Knocking down the three pillars of sustainability

How we define and model sustainability has been bugging me for the past few weeks. Actually, it’s been bugging me since writing this post on BP and corporate sustainability. It was bugging me when I wrote this and and when I made these slides. In these posts I explain the problem that environmental, social and economic sustainability are seen to be distinct forces working in balance, which is wrong because without environmental sustainability we have no society (or at least, after a while, a depleted and potentially extinct human species) and no economy (or system of exchange of goods and proxies). The shape of three overlapping circles is wrong, because environment should be foundational. All other systems sit on top of it and depend on it. It’s still bugging so I have to scratch the itch again.

Before Christmas, on Radio 4, I heard a spokesperson for property developers promoting the Government’s planning reforms that would give local authorities the power to say ‘yes’ to any proposed development by default. The context is a lack of houses in particular areas where more people are employed or seeking work, and the Government’s view that the economy must be stimulated by building more workplaces and homes. The property developer was arguing that there has been too much care for environmental sustainability and not enough attention paid to the ‘other side of the equation’, economic sustainability. In this oppositional model, social sustainability is invisible, but the implication is that good jobs and nice homes matter more to people than does the planet that sustains the possibility of those jobs and homes. The battleground is clearly drawn between the economy as good for people and the environment as an overvalued abstraction, difficult to measure its value, too much preserved in misguided old-fashioned conservatism. Behind these fine principles he means ‘there isn’t enough ecocide for the good of my industry’.

I was also bugged when I inarticulately explained to Maurice Davies that I thought the sustainability triad model was entirely wrong. He replied that the sustainability triad is best understood as all about relationships. I see this as meaning that it’s OK to define three key areas of sustainability if connectedness is a guiding principle: That all the pillars are much more overlapping than we think, that solutions to imbalances can be overcome by better relationships and so on. In this view, social sustainability is not invisible but is seen as the glue between economy and environment, perhaps.

Hmmm. Much head-scratching. Then I saw the UN Draft Declaration on Planetary Boundaries:

“What is new about the concept [of planetary boundaries] is that, rather than understanding environment, economy and society as three pillars of sustainable development, it makes clear that sustainable development can only take place within the safe operating space identified by the biophysical realities of critical natural thresholds.” Draft UN Declaration on Planetary Boundaries.

It strikes me that we need to start replacing talk of the sustainability pillars with these terms: Planetary Boundaries, which are breached directly by Ecocidal acts and indirectly by delay in Mitigation. Sustaining human society and economy also depends on Adaptation to inevitable change, as the most critical Planetary Boundaries (notably Climate Change) have been breached.


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