Our Common Future came out from the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 and made the terms 'sustainable development' and 'sustainability' famous. Yet we have become hugely more unsustainable since then.
Consider some key facts: 60 per cent of ecosystem services are degrading; we have exceeded three ‘planetary limits’ (extinction, climate, nitrate pollution); the Earth’s ecological footprint is more than 1.5 Earths and the Living Planet Index has dropped by 52 percent. Meanwhile, extinction is at least 1,000-fold above the normal levels in the fossil record. In 2009, Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and colleagues pointed out that if we continue as we are, by 2100 two thirds of all life on Earth may be extinct.
So we have a major problem; our society is fundamentally unsustainable. But what are the key drivers of this? First is overpopulation, there are too many people on Earth, consuming at too high a level. Various authors put the ecologically sustainable human population at around two to three billion, yet it is now 7.3 billion and may reach 10.9 billion by 2050.
Given that we know we have exceeded ecological limits, it would seem obvious that population increase is a driver for environmental degradation. However, ‘overpopulation’ as a key driver of unsustainability is still commonly ignored by most or even angrily denied.
Then comes over-consumption. As economist Paul Ekins has noted, a sustainable ‘consumer’ society is actually a contradiction in terms. Since 1960, population has grown by a factor of 2.2, while consumption has gone up sixfold. If the entire world were to adopt American or Australian lifestyles, we would need at least four more planets to supply them. This can’t happen, hence the reason why we are rapidly exceeding the Earth’s limits.
We need to confront the ‘Endless Growth’ myth. This is the mantra of neoliberalism and most governments and business. Proponents seek always to ‘bake a bigger cake’ rather than share the cake we have more equitably. Those who question this are castigated in both the media and academia.
Yet the premise of endless growth on a finite planet is actually absurd and impossible. Past civilisations discovered this through collapse as scientist and author Jared Diamond has shown in his 2005 publication, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
Yet many academics now regularly talk about ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’. However, no physical growth today is either ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ (except perhaps growth in renewable energy that replaces something worse).
“If we mean growth by ‘development’ then sustainability cannot be the same as ‘sustainable development’”
So is sustainability the same as sustainable development? This is a key question rarely asked. Our Common Future assumed growth was the only way to reach sustainability. But the reality is that endless growth is actually the cause of unsustainability.
So if one means ‘growth’ by the ‘development’ in ‘sustainable development’, then this cannot be the same as any meaningful ‘sustainability’. Sustainable growth is really a sleight-of-hand that has been used to justify continuing our unsustainable ‘business-as-usual’ path.
Humanity sadly also has a key problem – denial. We have a long history of denying things we don’t like. However, the denial dam can be broken, and this is a key requirement for sustainability. We need to ask what ‘sustainability’ cannot be. It cannot be what Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute has christened ‘sustainababble’ – that is it cannot mean all things to all people. Neither can it be a denial of reality, we must accept our problems and solve them.
It also cannot ignore the ecological limits of the Earth, and thus it cannot be about endless physical growth on a finite planet. Hence, if we mean growth by ‘development’ (and most do) then sustainability cannot be the same as ‘sustainable development’.
Sustainability also cannot be about a ‘weak sustainability’ that believes we can substitute money for ecosystem services. Neither can it be ethics-free. It cannot be based on a ‘human supremacy’ approach, where humanity always seeks to be the ‘Master’.
Meaningful sustainability must now solve the environmental crisis, and the entwined social and economic crises. The key task is to break the denial dam and accept the reality. We have problems, we need to accept and solve them. It won’t be easy but it is still possible. There is, however, great urgency involved. Sustainability – to be meaningful – must now become what theologian Thomas Berry has called the ‘Great Work’ of repairing the Earth. What task could be as challenging – but also as necessary, ethical and exciting?
This article was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine