Sustainability - Perspectives by ACSBD members
This is not an exclusive list and we welcome new and varied perspectives on sustainability:
'My role as a social scientist specialising in sustainability and the international political economy is to ensure that policy makers and the public are aware of the normative elements of sustainable development. There is much debate that ‘sustainable development means all things to all people’. My work is based on the fact that there are clear international agreements and programmes regarding sustainable development. It seeks to make sure that these are implemented effectively, through good governance, and the provision of sound research, advice and policy recommendations'.
That there is only one context that matters:
It is that human society, globally, must be sustained into the future indefinitely, and that the current trajectories of the society we have, will exhaust the planets resources to sustain it within short order this century.
- A scientific basis for material/energy inflows and outflows from the human system is the only way to understand the limits of consumption the humans can make: the thermodynamics of our demand on the plant.
- Economic system should be (re)designed around the thermodynamic limits of the planet.
- Social organisation (controls) should ensure the limits are not breached.
- All descriptions of sustainable behaviour (such as sustainable mining) should be about making a contribution to societal sustainability.
We need new goals, new science, and new economics to be truly sustainable.
In my view, the term ‘sustainability’ is misleading. It suggests something that is monolithic and applies to all. As a social scientist, I am wary of singulars, terms that conjure up unity. Sustainability, indeed, differs greatly according to social, spatial, historical, ethnic, gender and other parameters. Sustainability cannot be understood outside of a context: it needs to be placed, situated, if it is to be more than a hollow word, as it is at risk of becoming, now that it is displayed prominently by all.
‘Sustainability’ masks complex questions and choices, and is, therefore, an eminently political term: a matter of continuous debate.
'Building relationships and processes that allow an organisation to adapt and take advantage of its environment in order to secure a long term future'.
The concept is more problematic than it appears. In some of my previous work on both racism and Islamic fundamentalism, I have argued that the use of those terms can be ‘vitiated’ by an ‘a priori negative evaluation’. Simply put, we judge them to be bad before we think about what they are. The concept of sustainability is often faced with a problem that is both similar and opposite: it is held a priori to be a good thing.
Amartya Sen’s definition of development as ‘a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy’ has been inspirational, and for good reason. But it does not refer to something sustainable, unless freedoms can be expanded infinitely. In the field of development, concepts like ‘participatory development’ and ‘capacity building’ may be more useful, so, if the notion of sustainability is to remain useful, it needs to encompass those concepts.
Luke Van der Laan
Unfortunately, no matter how it is defined, "sustainability" per se, implies keeping the present into the future with no or minimum change, and that is not possible. And there are many things about the present (geological and biological, as well as social) that communities do not want "sustained" into the future. It is indeed not possible or desirable to maintain the present as our future.
The sustainability discourse encompasses two objectives. One, to reduce un-sustainability by improving or illuminating dangerous and wasteful practices; and two, to promote generative sustainability that will create a world where human and natural systems can thrive together. The latter deems the current status quo as a desirable future state. This may still be appropriate in terms of certain dimensions of our environments (eg. natural or even social) but is definitively not applicable to the whole system and environments.
I like the concept based on Brundtland's (1987) definition of sustainable development:
'Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.
The main concepts that I see embodied in this definition are those of meeting essential needs, and of continuing ability of the earth to service the needs of future generation. Doing so requires limiting the consumption of resources, maintaining the health of the ecosystem, and developing long-lasting public infrastructure and building projects.