Defining Sustainability and Sustainable Development
to maintain, hold, or support the existence of a process, dynamic system, or dynamic system state over an extended period of time.
1) The ability of a dynamic system to maintain a relatively steady state or constructive development pattern for an extended period of time.
2) The ability of a social-economic system to provide sustained social development and quality of life improvements within a resource-constrained ecosystem.
Definition (2) is not at odds with the UN sponsored Brundtland report (1987) definition of sustainable development: “development which meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of the future to meet its needs.” Definition (2), however, explicitly acknowledges that our society is a dynamic system operating with constrained resources.
Definition (2) is also similar to Herman Daly’s concept of a “steady-state” economy with social and technological development.
A steady-state economy, in Daly’s description, is an economy in which the flow of inputs and outputs is steady and sustainable into the future. This does not preclude development within the steady-state economy: new products can emerge, old products disappear, education and healthcare can improve, and so on. A stable or slowly declining population is presumed, since an increasing population inevitably requires an increasing flow of resources.
From a public relations point of view, however, “steady state” is not a desirable term. Regardless of how it is technically defined, it sounds like nothing changes, and there are too many people suffering for that to sell. Even the concept of a pastoral, abundant steady state is not attractive to many people who thrive on change.
Although Daly and others correctly point out that efficiency improvements cannot go on forever, we can still envision technological transformations that will allow us to produce goods using far less resources than we do now. This isn’t an argument that we can afford to continue existing policies. But sustainability is not incompatible with higher standards of living, including even more material goods.
Daly points out that technology cannot fully substitute for resources. He uses first the undeniable example that you can’t keep increasing the catch of fish by building more boats, because the ocean has a limited number of fish in it. The truth of that statement is now very evident in declining world fisheries. However, Daly also likes to suggest that you can’t build the same house with half the wood and twice as many saws. That example is not so strong. You can’t build the same house, perhaps, but you could build a better one. [The wood could be sawed into thin layers, then made into plywood with air gaps, increasing both strength and insulation value.] That would, of course, require lots of energy to run the saws and machinery.
Sustainability means living within the limits of renewable energy and resources. And there is no doubt that in the near term (at least 50 years), we have no way to increase total usable energy while reducing fossil fuel use. But in the long run (beyond 50 years) we can, through highly efficient solar energy systems, wind, wave and geothermal systems, and well-protected, low-waste nuclear generators. Advances in materials science will allow us to build shelters and material goods with a fraction of the material resources used today. Advances in bioscience may lead us to engineered food production systems that require less space, water, fertilizer and energy to produce protein rich, nutritious and hopefully tasty food. Manufacture for recycling will allow us to reduce the waste of matter dramatically. One can imagine robotic technologies that mine our existing landfills for recyclable matter. A vision of a sustainable economy can be a vibrant, developing economy in which production of value increases while consumption of non-renewable resources decreases. A sustainable economy can include a human society that delivers more good to its members, even while enriching, rather than degrading, the ecosystem we live in.
Our urgent need to move to a sustainable economy is a social development problem as much as a business and governmental problem. Terminology must be evaluated from a “marketing” point of view as much as an academic point of view. Negative terminology like “steady-state” or “zero-growth” should be avoided in favor of positive terms like “sustainable development”. We have to make it really clear that our current model of economic growth is actually making us poorer, but that an alternative exists that can lead us into prosperity.
Keys to Sustainable Development:
- Stabilization of population through education, healthcare, and standard of living improvements
- Incentives for resource and energy use efficiency (and disincentives for consumption)
- Incentives for alternative (renewable) energy development (and disincentives for fossil fuels)
- Protection of biological assets from depletion
- Widespread Ecological and Econosystemics literacy
- Governmental policies focused on Quality of Life, not GDP