Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I work in a field dominated by what could be described as a buzzword - sustainability. I think I know what this term means (most days) but I am constantly reminded that it can be a vague and confusing concept. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on defining this fuzzy concept.

First, a bit of history. The term "sustainability" and its counterpart "sustainable development" have their origins in a UN conference and the resulting World Commission on Environment and Development report, known as Our Common Future. This report defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Okay, a vague definition to start, but to its credit, it’s flexible and it’s meant to remind us that all of our activities must be ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable in both the present and future.

Sustainability of course, is not a new idea. Humans have always been pursuing the sustainability of their families and communities. What has changed is the context in which we are collectively pursuing sustainability. We are now seeing that humans have the capacity to alter the earth’s systems on a global scale. The world we live in is ever more interconnected and the decisions we make, both individually and collectively, have an impact around the globe. In fact, globalization of the economy has it that our decisions on energy and material consumption often have more of an impact on the other side of the world than they do in our own backyards.

Most people generally classify sustainability as being about the environment and resources. But sustainability is not just about environmentalism moving into the mainstream of society. Separating the environment out into its own category is part of the problem. This is the major point: human society (including the economy) is thoroughly embedded within ecological systems. Herman Daly’s quote comes to mind; “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.” We can continue to pretend that we call the shots but the signals are getting clearer by the day that we are dependent on biological systems. This means that we need to ask difficult questions about consumption, population and equity.

So all we need to do is reorganize our institutions to reflect this understanding of our proper role within the biosphere. No problem, eh? I will say that I think we are moving in the right direction. I don’t mean for this to be a depressing monologue by any means. I think that people are getting more and more knowledgeable about these issues by the day. What happens however when you continually hear about what’s wrong with the world but aren’t given any solutions or opportunities to be part of the solution? You get apathy and despair. My humble opinion is that one person can indeed make a difference as long as they have the skills and knowledge to know how to make a difference. It’s hard when we all live in a society that is so unsustainable. But your efforts to drive less, eat locally and buy secondhand go a long way to improving not only your own life, but the lives of folks on the other side of the planet and the lives of your grandchildren.

Wondering what else you can do? I just saw a terrific new resource put together by Stanford University on making sustainable choices. It offers lots of suggestions at the store, in your home and on the road. Check it out at http://sustainablechoices.stanford.edu/index.html.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Of course early examples include rotating crops in farming.

  3. thanks :) really interesting.