An ambiguous path

Discussing the concept of sustainability

By Nimisha Bastedo

Sustainability. It’s a word that can mean so much and so little at the same time. Throughout the entire Rio+20 roller-coaster, everyone from the most conservative State representatives to the most radical activists were either advocating for it, or at least pretending to be. If we all agree that we need to move towards a more ‘sustainable’ world, why was it so impossible to produce any concrete plan for how to make it happen? I believe that part of the problem was the collision of multiple, very different visions of what ‘sustainability’ actually entails.

Before the Rio conference in 1992, the Brundtland Report introduced what became the trendiest definition for ‘sustainable’ development in the United Nations. It’s all about “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. As far as this definition is concerned, it seems like we only care about the Earth staying in good enough shape for our great grandchildren to fulfil their daily caloric requirements, have air to breath and water to drink.

Even the three-pillar concept of sustainability focuses on human need. ‘Environmental protection’ supposedly has equal ranking to ‘economic development’ and ‘social equity’, but as we saw here in Rio, discussion about the environment is all too often dominated by neoliberal ideologies that only frame it in terms of what humans need in order to survive and continue consuming. If negotiators have this approach to sustainability, it is no wonder that there was a push from the most powerful to commodify nature and plow ahead with free-market capitalism.

Human-centered, needs-based, market approaches to sustainability are what prevail in international negotiations, but I know that I am not alone in believing that there is a lot more to sustainability than human needs, and that the market cannot be given the power to decide what should be sustained. Take la Via Campesina for example. This grassroots international peasant movement is one of the many organizations we encountered here that are pushishing the sustainability discussion beyond needs, to rights–not only for people, but for Mother Earth.

In sustainability, I see securing meaningful lives for the present, while ensuring that future generations will have an equitable opportunity, not only to meet their needs, but to dance in the streets, express their opinions, feel safe and respected. I see universal recognition that humans are a part of the environment; that society and the economy are subsets of the natural world and entirely dependant on its integrity. If there is any hope for sustainability, we must respect and care for the environment instead of commodifying it for the short-term benefit of a select few. Humans are not the only thing that needs to be ‘sustained’ after all. Ecosystems, biodiversity and the planet itself all have every right to flourish and persist.

Sustainability does not mean invariability. The world will always be changing, and societies will forever be changing with it. But through those changes, humans must work in harmony with the planet, instead of pretending it is theirs and free for the taking.

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