Earlier in the quarter, students wondered where sustainability falls within the framework of the standard right-left American political dynamic. Is sustainability inherently a conservative or liberal notion? Might it sometimes contain aspects of both sides of this spectrum? Or perhaps sustainability is not reducible to this familiar dichotomy?
A sampling of Internet sources shows that there is quite a range of opinions regarding these questions. This post will provide some food for thought and, in so doing, draw on a sampling of sources that can serve as a starting point in addressing these questions.
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[Post written by: Teddy Gautier & T. Smith]
It is important to remember that the need for sustainability arose from fears relating to present and future living standards, namely, but not limited to, depletion of vital natural resources, poverty, negative impacts on the environment, an anthropocentric view, and a general lack of understanding in terms of complex biospheric interactions. All of these fears or threats arise from human actions and interactions with and within their environment. As a result, any definition of sustainability should include the social requirements that need to be met as the core idea, and the environmental and economic aspects would be then be able to be accounted for. Also, that definition should let people know about the different steps that need to be followed in order to implement sustainable practices. The idea is not to propose a definition that is an absolute, thus making it near impossible to achieve, but rather to create a statement that is more practical and applicable to real life situations. Sustainability should be a conceptual framework that allows for amendments or changes to satisfy particular problems. The definition of sustainability that we are proposing will feature social sustainability as the primary focus, yet without understating the importance of the economic and environmental pillars.
Sustainability, as defined the Brundtland Commission and ubiquitously quoted, is: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Following that definition is the key concept of “needs,” specifically the needs of the world’s poor and marginalized. When poverty is eradicated it should follow that the level of education throughout the world will grow immensely. It is very important that the value of education should not be understated. Positive democratic discourse and human well-being are direct corollaries of education and awareness. Education also provides means, solutions, upward mobility, and opportunity. When poverty is removed and social equity is established then economic and environmental challenges, in terms of sustainability, can be assessed and redressed with much greater ease.
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[Post written by – Noah Sharpsteen, John Stephenson, Nigel Peltier, Daniel Gray]
Works Under Discussion:
The overarching discussion consists in the critique of the history and general concept of sustainability. Ricketts critiques sustainability by connecting it with radical movements in the 1960s and 1970s, comparing its general motivating influences to ‘catastrophe’ literature, recognizing the overly broad nature of the issues subsumed under the label ‘sustainability’ – stating that its inter-connected approach is “trivially true if true at all,” and ultimately locates its rationale in the sphere of a ‘religious’ dogmatism. Bonevac critiques of a number of the definitions of sustainability used in contemporary practice. The critiques range from stating that the definitions are too stringent and thus impossible to too weak and thus easily satisfied – even by the system in place today. The critique is sharp and insightful and provides a baseline both for further research into the definition (or purpose of a definition) of sustainability and also a model of critical approaches to sustainability in general. Rather than discuss the critical merits of Ricketts’ work, a work we feel to be awfully shallow, we believe that a discussion of Bonevac’s criticisms of the definition(s) of sustainability will prove more fruitful for developing an understanding and substantial critiques of sustainability in use today.
Bonevac established that the current definitions of sustainability are not theoretically possible to satisfy in an absolute sense. This notion of being absolutely possible to be satisfied is an important part of many of his criticisms. His idea of the definitions given are “all-or-none.” What is important to note, in our opinion, is that the definitions he gives – the ones actually given in the recent literature on sustainability – do demand the unsatisfiable criteria that Bonevac describes. We feel that his criticisms are important to understand, but they focus sharply on an issue that Bonevac misunderstands – namely, the apparently stringent criteria given by the definitions are focused on a different point. The motivation behind giving such definitions is not to set up absolute criteria, but to set up a framework for development, research, and improvement of the network of practices that have been labeled ‘sustainable.’ We believe that his criticisms stand as they are, but that has not ultimately stalled ‘sustainable’ practices and the efforts to further understand this concept and specify its ideological boundaries. This raises both an important question and important point. The question is, “What is the point of such a definition?” The point is that there is no common agreement that a definition of sustainability should have an idea of an ‘end-state’ or an eventual ultimate goal.
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