Sustainability is…...?

June 22, 2012

Sustainability does not only mean biological products, woolen socks, and a lifestyle under the guise of Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy. It is much more and popular than that.

Sustainability is a very ambiguous concept. Different meanings are associated with it: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Cradle 2 Cradle, fair-trade, organic, and responsible behaviour. Sustainability also plays an important role in the fields of biodiversity, climate change, water, and international development. Moreover, the term is used appropriately and inappropriately.

A first real definition of sustainability was given by the Brundtland report 'Our Common Future' in 1987: "Sustainable development meets the needs of the present generations without compromising the needs of future generations'[1]. The aim is not to save the world, but to preserve them for the necessary needs of current and future (human) generations.

But this is a very broad interpretation. What do I mean by it?

Sustainability is often referred to as the triangle of People, Planet & Profit. Sustainability for me is an economy that focuses on people and planet with which profit is used to create a sustainable and equitable relationship between people (and countries) and between humans and nature. The past decades has been focused on the profit side of sustainability, but now, the economic crisis forces us to face the facts that it can not continue. Moreover, the separation between rich and poor in the world is preserved by many as unfair. This is also visible in the field of climate change. The effects of climate change are often and fiercest felt by poor countries. Thus, the rich nations are most responsible for the phenomenon and they can better adapt to climate change than developing countries.

Sustainable action has everything to do with ecology, justice and the fair distribution of wealth (minerals and water for example). Hence, I believe sustainable development should mainly focus on  the people-(people) and the earth or nature-(planet) side of sustainability, where the economy (profit) functions as a vehicle for the first two.

And how does that work in practice?

Over the last decades, international politicians and policy makers have tried to address sustainable development (as stated by the WCED, 1987) [2] both through existing and novel governance initiatives (e.g. Kyoto Protocol, Earth Summit, Millennium Goals, and many others). Many are aware of the pressure on solving global problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and poverty. However, especially during the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, it became apparent that a global view on sustainable development remains difficult to operationalize into clear policies[3].

For me, sustainability is to create our own ecosystem within the larger natural ecosystem (the earth), and to focus on the concept of justice for present and future generations. This is similar to the cradle to cradle principle of Braungart and Mc. Donough[4]. The earth itself is a large ecosystem where (almost) nothing is lost and where everything is effectively (re) used (the Gaia principle). Why should the living environment of people need to look so  different from the natural ecosystem? Why would our cities, our products and service cycles not also function as a larger ecosystem? Why don’t we create our own ecosystems, inspired by the natural ecosystem of mother Earth?

It is not just about reduce, reuse, and recycle. Products could be left in nature without effecting it negatively. They should be bio-degradable and serve as fertilizers. Products can be made so that they are a valuable contribution to the natural environment or for further use even after their original use. Therefore, a new look at products and their usefulness, efficiency, and effectiveness is necessary. This should not only be applied to products, but also to (service) cycles, buildings, roads, and our infrastructure. Developing countries and richer countries can work together towards a sustainable future, with a focus on equity, preservation of diversity (social and environmental) and respect for people and nature.

A preview ...

A sustainable city is a city where roofs and sidewalks are used for urban agriculture, rainwater capture (for toilets), and power generation through solar panels. Waste is reduced, separated, biodegradable or burned to generate energy. The city itself is an ecosystem in which parks, gardens, and water features are a central aspect.

It is a vision that in many cities could be achieved. Now a dream, but dreams are there to become reality. Indeed, some cities already exist in this mindset, often originating from cradle to cradle projects, such as Masdar in the UAE. There are also fantastic and progressive projects that will enable developing countries to ensure sustainable development, such as the Yasuni-ITT Initiatief of Ecuador.

Dreams become reality!

[1] Jonker, J. et al. (2011). Duurzaam Denken Doen. 2011 – 2035. Inspiratieboek voor onze gezamenlijke toekomst. Kluwer: Deventer; World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). (1987). Our common future. Annex to document A/42/427- Development and international co-operation: Environment.

[2] World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). (1987). Our common future. Annex to document A/42/427- Development and international co-operation: Environment.

[3] Jackson, T. (2009). Prosperity without Growth. The transition to a sustainable economy. UK Sustainable Development Commission: London; Warnars, L. (2011). Prosperity within valued limits: novel governance initiatives stimulating moral human development shifts and sustainable development. Unpublished PHD proposal.

[4] Braungart, M. And Mc. Donough, W. (2007). Cradle to Cradle. Afval = voedsel. De Connecting Link: Bilthoven, The Netherlands.



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