Sustainability. Everybody’s heard the word. It is one of the hot terms of the day. But what does it mean? Let’s explore the subject from a number of angles, looking for answers to the questions that trouble our world, offering insight on how sustainability is applied across the board, as an idea.
Sustainability. Everyone has heard the word. It is one of the hot terms of the day.
But what does it mean?
There is much debate going on about how to interpret and apply the concept. The UN definition on sustainable development, written by the Brundtland Commission, is perhaps the most widely acknowledged of them all:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But this is only a starting point. Written in 1987, this report could not have fully anticipated the global turbulence of today. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen, 9/11 had not yet happened, and climate change was something people were discussing in the halls of academia. A number of key factors were not yet in play.
But they are now. Our world today is a different place, part of a new century that necessitates fresh measures and applications, revamped ideas. “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations” does not cut it anymore. The game has changed. It’s is no longer about being prudent or discreet. It’s about necessity. The economy has cracked and the efforts to fix it are challenging. There’s talk of protracted austerity, if not a total shift in paradigm. The need for sustainable development is no longer a beautiful theory. It’s an economic mandate.
It’s also a natural mandate. CO2 levels are through the ozone roof and rain forests are depleted at a rate that hampers our ability to process CO2 into oxygen. Polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, close to kickstarting a feedback loop — the melted ice resulting in more heat absorbed by the dark waters, causing temperatures to rise even more.
It doesn’t take much to see the problem. We’re reaching a tipping point, and have no idea how to reverse course.
A New Mandate
This is where sustainability comes in play. No longer a noble but vague cause, it now involves the need to mind the future not only for the sake of the future, but for the sake of the present, too. The complications we were supposed to preempt by living a sustainable life have caught up with us. We need to respond.
But the idea is hazy and debatable on a number of levels. Everyone acknowledges that things can’t go on as before. On that, everyone agrees, which is a good start, for all it’s worth. It defines the need for action. With “unsustainability” identified, sustainability is easier to embrace.
But the question is how. Everyone disagrees on what to do next, what areas of life to address. We bicker over economics and how to revamp the economy, how to make it more sustainable. We argue over climate change, looking for ways to conserve the environment. We argue between us, putting the environment above the economy, and vice versa, unable to agree on where the crux of the effort should fall.
Some try to bridge this gap. They argue that the economy and the environment are intertwined. Find a way to define them as interlinked processes, they say, and the solutions proposed on any given platform will affect everything in a positive way. (One hand washes the other?)
Easier said than done. The economy is split into a number of factions and schools of thought, the advocates of which have different ideas on how to fix the economy per se, let alone the economy in relation to the environment.
The same applies to the environment. Society is split over how severe climate change is, arguing about how to address it. Some argue for radical restrictions to development, others for incentives that promote renewable energies.
The economy further complicates the issue because conservation is a dirty word in economic circles. It’s an opportunity cost in the short term, as far as many are concerned. Few want to lose out now in the hope of gaining later. Short term gains are easier to gage than long term ones, and a much smoother sell to voters, workers, managers, and citizens at large.
Then you have the social aspect, an arena full of complications. Cultural issues meet national and religious ones, and consensus is harder to achieve. When people have trouble getting along, taking up arms against each other over who worships what god, or who controls what stretch of land, it’s doubly hard to agree on something as grand and debatable as sustainability.
This leads us to another sustainability point: perspective. Most of us agree that things can’t go on as they stand i.e. that we’re unsustainable. But we disagree on who’s at fault. Many don’t see the problem as a result of global incoherence, conflict, micropolitics, tragedies of the common, or the dismissal of scientific proof. They don’t realize that in order to address the issue, humanity as a whole has to pause, take a step back, see the bigger picture, and take action that addresses the problems at its roots, to each our own. We each have a very different idea on what needs to change.
Some people have more pressing concerns. They want the corrupt officials to stop picking on them and the mob to stop extorting them. They want an end to war. They want the regional warlords to stop raping their daughters and killing their sons. They want corporations and governments to respect their surrounding resources. They want food and water and sanitation. They don’t care for global sustainability because they don’t understand it, it’s not high up on their list of priorities.
Therefore, their demands are local, and so are their needs. They want their basic rights, a better standard of living, safety, food, water, chance to raise a family in peace. This is what they will fight for, given the chance.
And this is where it gets hazy. Social and economic lore dictate that all humans deserve the right to a better standard of living, but environmental lore dictates that we can’t grow at the current pace because we’re depleting the planet of its resources, sabotaging the climate in the process, destroying life as we know it.
So what to do? How to address sustainability in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromisingthe future generations, but which also meets the needs of the future without compromising the present generations in turn?
A Fresh Perspective
Welcome to the Psychology of Sustainability. Here we explore the subject from a number of angles, looking for answers to the questions that trouble our world. The aim is to offer insight on
- How sustainability can be applied across the board, as an idea and process.
- How it can be promoted by key organizations and institutions.
- How it can be applied by individuals on the grass roots, regardless of where they live.
- How it can be communicated to people of different backgrounds and needs.
- How it can be incorporated to business and enterprise.
- How it can help stimulate the economy.
- How it can utilize current technology.
- How it can lead to groundbreaking, game-changing innovation that sets humanity on a new and exciting course, much like the industrial revolution did two centuries ago.
The topic is huge. But so are its implications. By shedding light on its multifarious aspects from different angles, the Psychology of Sustainability Series will provide readers with fresh insight, turning the complexity from a liability to an advantage. The more elaborate the subject, the more ways in which to understand it, and the more ways to act on it. If acted upon with resolve, it will eventually come together, like all grand causes do.
Like liberty and justice, sustainability is such a grand cause. It’s hard to pinpoint and define, shifting according to people’s point of view. But, like liberty and justice, it’s an indispensable part of the human condition, tending not only to quality of life but to life itself. It’s hardwired into our brains, and will sooner or later come into effect.
The question is, how soon? The earlier it’s embraced and practiced, the sounder our investment in the future.