What Is Sustainability?

This is the first in a series of main articles relating to sustainability. A new article on either sustainability, the buddha or theory will be posted fortnightly.

The idea of sustainable development – or sustainability – was first given prominence in the 1987 United Nations report, Our Common Future. Also called the Brundtland Report (named in honour of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the leading spokesperson for the report) it puts forward the idea that the current level of natural resource consumption by the industrialized world and the growing economies of developing nations (together with a rapidly increasing population) is unsustainable. In pragmatic terms sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Weak and strong sustainability

Sustainability is sometimes described as either being weak or strong. Weak sustainability does not differentiate between human-made capital and natural capital, while strong sustainability makes that distinction. In weak sustainability, the measure of natural capital as profit loss – or gain – is seen to be sufficient in defining the problems of sustainability. But strong sustainability contends that this is too human-centred – from the perspective of human interests only – and is insufficient in tackling the problem of our unsustainable practices. Furthermore, strong sustainability sees discussion of sustainability from within economic jargon or terminology as problematic. In other words, it keeps the agenda wholly within economic defining boundaries.

In strong sustainability the present value system of human-based structures are seen as working against the values of nature-based mechanism or biosystem. In short, present human discourse ignores and suppresses (oppresses) nature, seeing only a binary opposition between humankind and nature with the former on top.

Case against sustainability

There is also the extreme view that the sustainability discourse is simply untrue – that it is possible to continue our present pattern of consumption indefinitely. The argument goes like this: through our ingenuity and technology we will create new and alternative ways to sustain (or even increase) our present levels of consumption.

But such an argument often ignores the fact that 1) it is the very same science and technology they are putting their faith in that is the cause of current environment environmental problems, and 2) resources are finite. It is with this kind of cultural logic and wishful thinking that Western culture has driven humankind toward ecological collapse “taking with them to their graves” other life forms along the way. There is no doubt the ecological system can and will recover from such a collapse but it is unlikely to include humankind in its picture.

Brundtland report revisited

If one had to say whether the Brundtland Report is of the weak or strong sustainability variety, one would have to say it is of the weak kind. Because human needs are given priority over those of other life forms that we share this planet (…meeting human needs… , etc). This kind of thinking can also be called anthropocentric where little or no consideration is given to the larger picture that is the environment. It ignores the systems that govern life-giving interaction.

The anthropocentric binary (though not really its opposite) is the biocentric view, which takes in account all life forms and resources within the system in which humankind is a part. Thus in the biocentric view we are neither the only life form, nor the better one (due to our uncanny ability to manipulate or alter the environment). In fact, the ability of radical manipulation should be seen as a weakness, not as a strength.

I say this because as intelligent as we are we have lost the ability to adapt to the environment. And by adapting the environment to suit us – instead of adapting to the environment – we may someday lose all ability to survive in the less habitable world of the future that we are creating for ourselves this very moment.

9 thoughts on “What Is Sustainability?”

  1. Robert,

    I would love to hear more about urban permaculture. I will follow your blog with interest.

    Somehow we need to get a grip on consumerism and its mechanism. A new paradigm would be nice. purchasing power isn’t all it cracked up to be.

    Thank you.


  2. I’ve been working to free myself from an unsustainable lifestyle for a few years now, and have the current extremely good fortune to be taking an “urban” permaculture class. I turned to this because on my yogic path I found I needed more than union of body mind and spirit, I needed some sort of strong connection with the world. As a creature with consciousness, I must support the planet in some way.

    One of the main ideas seems to be that permaculture requires and includes strong sustainability.

    What I am finding most interesting is this: permaculture doesn’t “reduce,” in the way reductionist western science is familiar with. You can’t talk about a plant and a person as discrete things. We DO talk about relationships, however.

    So while normal culture talks about cars and wives, permaculture talks about how I move from place to place and what actions I do to show love. It’s a language of action, of observation and application.

    Because of this, it removes a big part of that which drives consumerism. So I predict that us “permies” are going to inherit the earth. And we’ll be able to restore her.


  3. Yes, I couldn’t help but laugh during the entire article. It amazes me how the human race can disagree so vehemently on so many different subjects – all because of perspective. It’s hard to change one’s presuppositions conerning life, the world, etc.


  4. Thank you both for your compliments.

    greentogroove, I had a look at the Glassman link you gave. Yes, he is a good example of the anthropocentric type of sustainability theorists. As you might have figured out I am not convinced of that argument.

    It is like an alcoholic saying a drink on weekends is fine – a half-hearted attempt at saving the environment. Just an excuse to have his beer and drink it too.

    Mr Glassman is like the science teacher I criticized about in The Reasoning of Reason post.


  5. Very helpful and easy to understand… looked like you spent a good deal of time on it. Good length, well laid out…. excellent summary. Looking forward to the continuation.

    You’d be interested in a piece written by James K. Glassman called Moving On From ‘Sustainability’. He argues that the stronger an economy the better the environment of that country. Therefore, we should not place any environmental regulations on developing countries, as they are still poor and their environment will ‘naturally’ get better as they get richer.

    In fact, the ways and means to sustain and enhance life are increasing, rather than decreasing, and the environment for the vast majority of people is getting better.

    Mr. Glassman proposes that instead of the human race “plundering the planet at a pace that outstips the capacity to support life” we now have cheaper production of energy (no matter what kind). This, he claims, is an example of humans ‘sustaining’, so the discussion of sustainability is a moot point because the pessimism of sustainability conversations disregards “the effects of innovation, efficiency and productivity (or doing more with less, a principle of all productive societies.”

    Even more ironic than all this, is Mr. Glassman is a supposed Reason Foundation Board Member.

    Anyways…. read that last night after I had read yours and am now working on something myself. But as this article won’t be in the piece in its entirety, you should check it out yourself.

    Moving on from ‘Sustainability’


  6. I think it was both helpful and understandable! Good show! Thanks for writing this.


  7. Your last paragraph is most poignant and terrifying… science has taken away our need to adapt and now we no longer even have the desire. Very well put.


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