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 inequality, social engagement and political stability, but the practical scope of the idea and meaning of the word seem to vary from one forum to another.
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.” We lack agreement among nations, regions, and generations as to what may be our needs.
In addition, the time scale for thinking about our sustainability far exceeds our abilities to plan and take meaningful action. 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. Estimates of age of the oldest cave paintings are 35,000 to 40,000 years, and stabile human settlements perhaps 4,000 to 6,000 years. Much of the Earth is marked by the remains of human activities that have not survived to present times. Against the backdrop of human history, what does sustainability really mean? Probably the best we can do in light of such evidence is to limit our perspectives to decades, but even that span appears optimistic for many government programs.
Of course, our values, technologies, and culture may change for good reasons from place to place and time to time. Our numbers continue to increase, as do our technological capabilities. We learn more about pollution and pesticides and the limits of our resources. Our values and comprehension of our own wellbeing evolve. 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.
A few useable principles nevertheless may increase the chances of humanity’s long-term survival and flourishing, and these principles seem essential to the concept of ecostructure:
- 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 a 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.