Sustainability. Everyone has heard the word. It is one of the hot terms of the day. But what does it mean?
There is much debate going on about how to interpret and apply the concept. The UN definition on sustainable development, written by the Brundtland Commission, is perhaps the most widely acknowledged of them all: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But this is only a starting point. Written in 1987, this report could not have fully anticipated the global turbulence that is taking place today. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen, 9/11 had not yet happened, and climate change was still something people were discussing in the halls of academia. Certain key factors were not yet in play.
But they are now. The world today is a very different place to that of the previous century, requiring new measures and applications, fresh and revamped ideas. “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations” does not cut it anymore. The game has changed. It is is no longer about being prudent or discreet. It is about necessity. The economy has cracked and the efforts to fix it are proving very challenging. There is talk of protracted austerity, if not a total shift in paradigm. The need for sustainable development is no longer a beautiful theory. It is an economic mandate.
It is also a natural mandate. With CO2 levels rising to unprecedented degrees, causing global climate change, and rain forests being depleted at a rate that affects the ability to process CO2 into oxygen, and polar ice caps melting at a rate that may kick start a feedback loop, whereby the melted ice results in more heat being absorbed by the dark waters and temperatures rising even more, it is evident we are reaching a tipping point.
A New Mandate
This is where sustainability comes in. No longer a noble but vague cause, it now involves the need to mind the future not only for the sake of the future, but for the sake of the present too. The complications we were supposed to preempt by being sustainable have suddenly caught up with us. We need to respond.
But the idea gets hazy and debatable on a number of levels. Everyone acknowledges that things cannot go on as before. On that everyone agrees, which is a good start, for all its worth. It defines the need for action. With “unsustainability” identified, sustainability is easier to embrace.
But the question is how. Everyone disagrees on what must be done, what areas of life must be addressed. They bicker over economics and how to revamp the economy, how to make it more sustainable. They argue over climate change, looking for ways to conserve the environment. They argue between each other, putting the environment above the economy, and vice versa, unable to agree on where the crux of the effort should fall.
Some try to bridge this gap. They argue that the economy and the environment are intertwined. Find a way to define them as interlinked processes, they say, and the solutions proposed on any given platform will affect everything in a positive way.
One Hand Washes The Other?
Easier said than done. The economy is split into various factions and schools of thought, the advocates of which have different ideas on how to fix the economy per se, let alone the economy in relation to the environment.
The same applies to the environment. Society is split over how severe climate change is, arguing about how to address it. Some argue for radical restrictions to development, others for incentives that will promote renewable energies. The economy further complicates the issue, because conservation is considered an opportunity cost in the short term. Everyone knows that short term gains are easier to gauge than long term ones.
Then of course you have the social aspect, where more complications occur. Cultural issues meet national and religious ones, and consensus is harder to achieve. When people have trouble getting along, taking up arms against each other over who worships what god, or who controls what stretch of land, then agreeing on something as grand and debatable as sustainability is very hard to achieve.
This leads us to another major sustainability point: perspective. Most people agree that things cannot go on as they stand i.e. that they are currently unsustainable. But they disagree on who is at fault. Many do not see the problem as a result of global incoherence, conflict, micropolitics, tragedies of the common, or the dismissal of scientific proof. They do not realize that in order to address the issue, humanity as a whole has to stop, take a step back, see the bigger picture, and take action that will address the problems at its roots, to each our own. They have a very different idea on what needs to change.
They simply want the corrupt party officials to stop picking on them. They want the regional warlords to stop raping their daughters. They want the corporations and governments to respect their surrounding resources. They want food and water and sanitation. They do not care for global sustainability, because they don’t understand it. Their expectations stop way sooner, affected by obstacles far more immediate and small when compared to the bigger picture.
Social and economic lore dictate that all humans deserve the right to a better standard of living, but environmental lore dictates that we cannot keep growing as we have
Therefore, small are their demands, and so are their worries over sustainability as it stands. They just want their basic rights. They want a better standard of living. This is what they will fight for, given the chance.
And this is where it gets really hazy. Social and economic lore dictate that all humans deserve the right to a better standard of living, but environmental lore dictates that we cannot keep growing as we have, because it will deplete the planet of its resources, sabotage the climate and destroy life as we know it.
So what to do? How to address sustainability in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, but which also meets the needs of the future without compromising the ability of present generations to meet their needs in turn?
A Fresh Perspective
Welcome to the Psychology of Sustainability. Here we will explore the subject from all angles, looking for answers to the questions that trouble our world. We will offer insight on how sustainability is being applied across the board, both as an idea and a process. How it is being promoted by key organizations and institutions. How it can be applied by individuals on the grass roots, regardless of where they live. How it can be communicated to people of different backgrounds and needs. How it can be incorporated to business and enterprise. How it can help stimulate the economy. How it can utilize current technology. How it can lead to groundbreaking innovation that will change the game and set humanity on a new and exciting course, much like the industrial revolution did two centuries ago.
The topic is admittedly huge. But so are its implications. By shedding light on its various aspects from different angles, in the Psychology of Sustainability Series, we will provide readers with fresh insight, turning the complexity from a liability to an advantage; the more elaborate the subject gets, the more ways in which to understand it, and the more ways to act on it. If acted upon substantially, it will eventually come together, like all grand causes do.
Like liberty, or justice, sustainability is such a grand cause. It is hard to pinpoint and define, always shifting according to people’s point of view. But, like liberty and justice, it is an indispensable part of the human condition, tending not only to quality of life but to life itself. It is hardwired into our brains and will sooner or later come into effect.
The question is, how soon? The earlier it becomes embraced and practiced the sounder our investment in the future will be.