“Sustainability” may be fundamentally unsustainable, but we have a chance

The idea of “sustainability” has clearly taken root.  The word appears frequently in print as well as Internet media, and national governments around the world have established agencies and programs devoted to it.  There seems to be widespread agreement that the idea has something to do with energy supplies, environmental impact, and economic growth, and perhaps with social engagement and political stability as well, although the scope of what is to be sustained—individual well-being, national prosperity, global status quo, for example—seem to differ from one forum to another.  However, there seems also to be a dawning realization that the idea’s application as a basis for guiding humanity’s actions may not be sustainable.

An important early appearance of the meme, if not its initial source, is often attributed to the World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Brundtland Commission.  This group of international experts was convened by the United Nations in 1983 to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development; recommend ways that concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among countries; and help define shared perceptions, aspirational goals, a long-term agenda for action.  The Commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future  suggested that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Among the still-expanding literature on the subject, I have found no more cogent definition of the term.

It might seem like a small step from seeking humanity’s “sustainable development,” a steady advancement of people’s achievement and wellbeing, to the “sustainability” of humanity, our survival as a prosperous species.  For a number of reasons, however, I suggest there is a large gap between the two concepts.  The gap is so broad, in fact, that I doubt the value of sustainability as a meaningful basis for guiding our principles and policies. Let me explain why.

To begin, the time scale for thinking about our sustainability far exceeds our abilities—politically, socially, historically, perhaps psychologically—to plan, take meaningful action, or even pay attention.  Scientific evidence suggests that the biological genus of which humans are a part evolved into being and the first hominid use of stone tools began in Africa perhaps 2.5 to 3.5 million years ago.  Evidence of homo sapiens sapiens, our particular species, dates back about 250,000 years.  (In all of this, my phrasing is meant not to convey any skepticism, but rather to acknowledge that we rely entirely on inference from the limited data available to us to draw conclusions about past events and conditions.)

Our various experiments in culture, social, and political organization are rather brief when seen in sharp contrast with these time periods.  Damascus is often claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, but evidence for large-scale
settlement seems to date back only about 4,000 years. (The earliest Egyptian, Sumerian, and Chinese written records may have been created about 6,000 years ago.)  The community water-management schemes of Bali and other parts of Indonesia, arguably among the better models for sustainable relationship of humans and their environment, began to exist perhaps 1000 years ago.  England’s Magna Carta was first issued in 1215 and the United States, our ongoing experiment in capitalist democracy, was established less than three centuries ago.  Viewed against the backdrop of human history, “sustainability” has had a very brief span of influence.

In addition, there is the fundamental uncertainty of our existence as a species.  While some people prefer alternative explanations, the fossil evidence suggests that many varieties of creatures have come and gone since the first simple cells appeared.  The famously extinct dinosaurs died out, some scientists suggest, after an asteroid colliding with the Earth caused extreme global climate change.  On a less cosmic scale, scientists theorize that the ash from a volcanic eruption approximately 70,000 years ago at Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, similarly caused such a dramatic global cooling that human population was drastically reduced.  Outbreaks of bubonic plague (the infamous Black Death of 14th Century Europe) and related famines in more recent times have dramatically reduced human populations in Asia and Europe.  Apart from simply not giving in to existential despair, probably the best we can do in light of such evidence is to limit our perspectives to decades at most.  Some government agencies already seem to be unable to maintain funding for the programs they established to enhance their communities’ “sustainability.”  (For example, see the commentary on Sustainable Cities Collective.)

Finally, we really cannot know whether our actions are “sustainable” with respect to either our development or our survival.  Application of the Brundtland definition requires forecasting not only the consequences of our current actions but also what future generations may judge to be their own “needs.”  On the one hand, our society and our global environment are a complex system, susceptible to the well-publicized “butterfly effect;” any small perturbation can cause unforeseen consequences.  On the other hand, our values, technologies, and culture change from one generation to the next, so that what may seem to us an inconsequential change may be seen very differently by our children; consider for example the shift in our views about air pollution pesticides.  In general then any assessments of the future consequences of our actions are more than likely to be inaccurate.  Even more fundamentally, it seems quite likely that we simply cannot do anything to meet our own present needs without in some sense compromising the options available to future generations.

While “sustainability” or even “sustainable development” may be problematic as directly useful concepts, the ideas nevertheless do point the way toward useable principles. Applying these principles will at least increase the chances of our long-term survival:

  • Use only renewable resources: No matter how large the supply reservoir may be, it will eventually be exhausted.
  • Eliminate all waste and pollution: What economists refer to as “residuals” are simply an indicator of inefficiencies in
    our production processes.
  • Stabilize our population: Increasing humans’ wellbeing and chances of survival as individuals and as a species depends ultimately on enhancing labor productivity as well as on applying strictly the first two principles.

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