From environmental organizations to government bodies to the corporate sector, the idea of “sustainable development” is slowly being dropped from the lexicon of possibility. It is being replaced by other concepts that are perhaps more realistic, meaningful, or just plain easier to attain! For governments and the corporate sector, the new word of choice seems to be “responsibility”. Hence the Minister of Saskatchewan’s Energy and Resources Department on the possibility of expanding oil sands development into that province: “Our responsibility here in Saskatchewan is to ensure that we have a development that is responsible – responsible to the environment, socially responsible, and obviously would have to be economic before any development would go forward”. On the other side of the spectrum, the environmentalists have also been on the search for a new term. Alternatives, a leading ecology journal, recently asked the following in a call for submissions: “Could resilience replace sustainability as the organizing principle of the environmental/ecological movement?” Take a look at the PR statements of corporations, NGOs, and government ministries, and it becomes evident that the term “sustainability” is in the process of slowly being phased out.
Needless to say, some questions come to mind: Why the recent society-wide effort to ditch sustainability? What is the history of the concept of sustainability? Does it really matter what word we use? In the following paragraphs I suggest that we’ve gotten sick and tired of the idea of sustainability, mostly because it reminds us of our colossal failure to live in harmony with the ecological systems of this planet. Collectively, we know that sustainable development is almost impossible without undergoing radical transformations to our entire political and economic structures. So rather than remaining on the path of dreaming big, we’ve effectively given-up on sustainability and begun searching for replacements that cause us less anxiety and guilt.
But words do matter! With “sustainability” out of the picture, we can feel good about various accomplishments that have diminished the intensity of our environmental footprints but which have negatively impacted our environment overall. Here’s an example: Environment Canada loves to boast that this country’s “economic GHG intensity—the amount of GHGs emitted per unit of economic activity” – has been decreasing since 2003. And the term “environmental responsibility” exudes exactly that: We’re using energy more efficiently. We can all feel good that we have been treating our environment responsibly, right? But when we consider the GHG trends from the vantage point of sustainability, it becomes clear that we are still firmly on the path towards killing our planet (and the same Environment Canada emissions report notes that nation-wide we still produce 22% more GHGs than in 1990, which happens to be 29% more than our Kyoto target). Colossal failure indeed!
The idea of sustainability is one that emerged in the 1970s and 80s. In 1972, the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm was perhaps the first major international meeting at which observers agreed that environmental degradation was having a negative impact on human populations. By 1987 the famed Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future spelled out an idealistic (perhaps unrealistic?) vision of sustainable development, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
It seemed easy enough at the time, but the emergence of multiple global environmental catastrophes since then suggests that the way we have been going about development has been anything but sustainable. Hence our current GHG emissions which are contributing to a climate that will be much less hospitable for future generations; or our contamination of the atmosphere and watersheds with pollutants that will clearly have an adverse long term effect; or our overuse and depletion of precious resources, some of which may no longer be around to be used by our grandchildren!
Thus over the years “sustainability” became a fluffy and unrealistic term. Every societal group started to use it, and slowly the term lost its meaning. We knew we were being “environmentally responsible” when we chose not to have our hotel towels washed every day, and when we bought green detergents and hybrid cars. But at the same time we also knew that, in the long run, the entire social structure that had us staying at comfy hotels and buying chemicals made on the other side of world and using cars instead of public transport was a structure that was entirely unsustainable. It is a structure that is entirely unsustainable!
In a way, sustainability ditched us through elusion – we just couldn’t achieve it! Sustainability presents an idea that is just too impossible for us to attain in a society that produces, consumes and wastes far too much. A former professor of mine once clued me in to the desperation that is conjured up by the tough concept of sustainability. He wrote his dissertation on sustainability decades ago, back when it was a new and emerging concept. Yet nowadays he questions whether it is even possible, and he’s lost all confidence in our ability to maintain lives that do not negatively impact our society down the line.
Yet as much as I’ve always been suspicious of the term, and as much as I share the collective doubt in our ability to live sustainably, I think it would be a travesty to lose this concept. To ditch sustainability is to lose hope – something we cannot afford to lose. Losing hope is a one way street to nihilism, and nihilism is a dead end street altogether. Sustainability may be a pipe dream, but at least it depicts the ideal – a goal that we should be working towards. Instead of ditching this tough concept, we should keep it handy – even if it’s just to remind us that we aren’t doing enough! Only then will we have a chance (albeit a very slim chance) of actually reforming our way of living to one that does not ruin it for the generations of tomorrow.