What do you mean by “sustainable”?

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It has become fashionable to be sustainable: More and more companies try to aquire a green identity, products and labels rival for lucrative sustainable customer’s favour. A trendy image certainly accelerates things: More customers encourage companies to develop sustainable technologies, therefore, sustainability policies can be introduced faster.  However, this process is also blurring the topic and the connected ideas because also people and institutions become part of the movement, that do actually not act sustainably.

The main cause for this confusing state is nothing else but the complicated definition of sustainability itself. It is not that easy to define this term that is used so often (in this article I’ve made use of it already 7 times). In order to sharpen our image of the concept sustainability I dedicated this article to one famous, possible definition of sustainability and to the consequences that it implies.  This is the definition:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. ”

It was introduced by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987 and was frequently used ever since from various organizations including the World Bank. Most readers will agree that the phrase sounds quite appealing and most would probably agree to it. A second glance is necessary to see the tricky parts of it.

First of all, the question must be raised what those needs of the “present generation” actually are.  Do we talk about individual and specific needs, about averaged needs or about externally defined needs? If they are externally defined, who does it, how and with which kind of justification?  Has every citizen the right on the same amount of needs? What’s the unit that is used to compare different needs, what are the exchange rates? Are only basic needs like food, water and safety included or is need for a big car also valid? We have not arrived yet at the end of this series of questions and I do not want to answer any of them here. The questions above have to be reanswered constantly by the individuals of a society. I simply wanted to raise awareness for the difficulties that result out of  the first part of the definition already. However, one consequence for sustainability follows directly: Sustainability is not only about the future, but also about the needs of the human being living in the present. This is essential, for example, when the development and the duties of emerging countries are discussed. If sustainability depended only on future ecological facts, then development of poorer countries would probably have to be strictly prevented.

Now let’s look at the second part of the definition: “… without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This part contains the information that today’s actions somewhat influence the situation which future generations will be facing. Easy and intuitive. Really? No, not at all. Let me give you an example. A government is trying to build a new highway in a pristine and beautiful landscape; straight through the middle. It is not possible to withdraw any appraisement of this project out of the above phrase because the needs of future generations are inaccessible for us. If people living in the future will be fond of nice landscapes without highways, then the project should definitely be stopped. But if the main “need” of future generations will be fast connections between cities for cars the project should go on. In this case even a second highway should be built.

The conclusion out of this example is simple: Today’s convictions, preferences and tastes simply do not matter in the future. So what concepts can we base our actions and policies on, individually and as a society in order to act sustainably? We must first of all pursue our own needs and ideas and secondly we must include the future generations by considering the reversibility of our actions. All we can do to enable future generations to meet their own needs, whatever they will be, is not to obstruct any possibilities.  Reversibility is an expandable concept too. But it is still a lot more concrete than trying to guess future generations’ needs. We can estimate quite precisely the costs and the duration to revert a current state: The extinction of a species can’t be reverted. A reasonable reduction of the number of individuals of a species can be reverted. Also most agricultural land can probably be reverted into wilderness. Exhausted oil fields can’t be refilled but oil as an energy source may be substituted one day. Oil as a chemical base product less likely.

As you hopefully realized reading this article, sustainability is a complex concept and it needs to be discussed constantly. Try to keep this in mind using the “s” – word the next time.

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