Today's journals of trade and popular culture are all but awash in the buzzwords 'sustainable' and 'sustainability'. Here, we are obliged to raise the red flag and warn of lurking danger. These diverse and many advocates do a great disservice in more ways than they know. For in this great sea of 'sustainability', which spans business strategies and regimens of weight loss, one all too easily loses sight of the real battle. We know that over-use of a term can have an unintended blunting effect. But the word is so much in vogue, and its employment so overzealous, that it has in many instances become obscured entirely.
So, you ask, what is sustainable development? Who are its proponents and antagonists? And, oh yes, why exactly is it to be so desired after all? Ours is an age in which we have come under the twin pressures of burgeoning population growth and an accompanying intensification of economic development. This development is necessary for the provision of the surging population's needs and wants. Though rates of population growth show signs of slowing, the number of earth's inhabitants will continue to expand massively in the foreseeable future. With the added variable of impending climate change, there is a sudden and new awareness of the potentially destructive nature of the human project.
These realities have given immense weight to calls for an oversight which explicitly takes account of the fate of future generations. Many nuanced definitions have been devised, but the most commonly evoked is that sustainable development "meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." General consensus holds that the sustainability project spans three interactive domains; these are (1) environmental sustainability, (2) economic sustainability, and (3) social-political sustainability.
Environmental sustainability is concerned with the preservation of resources and our earth's natural environment. In the strictest sense, any process which allows natural capital (the net sum of all natural resources and other bounties of the earth) to be depleted faster than it can be replenished threatens its ability to function and to serve us properly and indefinitely. Advocates of environmental protection actively seek solutions which will minimize the present and future burden to our natural environment of industrial and other pursuits. The best solutions are those which find ways to incorporate renewable methods of resource exploitation. The notion of environmental sustainability is thus inextricably bound to the premise of economic sustainability.
Rapid advances in new technologies and production techniques are constantly altering and expanding the boundary of production possibilities. But ultimately, economics is the science of the allocation of a finite resource pool. Promotion of economic sustainability thus seeks to allow for future generations to reach their own optimal allocations free from constraints imposed by our own patterns of exploitation in the here and now. The sphere of social-political sustainability is interesting in that it expands beyond the simple necessity of economic growth and its effect on the natural environment to more directly include the human element in the equation. Social-political sustainability promotes social harmony and continuity of healthy political institutions so that a mechanism is in place for the enactment of the collective will (presumably a will which is favorable to sustainability).
The project of sustainable development has inevitably encountered resistance. Some are eager to point out that any economic pursuit which entails resource depletion is by that very fact unsustainable. But to make this charge is to reduce the debate to semantics; to contend that the impossibility of an absolute application invalidates the endeavor wholesale is to court the ridiculous. Another more prominent criticism is slightly more troublesome to counter. Available evidence seems to confirm the wisdom that as nations emerge from poverty and amass wealth they are more willing to dedicate a portion of their incomes to combat pollution and other unpleasantries. The wealthy industrialized nations of the world at one time advanced through dirtier stages analogous to the present progress of developing economies.
However at that time there were no monitors or whistle-blowers. This school of critics cries hypocrisy. They uphold "dirty" mediums of economic growth that wealthier nations can now afford to bypass as the only hope to elevate massive populations from abject misery.
In so doing, they seek to force arbiters of sustainable development into the unenviable position of choosing between the welfare of the earth's poor and that of the earth itself. In the face of these criticisms, proponents of sustainable development strive for the national and international coordination of environmental, economic and sometimes social policies in the advancement of responsible progress. They are mindful that the world more than ever is a system of actors, none of whose actions bear no consequence for others. Their goal is the day-to-day management of policy decisions such that humanity might enjoy the bounty of our natural environment without exhausting it, and without selfishly revoking the privilege of coming generations to do the same. Without sounding the bells of certain alarmists, sustainability of this color is to be venerated and upheld. Dilution of the term's strength by those who would seek to hijack its nobility is, on the other hand, to be regretted and indeed resisted.
Copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Lafleche.
Daniel Lafleche is the co-founder of Alternative Channel, a website dedicated to giving non-profit organizations concerned with issues of sustainable development, environmentalism, and humanitarian issues an online forum for their video content. You can learn more at http://www.alternativechannel.tv