Yes, Sustainability is Still Possible

Worldwatch institute raises the relevant yet startling question in the subtitle of this year’s State of the World Report (2013) “Is Sustainability Still Possible?” In the first chapter of the report, Robert Engelman calls attention to the many uses and abuses of the term ‘sustainable development,’ questioning the extent to which human activities could truly be considered sustainable in terms of the commonly agreed upon definition that came out of the UN’s Brundtland Report of 1987: sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.”

If one used this definition as the litmus test for true sustainability both in developing and developed countries, one might find that most economic activities commonly considered to be sustainable are not so green – in fact, one would probably find that the environmental footprint of even the most ecologically-minded of us in the developed world is far from sustainable as a global model.

Our current version of ‘green consumerism’ is flawed because it measures sustainability against some of the most destructive practices without considering the activity by itself, under the scrutiny of the Brundtland Report’s definition. ‘Greenwashing,’ or marketing that misleads consumers with claims that a product or practice is environmentally friendly, promulgates the illusion of sustainability. For example, water bottles that use less plastic might be advertised as eco-friendly, but it is laughable to think that it is sustainable to dispose of millions of these bottles everyday. Offering a less environmentally destructive practice as a green alternative when, in fact, the practice is categorically unsustainable is one of the seven common forms of greenwashing.

If our current version of green consumerism was a sustainable lifestyle for the global population, it would mean that most of the 7.1 billion people on earth could live in households that own hybrid cars, computer devices, and energy-saving appliances – in addition to consuming all the water, land, and other resources that go into housing and feeding middle class consumers comfortably – without overstepping the Earth’s planetary boundaries or “compromising the needs of future generations.” But clearly, the amount of resources needed to universalize our vision of ‘consumerism-light,’ especially with the growing world population, would not be sustainable. Like the plastic water bottles, our current forms of consumption in developed countries, from ‘green’ to unapologetically heathenish, are categorically unsustainable.

Proponents of green consumerism might not realize that our consumer lifestyle is a minority worldwide – one billion people on earth live on less than $1.25/day while another billion live on less than $2.00/day. They might also might not realize that the number of consumers and the degree of consumption in the world is growing steadily with development and population growth. Poverty keeps consumption low for most people, but the pool of mass-consumers is constantly expanding, making real sustainability less and less possible. And with the population set to reach over 9 billion by 2050, we can expect mounting pressure on all of our planetary boundaries.

The response to the problem of resource depletion and the overstepping of our planetary boundaries shouldn’t be to demonize population growth, to condemn poor people to die because the earth’s resources are too few to support them, or to adopt an ascetic lifestyle, devoid of earthly pleasures. While we can characterize earth as a crowded lifeboat with limited space, we shouldn’t conclude that there is no room for people to come aboard (i.e. for populations to grow and for poor people to realize higher levels of consumption and well-being). Rather, we should learn to make space for others (i.e. share our limited resources more equitably) and to help them take up less space (live more sustainably). This implies a radical reimagining of consumption and of development; the affluent will have to lighten their footprint while the emerging middle class will have to steer clear of some of the destructive consumption habits that are so common in the US and other developed countries.

While much of today’s economic activity runs counter to sustainability, it doesn’t have to be that way; economic growth and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand. Truly sustainable lifestyles do not necessarily mean that we need to work less, buy fewer goods and services, or, in general, adopt a lower standard of living; the point is to produce and consume without compromising the capability of future generations to continue experiencing comparable levels of well-being.

The good news is that it is well within our power to forge a green economy, however it will require a radical rethinking of what it means to be sustainable. National and international regulation will help steer society away from some of the most destructive practices, while government investment and the power of the market will encourage progress and innovation. Our current vision of green consumerism will not do, as it really only reduces our footprint around the margins while leaving a structurally unsustainable system intact. In other words, it doesn’t measure up to the Brundtland Report’s definition of sustainability

It is one thing to analyze the problem of unsustainability and an entirely different one to provide adequate solutions. While I may not even know exactly what a sustainable economy would look like, here are a few imperatives that come to mind:

  • Do more with fewer resources: Make efficiency a guiding principal in the production of all goods involving limited resources or ecological footprints. This involves not only food production, but also human settlements and daily consumption.
  • Have a smaller food footprint: Adopt diets that do not require so much land, release so much carbon into the air, or damage our precious soil and water resources. While reducing the amount of meat, eggs, and dairy we consume is not a silver bullet, it goes a long way in addressing these issues while improving public health. Other imperatives in food production include raising crop yields, reducing waste, and seeking sustainability in any given food production system, all while contributing to global food security.
  • Transition to safe, clean, renewable energy: Move away from polluting fossil fuels that warm the planet, biofuels that occupy vast expanses of land, and nuclear energy that threatens to radiate whole regions in the case of accidents.
  • Use state regulation and market incentives to promote a green economy: Enact much-needed regulation related to sustainability while using the power of markets to motivate people to engage in socially-productive economic activity. Economic growth and sustainability can and should go hand in hand in a new green economy.
  • Replace unsustainable economic activities: Consider which practices we engage in that are the most unsustainable and seek alternatives. If viable alternatives do not exist, governments should subsidize R&D and use regulation as well as market incentives in these areas. Otherwise, governments should not shy away from using regulation to phase out practices that significantly compromise sustainability.
  • Consider consumption from a life-cycle perspective: Look at the impact of a given product not in terms of its immediate production, but in terms of all of the inputs that go into its production and all of the outputs involved in its production and, finally, of its disposal at the end of its lifecycle.
  • Manage and protect wild lands: Use wild lands as a key strategy in stabilizing atmospheric CO2, preventing soil erosion, preserving biodiversity and protecting surface and ground water.
  • Stabilize population growth: Educate people around the world about the challenges of a growing population, while helping to support sustainable international development.
  • Promote equity and a global alliance to eradicate extreme hunger and deprivation: Help developing countries reach the requisite levels of economic and institutional development that would give their populations the security and well-being to make sustainability a priority. The Millennium Development Goals have pursued these goals but now that they are set to expire, the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals offer even more promise in bringing sustainability to international development efforts.

 

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