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Assessing The Concept Of Sustainability Environmental Sciences Essay

Sustainability as a concept has no universally acceptable definition or a clearly defined global modus operandi to assess and measure its intergenerational gains. Despite becoming a very popular term in contemporary society, the concept is largely context and perspective dependent; as it can be taken to mean different things to different people, at different moments in time (Kruyt et al., 2009). “Before now, many people were not aware of what sustainability is, and its implications to human existence. Even as its awareness is increasing, the inherent ambiguity of the subject remains an issue of global debate” (Mbasuen, 2009).

In spite of this ambiguous nature, our limits to technological and economic growths, due to human development as predicted in past scholarship underpin the focal issue on sustainability today (Malthus, 1798), (Hotelling, 1931) and (Meadows et al., 1972). “In a bid, to unravel the enigma of this term, several definitions and visualizing images of sustainability have evolved” (Mbasuen, 2009). However, the most popular of these definitions remains the UN definition in Brundtland Report (Our Common Future, 1987); which conceptually explores sustainability in three dimensions to underpin economic, environmental and social sustainability; (Triple Bottom Line) approach (Elkington, 2004).

However, mainstream sustainability thinkers “believe that the definition is vague and did not underpin any specifics within the myriad of issues concerned with ‘Our Common Future’ which we are aiming at” (Mbasuen, 2009). As a consequence, many people view the concept to include other dimensions such institutional and even political sustainability, while others such as (Dietz and Neumayer, 2007; Neumayer, 2010) pitch their tents with opposing views of weak versus strong sustainability.

Despite the elusive nature of this concept, Sustainability Assessment (SA) on the other hand is less ambiguous, and can be defined as a formal process of identifying, predicting and evaluating the potential impacts of an initiative (such as a legislation, regulation, policy plan programme and project) and its alternatives on the sustainable development of society. (Govender et al., 2006). It is a new and evolving concept in environmental assessment, evolving from works carried out by environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA) practitioners (Sheate et al., 2003; Pope et al., 2004).

It is increasingly being seen as a tool in the ‘family’ of impact assessment processes (Hacking and Guthrie, 2008) that is used to develop new techniques and approaches to impact assessment that are designed to direct planning and decision-making towards sustainable development (SD) (Pope et al., 2004). It involves the integration of the biophysical environmental, social and economic pillars of sustainability into decision making in a way that acknowledges their inter-relatedness. (Govender et al., 2006).

The increasing level of political commitment to the principle of Sustainable Development has made SA a common decision making tool (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011; Govender et al., 2006; Pope et al., 2004 ). The bulk of research on SA has originated in Canada, Europe and the UK, nonetheless, there are still very few examples of effective SA processes implemented in the world (Gibson, 2006; Pope et al., 2004 ). Some examples can been seen in Western Australia (Pope and Grace 2006) and South Africa of which many are actually examples of ‘integrated assessment’, derived from environmental impact assessment(EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA) (Govender et al., 2006; Pope et al., 2004).

The term ‘Sustainability Appraisal’ is used in the UK to distinguish conventional SEA with a biophysical focus from a form of strategic assessment that also covers social and economic impacts (Dalal-Clayton and Sadler, 2005). Govender et al., (2006) argue that what is called Sustainability Assessment/Appraisal in some countries is basically the same as SEA in South Africa.

This whole concept of sustainability or sustainable development was first described by the Brundtland Commission in 1987: as ‘‘...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’’ (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987,p.9). The Rio Earth Summit which took place in 1992 further set out a series of action points for achieving Sustainable development (SD) and also advocates the use of impact assessment tools to address SD (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011).

However, as noted earlier there seems to be no consensus in the meaning of SD as there are several conflicting interpretations. This was indicated by O'Riordan (2000,p.30) “there is no clear agreement as to what sustainable development is, every pathway begins and ends at different points…” and according to Williams and Millington (2004), this is because the question of how to conjoin demands and resources can be answered in a number of different ways. For example what is sustainable and unsustainable, over what time span is sustainability achieved and how are natural limits defined and assessed? (Barrett and Grizzle 1999; Lawrence, 1997). Therefore, for SA practice to achieve sustainable outcomes, it needs to recognize that different stakeholders have different framings of what SA outcomes should be (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011).

