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What Does Sustainability Mean?

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The use of the term “sustainability” spreads rapidly. It’s becoming a catchphrase for everything from “green products” to sustain profitable sales, to changing technologies to better sustain eco-systems. It may become so ambiguous, even contradictory, that it loses its meaning.

Some confusion comes from the term “sustainable development” (SD), created in 1987 by the United Nations‚ World Commission on Environment and Development. (The Brundtland report). Many government and corporate bodies have defined SD as sustaining development, with “development” defined as perpetual economic growth. But this isn’t the fundamental meaning. In its Overview the UN report says that SD means humanity meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 8). In a nutshell, SD is about inter-generation justice; learning to think about seven generations, as many Indigenous cultures put it.

There are several aspects to this, the most challenging being reconciling human development with ecological carrying capacity and the limits to growth; and tackling glaring and growing global inequalities, and, as part of this, attending better to meeting basic human needs. Protecting watersheds is paramount.

At the end of its Overview the UN says that its report is about supporting “development that is economically and ecologically sustainable” (p. 20). This couldn’t be clearer. If “sustainability” is twisted to mean sustaining economic growth that is ecologically unsustainable, it turns into its opposite and loses all intended meaning. Sustainability is about meeting needs today in such a way that this doesn’t jeopardize the capacity of people to meet their needs in the future. This will require changing both technology and economy so that eco-systems, upon which human need-fulfillment depend, are protected and, yes, restored. Quickly phasing-out all industrial toxic waste streams is a vital part of this.

As we start 2009 we still haven’t turned the corner on this. In the short term, the economic crisis may even distract us from the challenges of sustainability, of which the climate change crisis is clearly our biggest. But this economic crisis presents a great opportunity to rebuild our economy with jobsupplying sustainable technologies, which is the least we should demand when public moneys are being used. Next week I’ll explore how the nuclear industry uses the term “sustainability”, and whether it meets the criteria according to the fundamental meaning of the term. Happy New Year!

Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies who resides in the Qu’Appelle Valley. He writes a column "Saskatchewan Sustainability" for the R-Town News weekly chain.