It’s not sustainable any more!

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

The word sustainable is often used by organisations or governments to describe environmentally-friendly practice.

This means something is sustainable if it means “we’re using less energy than we did before” or “we’re trying to do less harm than we did before”, or even “we’re trying to mitigate some of the harm that we nevertheless choose to continue to do”.

A more sophisticated use of the word is to describe the conversion of economies or behaviours towards the targets needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. As we would need at least three planets for everyone to live a UK-equivalent lifestyle, the pygmy steps that we are currently taking are nowhere near big enough to justify calling them sustainable .

A better definition?

To my mind, sustainable has a very pure meaning. To define something as sustainable, it must be able to carry on indefinitely.

The 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, defined sustainable development as:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This definition describes a pattern of behaviour which in theory could continue forever. However – and thanks to hearing Satish Kumar speak recently – I now feel that there are problems with this definition too.

It looks at the earth and its resources from a human point of view: resources must be conserved because we need them for our consumption. We are part of the ecosystem, and one of many species. The definition makes no reference to the web of life of which we are part; it implies that resources are available primarily to keep our way of life going, at the expense of other species if necessary.

Other species benefit from the environment; they do all they can to maximise their advantage. So how are humans different?

I think the difference is to be found both in our ability to change the whole ecosphere, and in our understanding of the impact we are having. The majority of western behaviour is negligent towards the rest of the planet. It is negligent because we know or ought to know the impact we are having but we still carry on. We ought to know our place. Other species don’t know their place; but they don’t know how to. We can see the wider connections, the bigger picture; but we act in defiance of that knowledge. Which is why our development needs to take account of more than just our species.

Alternatives to sustainability

Whether or not the Brundtland definition is adequate, it is weakened if we use sustainable for anything less than its fullest meaning. It is certainly weakened if it is used as greenwash or to imply that something is being done when in reality not enough is being done.

So what do I say instead of sustainability when describing human economic or environmental activity?

The closest I’ve got so far is a clumsy phrase, ‘globally responsible practice’.

By this I mean practice which takes into account the effect of our behaviours on people and the planet. Essentially, this means how we use, process and dispose of the earth’s resources; but it also includes the impacts on biodiversity and on other human beings in relation to dignity, human rights and aspiration.

We cannot halt immediately the damage that is being done, and the amount of irreparable damage is currently increasing every day. But we can learn as much as we can about our impact – in human as well as ecological terms; and we can take as big steps as we can possibly take, as quickly as we can possibly take, to reduce and ultimately avoid those impacts.

That for me is responsible behaviour from a global standpoint – though it’s still a long way from the pure definition of sustainable. And less clumsy alternatives to globally responsible practice are warmly invited.

A final thought

To sustain something has another meaning too: to nourish or enliven it. I hope one day we may use sustainable to describe human practice which nourishes the earth rather than consuming it. After all we’ve used from the planet, the time for some sustaining in return has clearly arrived.

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