Our love and hate relationship with the word 'Sustainability'


Progress Namibia - Our love and hate relationship with the word 'Sustainability'
09 January 2017

As we embark on a new year, we must seize the opportunity to look at our methods and term uses when we are communicating for systems change. In many circles over the past years I have come across people working in the field of sustainability who refuse to use the term 'sustainability' at all. I am sure many of you have felt the same as these people. The concept of 'sustainable development' and 'sustainability' have gained increased recognition over the past decades and their widespread use have been pushed to the point that the terms themselves have been trivialized. Two types of people who dislike the word exist, those who believe that it has an elitist, scientific jargon component to it, and those who believe it has become a 'catch-word' which has lost its meaning entirely. I do not necessarily disagree with these beliefs, but I am slightly more optimistic in that the true meaning of sustainability still holds true to me.

A (new) framework for the concept was recently (re-)developed which I find quite helpful, particularly because it takes into account the intrinsic importance of systems thinking in sustainability. The framework was written by Michael Ben-Eli from the Sustainability Laboratory and is called 'Sustainability: Definition and Five Core Principles'. It talks about five core principles that underlie five fundamental domains, which I will go through briefly in this Weekly.

The Material Domain, which constitutes all the physical processes which provide the basis for human existence which are subject to the primary laws of physics. The principle here is to contain entropy and ensure that the flow of resources, through and within the economy, is as nearly non-declining as is permitted by physical laws.

The Economic Domain, which consists of markets where transactions occur and guiding frameworks by which transactions are evaluated and decisions about economic commitments are made. The accounting framework presently used to guide our economy grossly distorts values. Economists are beginning to reflect on the inadequacies inherent in the narrow concept of growth that dominates measurement of national economies. The principle here is to adopt an appropriate accounting system to guide the economy, fully align with the planet's ecological processes and reflecting true comprehensive biospheric pricing.

The Domain of Life, which constitutes the inherent importance of all living systems and beings, and the interdependence of these as part of our evolution process. It also reflects the importance of diversity for our long-term viability. The principle here is to ensure that the essential diversity of all forms of life in the biosphere are maintained.

The Social Domain, which is how we organise ourselves as a species, and our relationships (how we treat ourselves and each other), is an intrinsically important aspect of human progress and wellbeing. The principle here is to maximize degrees of freedom and potential self-realization of all humans without any individual or group adversely affecting others.

Lastly, the Spiritual Domain, often underrated and undervalued, speaks about wisdom and deep connection. The principle here is to recognize the seamless, dynamic continuum of mystery, wisdom, love, energy and matter that links the outer reaches of the cosmos with our solar system, our planet and its biosphere including all humans with our metabolic systems and their externalized technology extensions; embody this recognition in a universal ethics for guiding human actions.

The framework is quite an easy read, and short (only ten pages). At the end, it highlights that 'deeper reflection on the concept of sustainability and the five core principles that prescribe it reveals that the spiritual dimension and its related principle are fundamental to the quality and coherence of the whole. [..] A balanced and full integration of all five principles is essential..for conceptualisation and realizing sustainability as an enduring state.'