The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines “sustainable” as “causing little or no damage to the environment, therefore being able to continue for a long time”. Sustainability is cited most of the times together with sustainable development, which, according to the 1987 Brundtland Report, is “the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
”. Since the 2005 World Summit sustainable development has been described as encompassing three main components: environment, society and economy. Therefore, the concept of sustainability is more than just environmental protection; it involves people and ecosystems together and their common well-being. The UK government has gone further, stating ambitiously that “Sustainable development means a better quality of life now and for generations to come …” with the aim to “… avoid using resources faster than the planet can replenish them …” and to unify “… economic, social and environmental goals”.
However, the debate over the definition of these two concepts is not over yet and many have argued that development itself leads to environmental degradation and cannot be sustainable, while others consider the three dimensions encompassed (environment, society and economy) are not enough to reflect the complexity of today’s society. In fact, some have even wondered whether the definition is too much centered on humans and not as much on rest of the beings, plant and animal, that inhabit the planet, presumably with the same rights as us.
Looking at the definition above there are several questions that come to mind. How can we know what the needs of future generations will look like? Are they going to be the same as ours? Looking back a few hundred years we see that these questions are not out of place. Of course the basic prerequisites of survival (food, water, shelter, clothing, etc) must be met regardless of the century we live in, but nowadays many people consider things like having a car or taking a vacation to be necessities. This opens up a whole new range of discussions regarding what people really need and when it is enough. It is often the case that people choose (having or not the perception of their choice’s sustainability) an item that they afford, regardless of its ultimate utility for them. Psychology can and has provided answers as to why human nature functions like this. A product is generally bought to fulfill a need, whether a basic or a more complex one. For example, a car can satisfy the need for transportation from one place to another and, at the same time, give a sense of accomplishment, validation, increased social status to its owner. The line between reasonable and greedy consumption is not so clear anymore and sometimes the very capacity of humans to be sustainable is questioned.
One of the factors most often cited as hindering sustainability is population growth. In 2011 world population reached 7 billion people and it is growing at a rate of 1%. If this rate is maintained in the future population would double in the next 70 years. This certainly would reflect an exponential growth, which is deemed unsustainable. Already some 200 years ago Thomas Malthus came up with the theory that population growth is limited by the resources available to it and once it surpasses this limit it will be bound to famine and diseases that will force it to shrink back to a sustainable level. However simplistic and outdated, this theory still generates debates regarding how much the population will be able to increase before reaching the point of crisis where resources are no longer available. In fact, some believe we have already passed that point and collapse is inevitable. On an opposite note, there are also those who consider population growth a sign of wellbeing and thriving of the human race, as more people get to enjoy life, while this does not necessarily have to be bad for sustainability.
However, a distinction still needs to be made between developed and developing countries. There are several examples of developed countries where population increased in the last centuries, and so did wealth expressed as GDP per capita. Technological advances, as well as the expansion to foreign markets (and, implicitly, the use of foreign resources) certainly contributed to this. But their population growth has slowed down and nowadays it is the growth in developing countries that is taking the lead. The question that raises now is whether population increase in developing countries will correspond to more wealth for their inhabitants, like in the case of developed countries, or it will just deepen the existing inequalities.
Finally, another interesting discussion deriving from the definition of sustainable development is the one regarding how much we really think about future generations when we make the choices we do today. Generally people tend to live in the moment and their actions are determined by the degree to which they feel touched by a certain problem or state of facts. Sure, everyone would like their children and grandchildren to be happy, but is this not because they have actually met them (and thus have been impacted by them)? How much down the road are we able to see and take action for? And how far out our circle of trust?
Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of.
Image source: http://www.science20.com/anthrophysis/guidelines_achieving_sustainability-88803