December 4, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, Environmental Law Collaborative Essay #2: The "What" and "How" of Sustainability
Sustainability has become a popular topic in law and society, yet the exact meaning of sustainability is often glossed over or assumed without any substantial analysis. Without an understanding of what sustainability means overall, it is impossible to determine what it might mean in any particular context or problem. This essay argues that there are two essential elements to a holistic meaning of sustainability: the “what” and the “how”. To understand the meaning of sustainability in an age of climate change, we must examine both of these elements and their interrelationship with climate change rather than focusing simply on a one-dimensional and concept of sustainability that lacks a defined meaning.
The “what” element of sustainability is fluid. Sustainability, using the classic definition from the Brundtland Commission, encompasses “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This wide-ranging definition includes environmental protection/conservation along with other issues such as poverty eradication, economic development, health concerns and labor issues. Thus, sustainability is perhaps one of the best vehicles to address climate change since from the “what” perspective it encompasses the concerns of the present—through such concepts as adaptation and mitigation—while also seeking to ensure that the ways in which we adapt to climate change are not harmful to future generations. The issue here, of course, is that climate change introduces an element of unforeseeability to determining the needs of future generations because the climate they inhabit will present unique challenges and opportunities. However, the crux of sustainability does not require clairvoyance. Rather, it requires the present generation to act in a responsible way toward future generations given the knowledge that is presently available. And, since knowledge is ever-evolving in law as it is in science, the actions needed to further sustainability will continue to evolve as well. This is why the “what” element is necessarily fluid.
This brings us to the “how” element of sustainability. The standard definition of sustainability is expansive and can include adaptation and mitigation practices. In many geographical areas, these practices are quite useful. However, key issues of the “how” element of sustainability render its meaning questionable in relationship to climate change. How, for example, do we promote sustainability in the Maldives when the nation will be uninhabitable within decades due to rising sea levels? Does sustainability support a plan to help the Maldivians remain in their homes, even though the island will be underwater within decades? Or do we assist the Maldivians in finding alternative locations for their people and their state now, in advance of a future immigration and governmental crisis, and call that sustainability instead? The “how” element of sustainability is key to the meaning of sustainability in an age of climate change because it must deal with both the charge to assist present and future generations and the reality that the needs of these generations will be quite different due to climate change related forces.
Taken together, the “what” element and the “how” element of sustainability provide the meaning of sustainability in an age of climate change that is necessarily flexible while at the same time encompassing the core principles established in the Brundtland Commission report. Although there will be challenges in squaring some climate-change induced issues with the “how” element of sustainability, the fluidity of the sustainability definition ensures that the concept will continue to have meaning and—more importantly—a place in the dialogue regarding climate change. In this way, viewing sustainability as being composed of the “what” and “how” elements makes the definition and concept of sustainability itself sustainable.-- Alexandra R. Harrington
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