Image from stakeholderforum.org
In 1987, an official definition of “Sustainability” by the Bruntland commission Sustainability was stated as a development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Here’s my take on it: it feels to large. I am the future generation as far as I know it. We all are.
For some reason the future and the present are intertwined in my mind. You can’t get to the future without going through the present. I mean that in a Jack Welch “change before you have to” kind of way. Or as Ghandi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. So for me, sustainability is about a better way, right now.
Sustainability is about making the right choices in the present to reduce the amount of “unwillful” adaption in the future. To find the preferable course of action from here. Therefore sustainability is necessarily deals with ethics. The better way is doing the right thing now.
In this sense of doing the right thing, sustainability is very possible in present. But such a ethical course of action doesn’t necessarily sustain itself in the future. Times change. Perceptions evolve. New understandings arise. What is right today, could be wrong tomorrow.
Therefore I ask is sustainability even possible? Philosophically speaking, what if I could show that everything evolves and that nothing is ever “able to be sustained”. If nothing had a static state, nothing could be sustainable, right?
The very phrase “sustainable development” sounds like an oxymoron. There is an inherent contradiction in linking the terms sustainable and development. In the essence of the word sustainable, there is connotation of a static or stable state. Yet, on the contrary there is nothing static about development. Sustainability characterizes the development yet in a form of constant progression.
Let’s take a look at temperature for signs of a stable state. Right now, the temperature seems like a stable 20℃. Yet, temperatures are rising or falling all day long. So is there such a thing a sustainable temperature?
Maybe sustainability applies itself at a meta level, above constant change. If you go up a level and look at temperatures on average around the world. They are presently rising, when they should be stable. Again, I must ask have they ever been stable? Temperatures have risen and fallen in sequences over the past millions of years. So let’s go up a level again. What governs temperatures? The earth. It has been developing ever since the Big Bang. Let’s stop there for lack of a better understanding of the Universe. The point is that no matter at what level, change is constant. There’s another oxymoron: constant change.
I learn two things from this temperature example. First, I argue that in the absolute, there is no static state. And thus, nothing is sustainable in the absolute. Sustainability must be reframed in relative terms. There can be a relative notion of stability at every level. Second, from this notion of levels, I can induce that sustainability applies itself to systems. I posit that sustainability is possible when staying within the extremes of the system. Not to cross the tipping point of that level of the system. To remain in harmony.
In conclusion, to define sustainability I began with on a personal approach where I perceive the future as the consequence of present actions. Then, more philosophically, I gathered that sustainability requires a relative and system approach. My final definition of sustainability is the following: managing a relative position – by doing the right thing now – to remain within extremes of an ever evolving system.