When I heard a booster of the trans-Yukon railway tell his radio audience that construction cost for such a venture would fall somewhere between $1 billion and $5 billion, that this cost would be recouped by hauling extracted resources out of the territory and that it is clearly “sustainable,” I knew common sense was about to ride the rails.
There can be little doubt sustainability has become an intellectual fashion statement. In a cursory review of the literature I quickly found over 300 interpretations of the notion of sustainability.
Paul Hawkins in his book, The Ecology of Commerce, gives us his take:
“Sustainability is an economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations.
“It can also be expressed in the simple terms of an economic golden rule for the restorative economy: leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life of the environment, make amends if you do.”
The best-known definition comes from Our Common Future (the so-called Brundtland Report) prepared under the auspices of the World Council on Environment and Development, which defines sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The report goes on to suggest that “major unintended changes are occurring in the atmosphere, in soils, in waters, among plants and animals.
“Nature is bountiful but it is also fragile and finely balanced. There are thresholds that cannot be crossed without endangering the basic integrity of the system. Today we are close to many of those thresholds.”
The World Business Council also weighs in on the subject of sustainability:
“Sustainable development involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity.
“Companies aiming for sustainability need to perform not against a single, financial bottom line but against this triple bottom line.”
There are a myriad of sustainable programs, organizations and institutes willing to teach us about sustainability.
The Sustainability Institute in Harland, Vermont boasts: “We focus on understanding the root causes of unsustainable behaviour in complex systems to help restructure systems and shift mindsets that will help move human society toward sustainability.
“Our staff includes biologists, writers, social scientists, system dynamics modelers, and facilitators bringing a wide variety of experiences and skills to our work.”
Their website was full of bright flowers and low-slung barns set among beautiful fall foliage.
The Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, which track “the financial performance of the leading sustainability-driven companies worldwide,” paints us a far less tranquil setting.
Corporate sustainability according to Dow Jones “is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments.
“Corporate sustainability leaders achieve long-term shareholder value by gearing their strategies and management to harness the market’s potential for sustainability products and services while at the same time successfully reducing and avoiding sustainability costs and risks.
“The quality of a company’s strategy and management and its performance in dealing with opportunities and risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments can be quantified and used to identify and select leading companies for investment purposes.”
University of British Columbia even has a Campus Sustainability Development Policy:
“Universities have always existed to nurture healthy communities and economies through education. But today, more than ever before, universities are realizing that they also need to set positive social, environmental, and economic examples for their societies to follow.
“Civilization has arrived at a crucial juncture. All living systems upon which life depends are in decline, and the philosophies, strategies, and assumptions that have guided us for the past century are only making matters worse.
“Though they seem intractable, the challenges we all face bring with them great opportunities for leadership and positive change.
“At the University of British Columbia, we’re facing those challenges and finding those opportunities as we lead the way to Canadian campus sustainability.”
And for your information, there were some flowers strewn throughout UBC’s website.
What is clear to me is “sustainability” is not a stand-alone term. Using the term willy-nilly allows the user to appear to be in touch with exotic worldly and earthly processes others are not.
It is intended to give one the impression of safely transcending differing political philosophies in the latent hope of generating a sort of thoughtless consensus.
This is just what bothers me.
More often than not, the term sustainability as it is used today encompasses neither conservative nor liberal thinking, but rather no thinking.
It has all the trappings of words like transparency, accountability, life-time-guarantee, pharmacist approved, and gentle on the stomach.
It is the Vegamatic of the 21 century — “slices, dices and turbo cooks anything and everything effortlessly.”
Never accept one’s view that something is sustainable without first digging deep.
Demand the user carefully outline and then defend just what it is that is sustainable. Then make sure you are comfortable with the how of sustainability.
How is it to be measured, implemented, and inaugurated?
My reasons for being so hard on those willing to fling the term around the room so carelessly is due to the seriousness of what is intended by its use.
Being sincere, exact, and forthright about sustainability may be what the future of humanity depends on.
It is a concept with grave consequences, long-term pros and cons.
It is also a term that tends to limit broad and creative thinking. It surely has become a box in which we feel comfortable and yet we are not sure why.
Find out why. Question!
And just to insure my readers that I am not above the fray, here is my kick at the can.
Sustainability denotes the truth of the following statement: The future has no origin other than itself.
Now that is sure to sell a railroad.