Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sustainability the Development of the Concept

Tomorrow is Earth Day 2011 and there is not much going on in Washington to mark the day. So today I am going to take a look at sustainability, where environmental awareness has taken us. Sustainability is traditionally defined as a practice that allows for the use of a resource without depleting it or impairing it. That simple concept; however, is not what the sustainability movement uses to define the concept. The definition accepted varies among different people and groups that are talking about sustainability. So let’s look at the development of the concept.

A world view accepting the interconnections among the nature and the society of mankind is a very ancient world view that appears in many indigenous and ancient civilizations. Only in the 20th century did large parts of society lose that understanding. Rachel Carson reminded us of that interconnection. Her book, Silent Spring, first appeared in serial form in the New Yorker and then as a best selling book in 1962. The science in the book may have been shallow, but her literary genius and emotional appeal created a movement. Followers flocked to Carson's cause which was rendered all the more powerful by her premature death in 1964 from breast cancer. The book's release was considered by many to be a turning point in our understanding of the interconnection between the environment and societal well-being.

In the 49 years since that time the environmental movement has reached middle age. The widespread acceptance of the validity of the environmental movement, which began in earnest in the 1950’s, followed by the first Earth Day in April 1970 and by the founding of the US EPA in December of 1970 established the environmental movement as mainstream. The current generation of young adults has grown up with the three “R” being “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” While society was embracing the environment, the leading edge of the environmental movement journeyed towards a broader concept: sustainability and sustainable development.

Since the late 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth. One of the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development is from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development commonly called the “Brundtland Commission.” They defined sustainability and sustainable development as:
"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In late 1983 Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway was asked by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to establish and chair the World Commission on Environment and Development, a special, independent commission convened to formulate "a global agenda for change." After three years the commission produced what is commonly known as "The Brundtland Report." Published in book form in 1987 as Our Common Future, the report addresses what it identifies as "common concerns," such as a population growth, lack of food security, dwindling biodiversity, and excessive use of polluting energy. Finally, the report lists "common endeavors," such as managing communally or society owned resources, making industry more efficient, maintaining peace and security while not suspending development or degrading the environment, and changing institutional and legal structures.

The Bruntland report has often been subject to criticism, on the grounds that many of its 'forecasts' proved to be inaccurate and in fact many of the causal assumptions were not studied. As the Development Education Program of the World Bank Institute (WBI) points out many of the relationships are just not measurable; and many of the goals are in conflict with each other. So what has survived of the Bruntland report is the first sentence. The Bruntland report should be viewed as a product of its time and its focus on inequalities between rich and poor should be seen in that context. Even in 1987 Brundtland Commission stated “Globally, wealthier nations are better placed financially and technologically to cope with the effects of possible climatic change. The world must quickly design strategies that will allow nations to move from their present, often destructive, processes of growth and development onto sustainable development paths.”

The World Commission on Environment and Development (Bruntland Commission) was followed in 1992 by the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, (Rio Declaration) which was developed at the 1992 United Nations "Conference on Environment and Development," often called the Earth Summit. The document consists of 27 principals that range from youth mobilization to eradication of poverty to compensation for environmental impact and national environmental policies. The most lasting portion of that document was the “Three Dimension Concept” which coined the concept that sustainable development was a balance of three dimensions: • Environmental Protection • Economic Growth • Social Development

In 1993 President Clinton created the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, a panel of leaders from business, science and other areas. The committee was tasked with bringing together industry, environmental groups, and government agencies to form consensus on policy; and implement programs to promote sustainable development. They focused on programs to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and policies that might foster sustainable communities.

Still, common themes run through most definitions of sustainability. They usually deal with nature, the economy, society or, perhaps most often, all three together. Most are not about maintaining life precisely as it is today. They are about the rate of change, and about equity between generations or political groups. Many see sustainability as a continually evolving process. The World Conservation Strategy views sustainable development as integrating conservation with satisfying basic human needs, achieving equity and social justice, providing for social self-determination and cultural diversity, and maintaining ecological integrity.

The US EPA states “Sustainable development can be facilitated by policies that integrate environmental, economic, and social values in decision making. From a business perspective, sustainable development is accomplished by capturing system dynamics, building resilient and adaptive systems, anticipating and managing variability and risk, and earning a profit.” It sounds good, but I have no idea what that means in real life and how we apply the principals of sustainable living and development to our lives and our communities, but I note they were able to include the three dimensions from the Rio Declaration. All of these different organizations address different aspects and definitions of sustainable development, but all are vague and remain open to interpretation.

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