“Meeting human needs now and in the future in a fair, just, and equitable way while protecting and maintaining healthy ecosystems in perpetuity.”
“Sustainability is a response to
a planetary emergency.” ~ Mitch Thomashow
“The many crises facing us should be seen…
not as threats, but as chances to remake the future
so it serves all beings.” ~ Amory Lovins
Earth from Apollo 17 on the way to the moon, December 7, 1972
These observations reflect the two standpoints of sustainability, one anchored in current reality, and the other in a desired future. They help explain why the concept, discipline, and ethic of sustainability is so necessary at this point in human history. Global ecological, economic, and social systems are under significant and growing stress. A different way of understanding and acting in the world is necessary to create a future we want to inhabit.
Most of the power and energy of the sustainability movement lies in the future-focused sentiment expressed by Amory Lovins, an ethically informed statement of aspiration and purpose.
“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand
with the progress of the human mind.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
In recent decades, scientific and social research has produced a more accurate picture of the way the world works, but society has not kept pace with this new learning. Human laws and institutions for the most part remain mired in outdated, misinformed structures and behaviors, based on inaccurate worldviews that are making things worse.
Official White House Portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1805
“Our mental models determine not only how
we make sense of the world, but how we take action.” ~ Peter Senge
Our dominant mental models and worldviews include beliefs of separateness and disconnectedness: that humans are generally above and separate from nature; that economic activity is largely independent of ecological systems and processes; and that economic growth can continue forever without regard for planetary laws and limits; that negative impacts on others have no negative consequences for us. They include the related beliefs that, as economic inputs, natural resources exist to be consumed, and that land, air, and water have an unlimited capacity to absorb waste byproducts of economic activity.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself
we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” ~ John Muir
As ancient and modern wisdom reveal more about the true nature of life on earth, we perceive that our planet actually works as a complex, interdependent, and dynamic living system. Making possible virtually everything that happens on earth is energy from the sun, which fuels the global ecosystem. The earth’s biological, chemical, and physical processes and relationships create and maintain our atmosphere, renew supplies of fresh, clean water, create spectacularly successful conditions for life to flourish, and generate an extraordinary abundance and diversity of life on Earth.
“The components of the natural world are myriad but they constitute a single living system. There is no escape from our interdependence with nature; we are woven into the closest relationship with the Earth, the sea, the air, the seasons, the animals and all the fruits of the Earth. What affects one affects all – we are part of a greater whole – the body of the planet. We must respect, preserve, and love its manifold expression if we hope to survive.” ~ Bernard Campbell
Nested within and utterly dependent upon the global ecosystem is the complex and diverse human social system of peoples, cultures, and social structures. And within the global human social system is nested the economic system, created to meet the needs (and wants) of people across the globe. The growing awareness of the limited and interconnected nature of all things on earth –and the need to transform human behavior to reflect this more accurate understanding– underlie the principles and practices of sustainability.
Sustainability flows from core human values: honoring and expressing the best within ourselves, nurturing the best in all others, treating the biosphere with respect, and recognizing our obligations to those who come after us.
- is an ethic to embrace, a concept to practice, and a goal to achieve.
- is about recognizing and understanding relationships within and between social, economic, and ecological systems.
- embraces an abiding sense of community and shared responsibility for the common good.
- means living in accord with the laws of nature, and being conservative and efficient with earth’s renewable and nonrenewable resources.
- requires thinking long-term and seeing systems: the connections and interactions between and among all things.
- respects the commitment to live off the interest, and not the principle, of the earth’s living systems, and eliminate the idea of waste by ensuring that all “waste” becomes food for some other use, as happens in nature.
- Empowers people in community, embraces diversity and creativity, and optimizes self-determination within the context of the common good.
- requires treating others as we would like to be treated, making sure that the needs of all are met, and ensuring that there is fairness, justice, and equity in sharing wealth generated by economic activity.
Ultimately, sustainability is the intentional effort to create a world that is perpetually healthy, vibrant, beautiful, and flourishing for all of Earth’s inhabitants.