12 March 2010

Why "Sustainability" Doesn't Work

I'm half way through a climate change conference at a local university, and the opening speaker this morning — who, despite the fact that he's a professor in an institute that deals with resources, environment and sustainability, was likened to Bjorn Lomborg after his talk by one of the students in the audience — posed the question Whose Sustainability?

His talk became an excellent example of the problem with the term "sustainability" and why it (sustainability) just has not worked. He made it crystal clear, to me at least, why North America made a gargantuan mistake when we decided we didn't "like" sustainable development, after the Rio Summit in 1992. (Other places in the world simply got on with developing sustainably!)

You see, this professor couldn't have posed this question using the term "sustainable development" (SD), because the concept was well defined and laid out before it was even thrust into the public sphere. The principles of sustainable development mean that we don't need the Bjorn Lomborgs of the world pretending that they care about poor people at the expense of action on climate change. The SD principles of
  • integration of environmental, social and economic concerns
  • multistakeholder roundtable consultation
  • intragenerational equity (concern for today's disadvantaged)
  • intergenerational equity (concern for future generations)
  • precautionary principle
  • polluter pays
  • pollution prevention
  • etc.
mean that the needs of the world's poor are automatically considered in tandem with environmental and other economic and social issues. (Does that make sense to you? Let me know if it doesn't. Perhaps I've spent so long learning and teaching about it that I see it as a simple concept when it isn't. I believe that once understood and implemented, sustainable development will be a transformative new paradigm.)

This university is doing excellent work on sustainability education. Including education about sustainable development — for students, staff and faculty — will go a long way towards helping create a cultural mindset that could ensure a climate-safe future.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?