You hear sustainability mentioned everywhere these days, but what does it actually mean?
In 1983 Norwegian Prime-Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was commissioned by the United Nations to undertake a study into “sustainable development”. The study entitled “Our Common Future” was published in 1987. It has been referred to more popularly as “The Brundtland Report”. It is in this report that the most agreed upon definition of sustainability can be found.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (World Commission on Environment and Development – Brundtland Commission, 1987)
Although this definition is vague, it is the seed for changes in both thought and action. This definition has allowed various conventions and meetings such as the Earth Summits to have a starting point in dialogue. It is important to realize that the definition presented here is vague by necessity. As sustainability involves understanding the relationship between the environment, economics and society (1) any one definition must be able to be employed generally.
Is the need for sustainability a recent phenomenon?
We are not the first of societies to be caught in the downfall of our own economic and ecological spending. When the first foreigners reached the shores of Easter Island, the locals were engaged in great battles over the control of the last of the natural resources. Deforestation of the land had led to soil erosion and poor agriculture. It was their belief that construction of the iconic and famous large statues would appease the Gods and correct the situation. However, this practice inevitably used more resources and worsened the situation. Moreover, the fate of these threatened people was sealed upon the arrival of foreign ships.
Although the struggle between man and his environment is not a new one, our struggle today is of a different scale: global, rather than local and is a result of the ideals we associate with Western civilization, such as industrial growth and globalization. Over the last few decades we have started to identify some of the challenges that face us, such as greenhouse gases and population growth. But even, so the issue is of such merit that even new perspectives outside that of Western civilization are required to approach these challenges. It is imperative to not be complacent, to not follow a similar fate of those on Easter Island and other great civilizations which have failed by blindly following harmful courses of action.
What is the relationship between sustainability and environmentalism?
There are many ways to look at this. The human race has always had great impact on the environment and ecosystems. For example, long ago, the lands of North America, Asia, Australia and Europe were home to some of the most magnificently large animals, known as megafauna. The dates of their extinction around the world closely follow the path of humans, the skilled hunters, colonizing the land. Another example, is when humans moved into Australia, about 50 000 years ago. Here, colonization had a major impact on the ecosyste, including things as nuanced as the extinction of the Volkswagen beetle bug sized wombat. Furthermore, humans are have also molded the ecology of Australian land through the use of fires (2) To be blunt, the world has now inherited an Australia with an ecology that has in part become dependant on fire for survival.
Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1993 book “Eight Little Piggies; Reflections in Natural History,” points out that along with the megafauna, a proposed 99% of all animals ever in existence are now dead. Although, extinction is an accepted fate for all species, should man feel guilty about driving a few more animals to extinction? Perhaps. However, accepting extinction as a part and parcel of life on earth does not negate our desire to protect the planet at this point in time. Furthermore, as extinction and recovery from it, is on large geological scales, some suggest that our attempt to produce a sustainable lifestyle on our planet now is (above all) for our own comfort and that of our offspring.
Two common ideological flaws of popular environmentalism, as pointed out by Gould, are the ideas that our planet is fragile and that it is up to us to “act as stewards”. He argues that these are two ideas which are born of western ideology that “humans are separate from and above the rest of creation” (4). The paradigm in which we consider environmental causes is shifting as we realize that our planet isn’t so much bothered whether our species survives the next several hundred years nor is she bothered by whether she can recover from whatever we inflict on her. In some respects, this viewpoint suggests that we don’t so much need to care for her, but learn how to care for ourselves and those that surround us.
What is the difference between sustainability and environmentalism?
Many see sustainability from an environmental perspective, and it certainly does involve many environmental problems (most of which are akin to alarm clocks screaming to get us up). From oil spills, deforestation of the Amazon and the loss of biodiversity, to events like Chernobyl, the impact we have on the environment is non argumentative. Although there is academic debate over the cause of global warming, these arguments are splitting hairs. The point is that the world is becoming a much less comfortable place to be. Change needs to happen and has even been whispered at since the late 1960’s. Nowadays, this change is being realized as an entire shift in paradigm, that utlizes and heeds the entire framework of ideas and beliefs of the western culture. Essentially, many feel that as the world currently turns according to economic rules, the changes required at this stage involve practices in production, consumption and governance (5). The changes required will need to make sustainable practices an economically sound solution (1).
