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In Defense of "Sustainability"

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on the Limitations and Benefits of the Sustainability Approach

By Ronald Sandler, September 7, 2011

CREDIT: Garrett Ziegler (CC).

The concept of "sustainability" has taken a good bit of criticism in recent years. It has been charged with being so vague and over-used that it lacks significance, and with having been co-opted by the polluter-industrial system. These concerns have some merit. Nevertheless, "sustainability" remains a valuable umbrella framework for environmental issues, because the fundamental cause of our environmental challenges is that our capacity to deplete resources, despoil places, and disrupt ecological systems far outstrips their regenerative and restorative capacities.

Moreover, we do not have adequate personal, cultural, and political controls or institutions in place to moderate ourselves. This has led to biodiversity loss, widespread pollution, natural resource (including agricultural) insecurities, and global climate change. We are destroying habitat faster than it is regenerated; we are emitting greenhouse gases faster than they are broken down or sequestered; we are consuming water faster than it can be replenished; and we are polluting places faster than they can be cleaned.

An overarching conceptual framework for environmental responsibility must therefore emphasize living in ways and developing systems that do not diminish, disrupt, or destroy ecological resources, places, and processes. "Sustainability" is just such a concept. It may not be the only one, but the idea of "sustaining" that is explicit in the term makes it particularly well suited to the task.

A commitment to sustainability marks the beginning of the difficult work needed to flesh out what the concept amounts to in practice.

"Sustainable" conveys the sense that a type of system or activity should not undermine its ecological base or have significant external ecological impacts. Sustainable agriculture does not use up topsoil, deplete aquifers, or pollute waterways. Sustainable manufacturing does not release toxics into the environment. Sustainable energy production does not depend on increasingly scarce natural resources or result in large climatic changes. Sustainable development does not compromise the living conditions of future people and nonhuman species. And so on.

The strengths of "sustainability" as an umbrella concept for environmental responsibility are that it responds to the cause of environmental problems in general and that it can be attached to almost any type of system or activity. Because of this, it must always be substantively specified and operationalized in particular applications and contexts: What (in this particular context) needs to be sustained? At what level and in what ways? How is it to be measured and monitored?

The "sustainable" in sustainable agriculture will differ from that in sustainable architecture, and it will be different in the United States than it is in the Netherlands or in Malawi. This does not imply that there is anything wrong with the concept. It shows, rather, that a commitment to sustainability as such marks the beginning of the difficult work that needs to be done to flesh out what that it amounts to in practice. That is how things are with overarching framework concepts, be it "sustainability," "justice," or "rights."

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