happiness.
1 Under this definition, environmental life support systems include climate and atmosphere, soils, forests and terrestrial ecosystems, marine ecosystems , genetic diversity, and other natural resources (water, biomass, energy, metals and minerals). It is also recognized, as we discuss below, that aside from their utilitarian features, environmental life support systems also have an inherent value and right to exist.
2 Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, Michael Klare, Metropolitan/Holt Paperbacks, 2001.