Taking Sustainability Seriously

With the coinage of ‘sustainable development,’ the defenders of the unsteady state have won a few more years’ moratorium from the painful process of thinking. – Garrett Hardin

Sustainability is serious business. Just ask BMW and their new i brand of sustainable vehicles, You would have to agree that they are beautifully engineered machines, but sustainable? By what definition? The business definition?

Sustainability concerns the specification of a set of actions to be taken by present persons that will not diminish the prospects of future persons to enjoy levels of consumption, wealth, utility, or welfare comparable to those enjoyed by present persons. Sustainability grows out of a need for intertemporal ethical rules when one generation can determine the endowment of natural and constructed capital that will be passed on to all subsequent generations. Economic models of sustainability seek axiomatic guidance for the selection of rules regarding natural resource use. Ecologists approach sustainability from a related – though not identical – ethical stance. – Daniel W. Bromley, Dictionary of Economics

Uhhh, nope. Can’t say they followed that when when hanging the sustainability label on that car. Even with the technologies and services that BMW are planning to implement, cars simply cannot be sustainable according to this definition. And therein lies the problem with the word and the squishiness that business and government have applied to the meaning of it. Perhaps if we looked at the ecologists ethical stance towards the definition:

Ecological Sustainability

Capacity of ecosystems to maintain their essential functions and processes, and retain their biodiversity in full measure over the long-term.

Uhhh, nope in spades. Much better definition though, almost on the level of a principle. I like principles better than wordiness as principles tend to give lawyers and marketers less room to wriggle on meaning. Is there such a thing as a principle or principles of sustainability? Credit Suisse has one.

The sustainable development principle means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

As a guiding principle, I can see how a bank could get behind this one. The “needs” thing is very human centric, disregarding the natural world completely. If I was a principled human being, following this to the letter, I would have no trouble justifying the destruction of a large swathe of the planet in pursuit of profit as long as some other large swathe still exists for the next generation to destroy. Doesn’t do much for the generation after that, but hey, we were only worried about today’s corporate image, weren’t we.

More misuses of the word:
Sustainable fly ash?
I shouldn’t have, but it was one of the first hits on Google. Wonderful idea, could be a real boon to the construction industry and the coal fired power generation industry. But sustainable?

Taking sustainability home
Here is one a little closer to home. The tabletop is lovely, the view is divine, but sustainable?

These are all examples of what some call “soft” sustainability. Doing things like recycling plastic bottles, while expanding the manufacture and sale of bottled water, cutting down on paper use in the office, while printing 200% more prospectuses this year than last, in other words, finding millions of ways to look better on paper without ever changing the core things that need changing. Some call it greenwashing. I call it waltzing towards the abyss.

Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life or the environment, make amends if you do. – Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

Here is a principle that I can get behind. As a country, we have a lot of amends to make. Right now, we are still busy degrading and destroying and rushing the profits off to the bank. Eventually, we will be faced with hard choices, choices that will be forced on us by a collapsing biosphere, resource depletion and military competition for the few remaining drops of water. We cannot expect business or government to make the hard decisions to save our planet if we as individual citizens are not willing to make them in our own lives. We need to make changes that go further than simply using a reusable shopping bag or reducing the amount of plastic wrap that we use. We need to attack the core causes of the problems that we are facing. Rampant consumerism, greed, envy and a corporate class that cares only about next quarter’s bonus. The problem is not that human beings are incapable of doing the right thing, the problem is that our economic system is designed for one purpose: to engage capital in the production of more goods, more profit, more people, more environmental problems, more capital to reinvest in making more, more, more. We need to re-purpose the economic system that we created. People made it, people can unmake it.

As an individual human being, I worry a lot about my children. I want to leave the world a better place for them. This means living a sustainable life. Nothing is sacred, everything needs to be ripped apart and examined and rebuilt, with sustainability in mind. From how we build our shelter, how we grow our food, how we get around in the world, how we make decisions, how we communicate and especially, how we deal with the economy.

Infinite growth on a finite planet is simply ridiculous to contemplate. The past 150 years have been an out of control ride up the elevator. If we don’t start thinking about wings soon, I fear that we are in for a rather severe crash. I fear that we will simply continue on, business as usual, paying lip service to sustainability and leaving all of the hard choices to our children.

As it ever was…

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