We had a discussion/lecture on Thursday April 1 with the theme “What is sustainability?” The core elements that I sought to get across in class are summarized here. As a follow-up to the first Reading Response (reproduced below), I thought I’d highlight some important points and questions from students’ work.
This assignment asked students to read two journal articles discussing our contemporary understanding of sustainability rooted in the 1987 Brundtland Commission report. The articles discussed the role of the Commission in establishing the “three pillars of sustainability”–Economics, Ecology, Equity–and defining as sustainable measures that meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In so doing, the Commission developed a general framework that governments, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and individuals could then translate into tailored approaches.
There were three primary themes in these responses that highlighted the complex issue of sustainability.
1) Students engaged with various aspects of the complexities involved in defining and implementing “sustainability.” For example, the paradox of having a broad definition in the Brundtland Commission report that seemed to be too vague to be implemented in any meaningful way, or so broad that it would ignore the things that made every situation and location unique.
Related to the point above, one student observed that there were “varied definitions depending on who you talk to or what article you read. . . . many people use the term superficially, or even to gain social acceptance (i.e. corporate greenwashing).” Central here is the idea that the term “sustainability” might be so broad as to not have any functional meaning at all: How useful can a concept be if, rather than aiding in identification and discussion, it can mean anything to anyone?
Taking a different view of this issue, another student wrote that “the most important aspect of the Brundtland Commission definition is in its ambiguity. Times change, and with that come changes in the basic wants, needs, and desires of people. By refraining from issuing a concise and detailed definition, the Commission has encouraged the process to evolve over time, exactly as would happen in nature.”
2) Another theme centered on the relationship between the goals of sustainability and the ways in which the contemporary capitalist system functions. Some students wondered if there was an inherent conflict between consumer society and sustainability, while one student suggested that sustainability might be, at its core, a socialistic approach.
Another perspective on the dynamic between sustainability & economic growth is the question: “Are there views of the Brundtland Commission that refute the notion that economic growth ought to be a priority? It seems that some may view economic growth as part of the problem. . . . that can make opaque our view of environmental sustainability, especially considering that many environmental resources are a commons, such as water and air.”
3) Many students expanded their basic definition of “sustainability” by incorporating “the social equity aspect and how it seems to be prerequisite for broader global environmental sustainability and economic growth.” Depending on the situation equity may not be the primary or explicit focus of a given push for sustainability, but keeping in mind the critical importance of this pillar is important. For instance, asking about equity considerations in a firm’s sustainability platform may illustrate the difference between “greenwashing” of one kind or another and something more deeply sustainable.
To provide additional food for thought, a selection of student questions spurred by these readings:
** In what ways can technology aid or hinder sustainability?
** What if two sustainability values contradict each other?
** How can we bring more people into better socioeconomic standing while keeping resource uses down and changing the Western lifestyle into something that itself is more sustainable?
** Where do proponents of the Ecofeminism movement stand in relation to the Brundtland Commission?
** How to come up with a set of criteria that everyone involved can agree upon?
** How is success measured?
** Is it fair to hold other nations to a higher standard than we held ourselves through our own industrial revolutions?
** What time frame is involved in considerations of sustainability?
** Regarding the concept of “intergenerational equity,” does this mean rationing the distribution throughout time to be fair to future generations, and not using the assets up right now?
READING RESPONSE 1
Your response to the question: “Sustainability is . . .,” completed in-class
Robert W. Kates, Thomas M. Parris, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz. “What is Sustainable Development?” Environment 47: 3 (Apr. 2005), 8-21.
Oluf Langhelle. “Sustainable Development: Exploring the Ethics of Our Common Future.” International Political Science Review 20: 2 (April 1999), 129-149.
In response to the sources above, please respond to the following questions
1) In what specific ways did your definition of sustainability correspond with some or all of the aspects of sustainability that you read about in Kates, et al., and Langhelle?
2) In what specific ways did your definition of sustainability not correspond with some or all of the aspects of sustainability that you read about in Kates, et al., and Langhelle?
3) According to Kates, et al., and Langhelle, a) what role did the Brundtland Commission play in defining “sustainability,” and b) what is important to you in the Commission’s definition of “sustainable development?”
4) Considering all of these readings together, a) in what ways has your understanding of “sustainability” changed, and b) in what ways has it remained the same? Why? What repercussions, if any, might this change have for you as you move forward in this quarter and throughout your life?
5) If applicable, please indicate any words, concepts, or other aspects of readings that you did not understand fully and/or that you had to look up.
6) In response to the sources above and any other sources on the topic that you care to include, please come up with three questions that you have and/or areas of interest that you would like to pursue that relate the readings with the content of the course.
James V. Hillegas