Thursday, November 09, 2006

Defining Sustainability

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Whether you’re looking to buy a new home or picking up broccoli at a farmer’s market, you’re more likely than ever before to be confronted with the idea of sustainability in the choices you make. But have you ever stopped to wonder where our current focus on sustainability comes from?

I have. So I checked in recently with Rumi Shammin, who’s in the final stages of completing his doctoral dissertation on ways to implement sustainability in urban and regional planning. He knows as well as anyone the many ways the term “sustainability” has been defined and redefined in the past couple of decades.

Shammin points out that the current interest in ‘sustainability’ has its roots in the 60’s and early 70’s. However, widespread use of the concept was prompted by a 1987 report commissioned by the United Nations to re-examine critical environmental and development problems and to formulate realistic proposals to solve them. That report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

For the purposes of his work, Shammin has combined the key elements others have used to define sustainability in subsequent years in a more comprehensive definition. In his terms, sustainability means “ensuring that critical social, economic and ecological processes are maintained in a way so that both the short and long-term quality of life of human societies and the health and diversity of natural ecosystems are not compromised and the scale of human activities are kept within the natural carrying capacity of the environment.”

Now, that definition covers a lot of territory. In order to develop a framework for applying it, Shammin breaks it down into five guiding principles.

The first principle asserts that humans exist neither above nor outside of nature, and that there are limits on the earth’s capacity to provide resources and accept waste.

Principle two tells us that in recent years we have begun to approach those limits very quickly.

The third principle defines “development” as improving quality of human life in three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. Shammin emphasizes that while development is typically equated with economic growth alone, human needs are often better satisfied by an improved environment and opportunities for a safe, engaged social life. This possibility is commonly ignored in the planning process.

The fourth principle draws attention to equity in the way the earth’s resources and capacities to process waste are used. This implies an obligation to allow others of our own generation access to the quality of life that we look for ourselves, and an obligation to future generations, that our activities do not diminish their opportunities. This obligation also extends to the other species that we share the earth with.

The fifth principle of sustainability stresses that local behavior and global development are inextricably intertwined. For example, many of the clothes we wear and the foods we eat come from around the world, and so our choices in these matters have impacts in far-away places. So to with other activities that have even greater aggregate impacts--our individual contributions to global warming, for example.

Shammin emphasizes that these five principles of sustainability are deliberately broad so that they can be adapted for specific purposes in different local contexts. Tune in next week to hear how they can be applied in ecological footprint analysis, which is designed to help people gauge the sustainability of their own activities.