What is Sustainability?
Sustainability is not a new word for environmentalism. Sustainability is not a goal or a state of being. It is a recognition and a process.
This bears repeating: Sustainability is not a new word for environmentalism. While there is no universally accepted definition of sustainability, the various formulations of the concept all point in the same direction: Sustainability is a human-centered idea. We can see this in the original definition:
"Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
— Our Common Future, 1987
And in current formulations:
"A dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways that simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth's life supports systems."
— Forum for the Future, 2008
Whatever definition we choose, it is important to remember that sustainability is not a goal or a state of being. It is a recognition and a process. It is the recognition that humans have made a fundamental error in trying to compartmentalize areas of concern. There are no environmental crises, or energy crises, or poverty crises, or economic crises. There are just interconnected problems that drive each other. And sustainability is a process. We will never be able to say "we were sustainable today". Sustainability is a compass that shows us the direction for continued improvement in creating a relationship between people and the planet that works for everybody.
So how do we move from a "Sustainability Mission Statement" to a series of practical "to do" items? We need to agree on a common set of goals, some useful approaches, and some ways to measure progress. In a broad sense, the world community has already delineated the goals. The United Nations Millennium Declaration, adopted in 2000, lays out the big problems facing humanity. We need to:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases
- Ensure a healthy environment
- Develop a global partnership for development
Does this look like the manifesto of any particular environmental, social, economic or political movement? No. It is sustainability.
Secondly, we need some approaches. Again, there is some agreement here. The U.N. designated the decade of 2005 - 2015 as the 'UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development'. The idea is that with the complex and interconnected problems facing humanity today, we need to make the point of education to be education for sustainability. This means focusing on:
- Public understanding of the principles behind sustainability
- Mainstreaming Education For Sustainability (EFS)
- Lifelong-learning for all
- Recognizing that EFS is relevant to all nations
- Developing specialized training programs
Finally, we need some metrics, or ways to measure progress. How do we know if we are doing better this quarter than last? How do we choose between this course of action and that? People seem to be very good at finding areas of disagreement, but what can we agree on? What can unite the political left and right? The rich and poor? The religious and a-religious? We can all agree that "healthy people" is a good goal. Not just physically healthy, but emotionally healthy, spiritually healthy, psychologically healthy, etc. To achieve this, people need a healthy environment, healthy economies, and healthy social interactions. Of course there will continue to be many challenges in deciding whether a particular course of action leads to, for example, greater emotional health. Or whether some decisions necessarily lead to a tradeoff in one area versus another. But, if we recognize that we all are on the same side and want the same thing, we will be able to use sustainability to keep us moving in the right direction.