what is sustainability?

Let me start by saying what sustainability is not. Sustainability is not endless consumerism based on the pharmaceutical industry, plastic bags, traffic jams, war, clear cuts, chemicals, genetically modified food, rising sea levels, sweatshops, shopping malls, the homeless, power, oppression and the decimation of the natural world. Sustainability is also not earth shoes, organic eggs, hybrid cars, carbon credits, hemp clothing, a green Apple Mac book™, consumer co-ops, E85, B20, compact fluorescents, recycling bins or reusable shopping bags.

All these byproducts of the consumer lifestyle are predicated on the natural world supplying resources. Capitalism goes shopping in the cavernous belly of mother earth seemingly blind to the fact that the store is running out. It then processes products through poorly paid nimble fingers and transports them across the planet to where they are momentarily owned before being tossed amongst all the other toxic waste that fills our rivers, lakes, air, bodies and homes. This is globalization on the move. Throw in an extra three billion people from China and India, sparkly eyed with the market beckoning, and we will need four more planets by 2050. Four more polluted and decimated planets ravished with toxicity, famine, heat waves, refugees, and war.

Given the severity of this scenario it would be candid to take stock of solutions currently manifesting in different forms around the world. Here in the West the word sustainability runs rife, yet despite wide differences of opinion as to what constitutes sustainable outcomes the institutional set of guiding principles that now dominates sustainability discourse evolved on the basis of the UN Brundtland Report. When this report came out in 1987 it put the global environmental calamity into perspective with the premise that we should be concerned to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. What gets missed out in this oft quoted mantra is that these needs were, and still are, wholly couched in economic terms. As the report so bluntly states:

UN Brundtland report 1987

UN Brundtland Report 1987, Page 14.


We can thank the Brundtland Report for setting a semantic precedent which links sustainability right into the heart of the global marketplace. As a result economics has become one of the pillars with which to define sustainable outcomes and thus has become firmly fixed in the set of three principles which now provide the framework for all things sustainable: social equity, environmental protection, economic vitality.

Often represented as a triangle, this ideological triad is also sometimes referred to as people planet profippp_nott. But it’s a triangle with a heavy weight attached. There is the cultural and moral necessity for social equity, meaning the freedom to make choices that are not contingent on power; there is the natural necessity to protect the environment, the organism on which we host for food clothing, shelter and conversation; but how does the ideological necessity for capitalism fit with these counterparts?


An April 2007 UN Climate Change Report shows how the biological and physical life systems of the planet have been irreversibly altered by “anthropogenic causes”. These causes are technological as much as they are industrial and are facilitated by globalization. Given this situation, the scenario that works best for outcomes is one which focuses not on global trade but local interchange; one which focuses on the protection of all currently intact environments; and policy that addresses equitable access by facilitating engagement between people and their surrounding landscapes to consider the carrying capacity of bioregions rather than how much profit can be extracted from its resource base.

Only by questioning how we have become so disconnected from nature can we evolve to survive what the planet now manifests. This means making an everyday shoutout that is outraged by the fact that whales are now considered toxic waste when they wash up on the beaches of California, outrage that every single stream, river and water course in the United States is polluted, that every human being, each and everyone of us, carries dioxinone of the most toxic substances on earthin our bodies, that the last two wild white rhinoceros in existence were killed by poachers in June, that the Atlantic conveyer which filters warm water from the tropics into the European Gulf Stream will quite possibly turn off by 2020 precipitating a new ice age, that Australia’s food bowl is currently entrenched in the worst drought in 1,000 years and the water supply is soon to be turned off so the big cities can sustain a drink, and that Brazilian ethanol plantations displace farmers, cause massive deforestation and silt river systems. These things are not “natural disasters” they are man made. We are killing the planet. And we are killing it with an economic and social system that drives everyone engaged in so called civilization to the brink of denial.

Imagine a smoke filled room. I push you into it. Breathe deep now, you’re going to die. Do you go in willingly or do you fight back? You will die and given this premise I think you would fight back. So why aren’t we fighting back for a planet we are destroying? Why are we adding more fuel to the fire? Why are we pushing more people in? And why are people going in willingly? It makes the Holocaust read like a children’s story.

