Is Sustainability Still Possible?

Sustainability

Every year the Worldwatch Institute releases their annual State of the World report covering such previous topics as consumerism, climate change and food security.  In 2013, State of the World turns its attention to a popular topic, the concept of sustainability.

The report looks at the definition and use of the word sustainability, whether the concept has outlasted its usefulness and, if not, how we can measure sustainability? Practical approaches and policies for achieving sustainability, including geoengineering and corporate transformation, are investigated along with ways of coping with drastic environmental change and resource depletion, should we fail.

The term “Sustainability” is used frequently in our language today and with a myriad of different meanings, something the President of the Worldwatch Institute, Robert Engelman, calls “Sustainababble”. Its definition, in its original form is “capable of being maintained in existence without interruption or dimunition,” but since the release of the Brundtland Commission’s report in 1987 it has been used to mean ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’ or just ‘slightly less damaging than the conventional alternative’. The fear is that overuse of this term will result in the loss of meaning and impact, as well as an acceptance that if something is said to be ‘sustainable’ then it must be implicitly good. But good for what?

As we know the human population has surpassed a size and lifestyle that fits within environmental planetary boundaries. We consume more than Earth can provide. The new State of the World report asks the questions, have we gone so far that recovery is impossible and is it too late to change our future? “Has humanity already overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth so badly that we are doomed to a horrible crash after oil, or freshwater, or topsoil, or fish, or the ozone layer, or many other things –after one or all of them run out?”

The report answers ‘no’ in the same way that One Billion Hungry answers the question Can we feed the world? with a ‘yes’. It is a simple answer with many ‘buts’. In this case no we are not passed the point of no return but only if we act now, only if we do everything we need to do and only if we continue doing so for the long term. It is not a case of ‘can we’ but of ‘will we’. How much suffering will we deem acceptable? How much will we save?

But just as small fluctuations in our natural systems can have large repercussions for the provision of environmental goods and services, a small change in our thinking can have dramatic consequences for the development pathway we are on. Words such as sustainability are now part of our everyday language. Being ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘green’ are becoming more and more common lifestyle choices. Terms such as ‘green growth’, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘climate change mitigation’ are finding their way into national and international policy. Perhaps these slight changes in our language and our thinking will set us on a course to achieve a ‘sustainable’ future.

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