Good Lives Project, guest blog 2: Sustainability

March 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here is the second of my guest blogs on Woodbrooke’s Good Lives Project – you can view the original post at http://woodbrookegoodlives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/sustainability-and-minute-36.html

This article explores the second element of British Quakers’ “Minute 36” commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community.

Sustainability

What does sustainability mean in the context of Minute 36?What are we doing or would like to do that we can call sustainable?

Out in the wider world, sustainable is often used by organisations or governments to describe environmentally-friendly practice. This sometimes 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 steps that humankind is currently taking are nowhere near big enough to justify calling them sustainable.

Is there a better definition?

To my mind, sustainability has a very pure meaning: if something is sustainable, it has the capacity to adapt and continue 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 this definition views the earth and its resources from a human point of view: resources must be conserved because we need them for future (human) generations. In reality, though, 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.

A more recent definition of sustainable development feels to me to be a step forward: “Development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends” (1) – though I’m still wary of that word “generations” if it’s only about humans.

Sustainable lifestyles

Whether or not these definitions are adequate, my sense is that they are weakened if we use sustainable for anything less than that which can exist or continue indefinitely. 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 the phrase ‘responsible practice’. By this I mean practice which takes into account the effect of our behaviours on people and 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, nor repair what is irreparable. 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 possibly can, as quickly as we possibly can, to reduce and ultimately avoid those impacts.

That for me is responsible behaviour from a global standpoint. It doesn’t rescue us in anyway – it leads us into evaluating and negotiating our practice, especially if we’re part of a community working out sustainability together; the conversations explored in last week’s article are inevitable and ultimately provide the way through.

Another sustainability?

To sustain something has another meaning too: to nourish or enliven something.

Rather than thinking of sustainability as forever enabling us to consume resources, I hope one day we may use “sustainable” to describe human practice which truly nourishes and enlivens the earth. After all we have drawn from the planet, the time I think has come for more sustaining in return.

(1) http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/redefining-sustainable-development-by-david-griggs

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