In response to the post “Critiquing Sustainability,” Samuel Mann (Assoc. Prof., Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, NZ) wrote this thought-provoking post of his own. Mann provides an historical and philosophical overview of some aspects of sustainability, finding that this idea “is deeper than a Sustainability = Brundtland conception . . . with precursors stretching back decades and centuries.”
I, in turn, responded with the following:
- I appreciate your help in providing context for our current understanding of “sustainability.” In my class, I lecture on the historical development of the concept and provide a very abridged version of what you discuss above. In my interpretation, the deep roots of sustainability that you discuss focus most heavily on valued environmental resources (i.e., trees worthy of harvest) for the economic benefit of relatively few (i.e., the political and military elite), and, whereas there is an inter-generational element to this kind of sustainability, it remains narrowly focused within these limits. Where these early antecedents differ significantly is that the Brundtland Commission was very explicit in correlating the “three pillars” as co-equal elements of sustainability, and the equity/society pillar includes explicit mention of democracy and open-access (in addition to future generations). It seems to me that tracts of forest resources managed by political, military, and scientific elites specifically for the propagation of a limited set of natural resources does not qualify as “sustainability” as the Brundtland Commission would have it. Important precursors, yes, but falling short of contemporary approaches in critical ways.
I’d like to expand and clarify a bit what I wrote in this comment . . .
My lecture is written for the interdisciplinary senior-level undergraduates that I have in my classes. These students are intelligent and motivated, but they come from such a diverse range of disciplines that I must distill complex historical and philosophical developments into terms that will empower majors in history, architecture, finance, logistics, philosophy, environmental science, etc. My lecture is, therefore, a summary overview intended to get across the most important nuggets of information that my diverse students will need as they conduct their own research and interview community members. I summarize these nuggets on the SHP page “Defining Sustainability.” The following points are an even more abridged version of what I want students to understand when regarding “sustainability” as we move through the quarter:
- 1) Sustainability is not a meaningless term (in spite of “greenwashing,” over-exposure, and other misuses of the term)
2) Sustainability as we now understand it is historically contingent & ever-evolving
3) Sustainability is composed of three co-equal pillars: economy, ecology, equity
4) Key elements of the equity pillar are: inter-generational approaches and openness to citizen/stakeholder input at every level
5) Following Item 4, nothing can be considered truly “sustainable” unless it can be measured, evaluated, quantified, described, etc., so all use of community resources and the results thereof can be tracked, compared, and open to citizen inquiry
The way I try to get across the historical development of the term “sustainability” is to break it into three kinds of meanings:
1) Sustaining a single resource: This is the kind of sustainability that Mann outlines effectively in his blog post — maintaining a single valuable resource for present and future generations. The clearest example of this, as Mann alludes, is the science of forestry management that Germans developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, an approach that heavily influenced the U.S. Forest Service.
2) Sustaining an ecosystem: This kind of sustainability went beyond focusing on a single resource (or a limited range of species) to include the relationship of interdependent species within particular topographical and climatological systems. This sytems-based ecological science developed beginning in the late nineteenth century to become a highly influential scientific approach after World War II.
3) “Brundtlandian” sustainability: This is the contemporary definition of sustainability that drives the work of the Sustainability History Project. The commission’s report runs to more than 700 pages, but I try to outline it briefly here.
Following Mann’s lead, what we need more of, in my opinion, are accessible works that provide details of the antecedents to the Brundtland Commission’s pivotal role in establishing our contemporary understanding of sustainability. Some scholars are currently working on such a book series.