What is sustainability? This question is far more complex than you may realize. If you google the term sustainability you are likely to come up with the most widely used definition, the one used in the 1987 UN Brundtland Report, which is:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This isn’t the only definition for sustainability; it isn’t even the easiest to understand. However, I believe it is well worth the time to investigate it – because it is the most influential definition. There are three key concerns with the Brundtland definition and together they render the word sustainability so utterly useless that many scholars have suggested simply not using it. These issues are: the ambiguity of terms, the lack of direction, and the tense association.
The Brundtland definition is confusing. The words are too ambiguous to be of any use. For example what do they mean by a need? And whose needs are they addressing? The ambiguity of the definition means that the term sustainable can be applied to almost anything and still be true to the original concept. This mass labeling reduces the value of the word much in the same way that an inflated currency looses its value.
Although the Brundtland definition has a certain cheerful disposition about it, it does very little to actually tell us what actions are sustainable. There simply is no direction given. As such scholars from around the world have tried their hands at not only defining sustainability, but also making suggestions on how to obtain it. There are many different models, theories and methods* which do nothing to help sort out the confusion and allow for the word sustainability to be applied to almost anything. If a company wishes to be sustainable it only need to look long enough for a sustainability model that matches its current practices, no change required.
Finally, but equally important, the Brundtland definition exists in two tenses, present and future. It makes reference to action being completed now and action to be completed in the future. It talks about sustainability as if it is both something to be and something to achieve. In short sustainability is both an adjective and a verb. Take a minute to realize how confusing that is. You can work towards sustainability, while being sustainable. Sustainability is something to strive towards, but innately impossible to reach. How dismal is that?
So why don’t we just reject the word as the scholars suggest? I cannot answer to society as whole, perhaps they have just grown fond of it as it rode the buzzword wave. However, I can speak for myself.
The word sustainability, with all its ambiguity and misgivings, gives me hope. I am hopeful that we can come together around this common goal of sustainability and address the issues that we have today in our communities and world. I am hopeful that we can look realistically at what our limitations are and innovate solutions to our largest problems. That together we can work towards both a better today and a better tomorrow. Sustainability to me is hope. Hope in ourselves, hope in each other, hope in the world at large. To me sustainability is a complex, multifaceted, concept where in lies a lot of potential. Of course future posts will talk more about the unique challenges and qualities associated with the concept but for now I believe it is worth while to take a moment and realize what it means to each and everyone of us on an individual level. Only in this way can we come together to overcome our own misgivings.
* The model for sustainable development that I base my own ideas around is the four pillar model of sustainability. This model is widely used and relatively comprehensible. It looks at the interactions between society, environment, economy and political realm in order to better understand inter-dependencies and inequities. Another often used model is the principles of sustainability model.