Sustainability is one of these words that, as many question marks it caused when it first appeared in the late 1980s, as quickly it was absorbed and became part of our vocabulary, the majority among us using it despite of failing to exactly know what it means. As an environment engineer dedicated to a sustainable development I’m quite concerned about how many so called “experts” seem to be ignorant of the meaning and implication of the term sustainability and, worse, that a big number of them apparently don’t seem to hesitate consciously misusing and manipulating the term.
Let’s start at the beginning. The term sustainability first made famous through its appearance in the 1987 published Brundtland Report is defined as follows: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In practical terms sustainability is often interpreted as equilibrium between environment, economy and social needs of a society. What in this context is often forgotten is the part “future generations”. Sustainability has “four dimensions”, time being one of the fundamental aspects.
In that sense all activities that make similar or other possible activities impossible in the future would be – and actually are – unsustainable! In other words the planet Earth is a system with limited and hence finite resources. If we overexploit certain or all of these resources, then they won’t be available in the future anymore. Sustainability from my point of view is very similar to Kant’s categorical imperative. You shouldn’t do anything that you wouldn’t want others be doing to you. Likewise, you shouldn’t undertake activities that will make it impossible for your children or grandchildren to enjoy a normal living in the way you do.
It is clear that the bigger part of us humans at the beginning of the 21st century live in an unsustainable way. This is especially true for the developed world and emerging economies. Only the “economically poorest” and very few especially conscious persons among us can probably be excluded from this, because their consumption and hence ecological footprint is within a sustainable limit.
Nevertheless, I believe that all of us are concerned to reduce our ecological footprint to the best. Most of us have understood that we have to change our behaviour if we want to safeguard the integrity of this planet to some extent. The problem we face is that we all want to live in a way that allows highest achievement and satisfaction. Nothing against that, it’s the right for all of us.
On the other hand what I believe is not correct is the fact that some people, so called “experts in sustainability”, are constantly manipulating their work and society in a way that brings the most individual benefit to them.
Trying to be sustainable we all need information and advice from “experts”. It’s so hard to decide which vegetable we should buy: organic or local, import or hors-sol. And the next holiday: should I feel bad if I fly to Bali? What about driving my car to work if I share it with my workmate; is that unsustainable?
No way that we could estimate the impact of all those actions and determine if they are sustainable. Therefore the experts. But stop. Here comes the problem. Did it happen to you that depending on who you asked you were told two completely different stories? That you were going to buy organic garlic because you read in some food magazine that it was better for the environment but were then told by your friend that it was better to buy the local one because the carbon footprint of the organic but imported garlic was simply unbearable?
Who is right and why does one say this while the other says the opposite?
From my point of view there are two reasons for this mismatch. First, there are too many “so called experts” that have no background and no clue about what sustainability is or how the ecological impact of products can be measured. The fact that one supports organic food makes them neither nutrition nor agriculture expert. And having attended some biology classes twenty years ago doesn’t imply that one can estimate the complexity of interdependencies of mobility behaviour and biodiversity loss.
Secondly, there are too many “experts” that willingly (or mistakably) manipulate studies in their or their donor’s favour. It is so easy to bias a study and hence manipulate the outcome or just publish those parts of the findings that support the expected (or desired) result. It is those quacks’ fault that we are not more sustainable than we could be.
A recent study in Australia showed that 33.5% of Australians “were strongly pro-environment in beliefs and behavioural preferences, and prepared to sacrifice economically for an environmental benefit” and that a further 40.3% “moderately agreed the environment should be a higher priority than the economy and that the balance of nature is delicate and easily upset.” Only 26.3% of the surveyed participants could be described as “enviro-sceptics that weren’t prepared to make higher personal payments for the environment”.
Now, if that is not brilliant! The study supports what I feel in my daily life: the big majority of Australians care for the environment and are willing to pay for its integrity. What is more, the 21st century has brought the benefits of a well-educated, highly intelligent society with a simply outstanding access to information. We have the perfect basis for a sustainable society: one that can think and that is committed to act.
What that means is that we don’t need experts or politician that think for us or that tell us what to do. Instead, what we need is experts and politicians that tell us the truth. Scientist that make and publish studies according to scientific principles: those of transparency, credibility and reliability. The same applies for all those pseudo-experts: sometimes listening is better than talking, especially if we don’t have the knowledge of what is being discussed. We could thus learn from those who have the necessary background or we could make the effort to first investigate before we simply assume based on our interests.
And in the sense of the precautionary principle, if you have doubts it’s better just to shut up than to talk bullshit. For the sake of sustainability it definitely is!