December 18, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #12: Sustainability as Process: Seeing Climate Change Opportunities in Sustainability Approaches
Much has been said about the elusive nature of the term, “sustainability.” Some argue that the term is rudderless in the absence of some acceptable matrix for measuring success. This claim makes sense where we demand accountability in governmental decision-making. Some argue the term is inconsistent in different contexts or at different scales. This claim identifies inconsistencies in all sustainability programs that operate at or are justified in different scales (as they all do and all are). Others continue to believe the term invokes a liberal political agenda. Although the arguments supporting this claim are less apparent, there certainly has been an association between liberal democratic politics and the types of social and economic changes suggested by sustainability.
My sense is that most of the above discussions are irrelevant. Sustainability implies (at the very least) a more rigorous pursuit of equity as a matter of governance, a more honest incorporation of economics into environmental quality considerations, and a more effective regulation of the interaction between the natural and built environments. This basic definition is more functional than its critics allow, but only if we approach the application of the sustainability framework with a little light-heartedness on our demands for substance and certainty. Indeed, we might consider whether sustainability is (or has ever been) so substance-driven (and in the meantime, we might reconsider whether we have any actual needs for such certainty). We might productively think of sustainability as a lesson in process. For instance, if we define “governance” as protection against systemic and catastrophic risks, sustainable governance involves the process of identifying known and unknown risks to our social, economic, and environmental dependencies and in formulating solutions to address each of these three legs of sustainability. Process here involves pluralism that is not necessarily democratic, precaution that is not necessarily presumptive, and flexibility that is not necessarily unprincipled. Another way of articulating the “process” point of sustainability is that we are all pragmatists when it comes to sustainable governance.
The present struggle over climate circumstances presents an illustration of this type of process-oriented thinking. On the one hand, climate change presents a context in which sustainability is unquestionably challenged. Climate change has dominated politics, science, conservation planning, and even education. Of course, it is easy to see that climate change provides talking points, models, and mandates in each of these areas because of its reluctance to conform to past models of equity, economics, and environment (not to mention morality, metaphysics, and ontology). It is also easy to recognize that the depth and range of climate-change impacts will uproot human livelihood and well-being in unimaginable ways. Water and food scarcity, loss of soil productivity and biodiversity, and uncontrollable spread of disease are common climate-change consequences. In the context of runaway climate change, it is arguable that the long-term, future-generation vision represented by sustainability is impractical to pursue and impossible to implement. Shifting baselines resulting from climate shifts challenge our present ability to match future needs with future environmental circumstances, thereby making it difficult to chart a course today. Island cultures will be lost to rising seas, and the Stern Report predicts the largest market failure we have ever seen. In this context, the salient but complex question on the usefulness of sustainability might be, “what are we trying to sustain?”
Yet applying sustainability to the challenges of climate change adds a process for understanding the character of the challenge without being subsumed by the breadth or rhetorical commitments of any particular principle. Sustainability is a framework for thinking and is not illustrated by facts so much as by goals. Sustainability demands that each decision reflect good governance on economic, environmental, and equity—regardless of whether we face the threats of climate change or the circumstances of climate stabilization. In the meantime, sustainability helps us understand the dynamics of human interactions with nature, human dependencies on ecosystem services, and social and cultural adaptations to environmental circumstances. Sustainability provides a framework for understanding why funding choices, human capital, cultural bias, and economic tensions become important in the context of particular challenges—like climate change—and a process for making good governance decisions.
-- Keith Hirokawa
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