When it comes to the sustainability of our existence in the modern world, there are no absolutes: there’s no black and white, only shades of grey.
For every action, there’s a reaction. We make a change for the better here, but often make it worse over there when we do. Everything we do has both intended and unintended consequences.
So framing sustainability in absolutist terms is wrong.
You can’t simply say “this is sustainable, that’s not” no matter what it is you’re pointing to.
Take the debate about energy, where fossil fuels are commonly labelled “unsustainable” whilst renewables, like wind power, are held up as being “sustainable”. It’s not that easy.
For a start, not all fossil fuels are born equal – when burned to generate electricity, for example, natural gas releases around half the CO2 of coal and virtually none of the harmful particulates linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths around the world every year. Coal mining creates far more obvious scars on the landscape, and much of it takes place in countries with poor labour rights, low wages and weak safety regulations.
Renewables like wind and solar admittedly produce no CO2 in operation, and so on this measure are clearly more sustainable than fossil fuels. But look carefully at the manufacturing processes involved in building wind turbines, for example, and you soon find that they are wholly reliant on a string of extractive and energy-intensive processes that are responsible for significant quantities of emissions and other unwanted environmental impacts. Not only that, but many of the raw materials needed are found and processed in parts of the world with low-wage economies, poor human rights and poor environmental regulations.
So, you can see that moving away from fossil fuelled electricity generation to renewables might well be more sustainable on some levels, but not all.
Biofuels are another good example of how a well-intentioned change can create a raft of other challenges.
In many parts of the world, large swathes of food-producing agricultural land have been given over to growing energy crops instead, a move criticised by groups concerned about world hunger. And we are currently importing millions of tonnes of wood chip from forests in the US to burn in converted coal-fired power stations here in the UK, which a number of environmental advocacy groups are beginning to oppose.
To begin to understand what sustainability is and isn’t, we need to understand more of the background to it which we can trace back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
The Rio Earth Summit (or UN Conference on Environment and Development to give it its proper name) was the first real international attempt at drawing up action plans and strategies for moving towards a more sustainable pattern of consumption and development. In part, this was a response to the 1987 Bruntland Commission report ‘Our Common Future’ which concluded that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet, and that patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked.
The Bruntland report is what gave us the often quoted and now ‘classic’ definition of sustainable development:
“Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Nearly 30 years on from the Bruntland report, we are much more globalised than we were then. The world population has grown from 5 billion to 7.4 billion – up 48% – with a rising middle-class in economies like China, all of which leads to increased consumption of natural resources and greater strain on environmental systems. At the same time, some of the more intransigent problems of poverty and poor health still exist in many parts of the world, even though conditions have improved considerably for many others.
Sustainability and sustainable development go further than just environmental considerations, and you can see this in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched last year.
These update and expand on previous efforts to define a set of over-arching themes upon which solid improvement action can be based in order to better align development with environmental protection and a host of other societal demands.
Too great a focus on any one area inevitably means that others will be overlooked and that conditions could actually worsen, and so it’s all about striking the right balance.
Anyone that says sustainability = a lack of adverse environmental or societal impacts is wrong. That’s Utopia.
In reality, sustainability is just fifty shades of unsustainable. The trick is trying to achieve the best overall economic, social and environmental balance with the least negative impact.