As I noted in Part I, it was the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission), chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, that provided the classic definition for “sustainability”. Elegant in its simplicity, it states, “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Contrary to my own belief, the book well-articulated that the word “sustainability” is not quite as soft or “fuzzy” as many of us would-be practitioners might have thought. Let’s say it does not carry with it the same uncertainty associated with terms such as “hard-core pornography”. (Got your attention, huh?) Some may recall Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 noted about that term, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced … but I know it when I see it.” Well, we have to do a lot better than that for sustainability.
Surprisingly, the first tenet of sustainability according to Brundtland appears to require “a political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision making.” While not to overly dwell on this point, this can have a number of meanings. Too often the participation is limited to groups who are often referred to as “stakeholders” and many times individuals who do not represent groups are conveniently excluded. When it comes to “sustainability,” we are all stakeholders whether we represent a group or not. Maybe some of you have felt excluded or that your input was not fairly considered. We need to become better listeners in a world where the distractions are immense and where individuals and their sometimes different ideas seem to count for less. I mean when you consider that there has only one statue I can recall commemorating a committee, (The Burghers of Calais by Rodin) maybe it is time to consider that “groupthink” that may exclude outliers may not always offer the best solutions. Consider too, that in general, a great many of these core ideas have been the outliers until relatively recent times.
The Brundtland Commission continues to detail in numerous places not merely the “narrow notion of physical sustainability” personified by green buildings and installing solar panels but also, more importantly, what other changes must take place in society including changes in the legal field to make us “sustainable”. At one point it says:
“National and international law has traditionally lagged behind events…; and “there is an urgent need:… to establish and apply new norms for state and interstate behavior to achieve sustainable development…”
It more than implies that changes in principles and values are required not only in government but in governance issues at all levels, in all forms of organizations within our culture including civil society which includes groups like Lion’s Clubs, Kiwanis and even professional organizations. Oddly enough, one think tank that has very well articulated some of the other principles is not a renewable energy organization but the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, CO. Aside from the participatory process discussed above, which they saw as central hub of a wheel to all the other principles, they likened the spokes of the wheel in their diagram to include:
- Social & Intergenerational Equity
- Environmental Quality
- Quality of Life
- Economic Vitality
Brundtland goes into these as well as a number of other areas to provide a more complete tapestry of understanding. In the next section we will examine some of these before we get into the other areas of sustainability including some more closely associated with what many practitioners try their best to accomplish on a day to day basis.