Some days I scare myself with the idea that people have forgotten what a pristine or even pure environment is. Sixty years ago, here in New Mexico, you could take a sip out of any mountain river or stream with the guarantee it was pure, such changed with the advent of the atomic age. Five hundred years ago you could sip just about any river or stream on the planet. And so was the story back into eternity.

Two hundred years ago the engine of development was running full steam. Fifteen years ago economic globalization sent the development of the world into warp speed. Today we live on a massively polluted earth that is running out of resources. It didn’t take long for our habitual addiction to consumerism to cause the demise of the earthly host we call home. It is obvious that what changed during this period of time is the introduction of a market system with an endpoint in the present predicated on destruction, not progress, not civilization but the destruction of nature for the production of goods.

Sustainability as its currently crafted feels like the ultimate coup d’état. It would be great if capitalism was already “green” because we would be one step further along the road of human evolution. But today we have reached a biological endpoint in our development and we need to evolve our consciousness as a human race because the stakes are now too high. There’s no room left for compromise when the survival of the planet is counted in a few decades. How high do the stakes have to be before accountability spreads through all hearts and minds and we start thinking outside of ourselves?

Today 5,000 indigenous cultures rest on the last remaining sanctuaries of oil, metals and water, and with economic vitality holding the banner even the greenest greenism will not stop corporations going into these sanctuaries to exploit their resources.

Thinking and acting on global equity is a critical place for us to make change in the ‘civilized’ world. It requires that we think beyond ourselves. If history were to critically link how the problems in our material world are intimately related to the decisions we make as social beings, then the history of Western Civilization would be written by those who suffer its affect. It would be written by those silenced through fear and violence, by those whose lands have been taken from them, by those who live or lived in environments decimated by resource extraction, by the famine stricken, the tortured, child laborers, servants, prostitutes, factory workers, migrants, and refugees.

Environmental protection is a critical component of saving what we have left so that future generations can meet their needs. We are running out of resources, which means that every concrete plant, every gravel driveway, every toaster oven, coffee machine, chair, book, hard drive, light bulb, electrical outlet, two-by-four, soda can and DVD has to come from somewhere. Complicity with regards to our culpability in how the production and consumption of these goods has detrimental effect on the environment, constitutes abuse against both ourselves and the natural world. Therefore to not include environmental protection in a sustainability shift is sheer madness.

What binds the two necessities of equity and environment together is global consciousness, not the market. The systematic pillage of resources relative to the voracious appetite of an ever growing global consumer class will only become worse if we have to constantly seek economic vitality. This leads me to submit that global consciousness defined by our decision making processes is actually the real third leg of the sustainability triad.

triadgloboconGlobal consciousness enables us to see effects right in our own backyards and therefore make decisions that instigate solutions with immediate results. It’s that local/global thing granted, but it really is very important that we get it, because if we can’t see our own complicity in all the global destruction that’s going on when it’s right in our faces, we will never understand the consequences of our actions further a field. We will never understand how that early morning cup of coffee unites us with a farmer in Ecuador unless we map the route back to ourselves. We will never realize how our taxi ride from the airport connects with tree root systems on the Indonesian coast unless we have an interconnected consciousness that links tailpipe emissions to rising sea levels.

Some features of a global consciousness are already in place and run counter to dominant norms. Just by letting go of power and moving out of fear we can change a lot about the way we relate not only to ourselves, but with the natural environment. We’re talking about a necessary paradigm shift in order to address the long term future of human survival.

To shape a sustainable paradigm requires respect for differences of opinion as long as the environment is protected and everybody’s equal access to the benefits of that environment are met. It involves collective decision making and most importantly responsibility for the decisions that impact our local immediate communities and neighborhoods. It also involves sharing and acknowledgement of different ways of seeing in the world. Just like the ever changing permanence of ecology, our human consciousness is a powerful tool to explore an infinity of possibilities. Too much to ask? With hope we will be forced to.

Copyleft LogoFiona Sinclair

Comments are closed.