Our first assignment for the Summer 2010 quarter had us reading and responding to the same articles as the students in the Spring 2010 term; you can find the assignment details and journal entry citations in the post “On Sustainability, Spring 2010.” As I did in Spring 2010, I have extracted a selection of student comments and questions, below.
On Coming to a Unified Definition of Sustainability
One student wrote “Each course seems to give a slightly different definition that often leaves me confused as to what the true definition is [italics mine].” I’ve provided one (long-winded) definition of sustainability that we can apply and/or critique this quarter. Additionally, I attempted on the website, in class, and in this post, to provide some historical context for the definition. Hopefully things are beginning to become clearer . . . and, if not, hopefully by the time we’re conducting research and formulating questions for our interviewees, we can see how the complex, often nebulous ideals of sustainability are implemented and measured in the day-to-day world of real people, real organizations, and real communities. The extent to which any of this is capital-T “true” I will leave to others; the extent to which this has some lower-case-t “truth” to it, well, that’s what this course is all about! Buckle your seat belt and hold on for the ride!
On Coming to a Unified Application of Sustainability
One student writes “How reasonable is it to believe that the world’s experts can agree on a unified theory of sustainable development and the methods for achieving it?” Another student asked a related question, which I’ll paraphrase as:
- At what point is the ambiguity of the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability a benefit, and at what point a hindrance? When have those that do not agree with sustainable practices used this ambiguity to dismiss the idea entirely? What might be done to clarify the document without making it too rigid?
Yet another student has a reply to these questions: “In creating such a vague definition, the Brundtland Commission allows interpretations to be made depending on individual situations.”
To follow-up with this latter statement, one of the important aspects of sustainability, as we’re using the term, is that it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It’ should not be expected that a group of experts would come up with a unified theory of sustainable development AND methods for achieving it. In a follow-up reading in the course, the author Robert B. Gibson writes on p. 172 that “the notion and pursuit of sustainability are both universal and context-dependent . . . . many key considerations will be context-specific, dependent upon the participants of local ecosystems, institutional capacities, and public preferences.”
What Time Scale(s) Are We to Consider Regarding “Sustainable” Practices?
“When the Brundtland Commission speaks of “future generations” do they define a time frame for those generations? In preparing for the future, how far out is humanity supposed to look?” Kates et al. provide three examples of the ways three particular groups are looking at sustainability, on pp. 12-13 of this article:
- Another way to define sustainable development is in what it specifically seeks to achieve. To illustrate, it is helpful to examine three sets of goals that use different time-horizons: the short-term (2015) goals of the Millennium Declaration of the United Nations; the two-generation goals (2050) of the Sustainability Transition of the [U.S. National Academy of Sciences’] Board on Sustainable Development; and the long-term (beyond 2050) goals of the Great Transition of the Global Scenario Group.
What About Pseudo-Sustainability?
“What laws have been established to persuade those participating in green washing to stop?” Very broadly, I would say that truth in advertising laws will relate to this in some way, though I’m under the impression that the executive and judicial branches of local, state, and federal governments err on the side of First Amendment protections and would, therefore, require some pretty strong evidence of purposely nefarious doings or physical or environmental harm before cracking down on what would otherwise be protected speech. From another angle, establishing criteria for various certification systems (LEED, Oregon Tilth, USDA Organic, ISO 40001, Salmon Safe, Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine, etc. etc.) will provide some structure, leverage, and cache to curtail greenwashing.
Potential Conflicts Between Environmental & Economic Goals
One student asked:
- “How do we go about lessening the gap between those focused on economic development and those who desire environmental protection? Is there compromise possible that will calm both sides? Or will a focus on development doom our planet, while a focus on environmental protection dooms our society?”
At this level of analysis, the question may seem quite large and overwhelming; as we get further into our research this quarter, my hunch is that this general question will lead to increasingly more specific questions that we can address in our essays and/or ask our interviewees and, by doing this, hopefully find ways in which we can, at least, resolve specific iterations of this overarching question.