The industrial revolution left us with an economy based on extraction from environment, production, consumption and inevitable waste – a very linear “cradle to grave” system. New ideas about economy and business, such as those promoted by world renowned architect William McDonough, suggests business as a circular cycle, a so called “cradle to cradle” system. Here, it is clear that the concepts underlying sustainability go far beyond the reaches of the environmental mantra of the three R’s; reduce, reuse and recycle. Although these are still fundamental concepts, sustainability goes many steps further, by emphasizing the notion that production and economic growth need not be limited. An example would be one textile factory in Switzerland, Rohner Textile, which was facing bankruptcy due to the cost of biohazardous waste removal and water treatment. Working with a chemistry company they identified safe dyes and chemicals for the production of their fabrics, leading to not just the reduction of harmful constituents but the removal of them. Now the end cuttings of the fabric, which were once considered biohazardous waste, are not just recycled but are actually composted, and returned to the earth. Factories still have a place in the future – they will just have to be cleaner than any regulation requires now (6).
More to the point, in order to allow for the changes at an economic level, there is a need to alter our own governance. Legislative changes at local, provincial, federal and international levels must allow for the growth of a sustainable business sector.
Is sustainable only available to developed nations?
Although it is due to both industrialization and globalization, that so much drastic environmental change has occured, it is also the wealth afforded by these same processes that allow us the economic freedom to start protecting our natural resources. In poor nations, however, little thought to natural resources is allowed when making economic decisions. Would you destroy natural resources when pressed with the need to feed, shelter, and clothe your children? However, even though third world countries simply do not have the same luxuries to model their development after Western society, it is also important that they are not led down the same path of destruction. Therefore, there is the challenge to implement the same responsible restrictions to countries as they develop, so that development is not stunted per se, and so that they are encouraged to foster their natural resources, knowing it to be an important part of their future livelihood (7). Bottom line is that development will concern the environment, as well as other urban considerations such as health care and status of women, like it has never been done before.
What will the future look like?
The future, for good or bad, is a metropolis. The United Nations estimates that in the year 2025 2/3 of the worlds population will live in cities and the urban areas surrounding them. Whether these cities will be home to disease, poverty and crime or peaceful sustainable societies will be decided over the next several years. The fate of our cultures rests in the ability of the city to adapt and change. People involved in all aspects of life are excited to discuss the future of their cities. For example, China is one of the fastest growing nations. Over the next decade 400 million people will need a roof over their head. The Chinese are now realizing how taxing this is to current systems of infrastructure, and are already looking at alternative methods of systems as diverse as water sanitation or alternative building materials (8).
In Vancouver, British Columbia, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) produces visualizations tools for examining sustainability. As a cooperative effort between four post secondary institutions in BC (University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia Institute of Technology, Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design) the CIRS is being given a home. It will be a new breed of building which will double as an experiment itself. New ideas in construction, waste management, water supply, air supply, energy usage and even transport of employees to and from work will be able to play out. To demonstrate the role of local government, the City of Vancouver has agreed to work with the development team to look at ameliorating the cities by-laws to allow the construction and servicing of a sustainable building.
What can I do now?
The most important change a person can make now, is to turn thought and concern into action. From being a knowledgeable consumer to being a responsible producer and becoming involved in local, provincial and national government to both push and allow for changes. It’s pretty much time to turn off that ringing alarm clock.
1. Heal, Geoffrey “Valuing the Future” Columbia University Press, USA, 1998.
2. Miller et al. “Ecosystem Collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a Human Role in Megafaunal Extinction”. Science, 309 ( 5732). 287-290. 2005
3. Gould, Stephan J. “Eight Little Piggies; Reflections in Natural History” W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.USA.1993
4. Martin, Thomas. “Greening the past; towards a social-ecological analysis of history”International Scholars Publications, USA. 1998
5. http://sdgateway.net/introsd/default.htm, Sept 24, 2005
6. “The Next Industrial Revolution” Earthcome, 2001
7. Toakley, A. R. “Globalization, Sustainable Development and Universities”. Higher Education Policy. 17, 311-324. 2004)
8. Underwood, Anne. “Designing the Future”. Newsweek. May16, 2005.
(artwork by Jane Wang)