Understanding Sustainability

The existence of multiple definitions of sustainable development already poses a problem for sustainability assessment (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011). Common to all definitions are two fundamental principle; intragenerational and intergenerational equity and two key concepts; needs and limits (Carter, 2001). How these aspects are interpreted has been the issue of debate seen in most literature.

One particular issue is the different forms of sustainability; weak and strong (George, 1999). Williams and Millington (2004) referred to ‘weak sustainability’ or ‘shallow environmentalism’ as a situation in which one needs to expand the stock of resources by developing renewable resources, creating substitutes for non-renewable resources, making more effective use of existing resources, and/or by searching for technological solutions to problems such as resource depletion and pollution.

Whereas ‘strong sustainability’ or ‘deep ecology’ is a situation in which the demands that we make on the Earth need to be revised so that we consume less (that is; rather than adapt the Earth to suit ourselves, we adapt ourselves to meet the finitude of nature).

This argument is further extended to environmental assessment (EA) and many advocates of EA view the integration of social and economic issues in SA as a potential mechanism for legitimising the trading off environmental concerns for socio-econmoic gains (Sheate et al., 2003; Morrison-Saunders and Fischer, 2006; Pope and Grace 2006).

These differing views of both strong and weak sustainability can been seen in current practices. For example in Western Australia, SA builds upon a strong culture of project environmental impact assessment, enabled by the Environmental Protection Act 1986, to include social and economic considerations as well as environmental issues, thereby maximises ‘win–win–wins’ and minimises trade-offs (Pope et al., 2005).

Although this tends to support strong sustainability, practice however shows what different as seen in the Gorgon gas development on Barrow Island (Class A Nature Reserve). The Western Australian Government approved the development when environmental impacts were clearly negative; that is undertaking environmental trade-offs in favour economic and social benefits (Pope et al., 2004; Pope et al., 2005). This is similar to the ‘weak’ conception of sustainability.

Also in the UK, SA in geared towards plans and programmes. Thérivel et al., (2009) analyzed 45 Sustainability Appraisals conducted in England based on their core strategies (social, economic or environmental categories). They concluded that the plans will have beneficial social and economic effects, but negative environmental effects. They also pointed out that SA does not identify environmental sustainable developments, or the acceptable trade-off between environmental costs and social/economic benefits. Thereby implying that SAs are most likely not applying sustainability principles, since they are neither identifying what ‘living within environmental limits’ are nor testing core strategies against them.

The debate about sustainability is basically in three categories; protecting the natural environment, advancing economic welfare, and providing basic human needs. For some people human overexploitation of the natural environment ultimately threatens human survival while others will argue that some depletion of natural resources is inevitable, for economic growth. (Barrett and Grizzle 1999). This would inevitable affect how outcomes of SA are been seen as been sustainable or unsustainable. Also actual practice is different from Governments initial strategy as seen in the Western Australian case (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011).

Time Scales

Another important aspect in the definition of sustainable development is equity among current and future generations. According to George (1999) the twin pillars of sustainable development are intergenerational equity (a necessary condition for sustainability) and intragenerational equity (a necessary condition for development).

The maintenance of both intragenerational and intergenerational equity; means that present development must take into account current needs of people present and also needs of future generation (Barrett and Grizzle 1999). This concept was clearly stated in the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Just as there are different interpretations of the meaning of sustainability, also there are different views on how equity should be maintained across generations.

For Pearce and Warford (1993), intergenerational equity, means that development should secure increases in the welfare of the current generation provided that welfare in the future does not decrease, while for Howarth, (2007 p.6), who proposed the ‘fair sharing principle’; “each member of present and future society is entitled to share fairly in the benefits derived from environmental resources. Specific stocks of environmental resources should not be depleted without rendering just compensation to members of future generations”, believes that future generations hold a presumptive right to inherit particular environmental resources in an undiminished state.

Also both views can be said to support the concepts of weak and strong sustainability. Hence, as noted by Barrett and Grizzle (1999), making environmentally sustainable policy therefore requires the reconciliation of different communities’ divergent interests in ecosystem maintenance and intragenerational and intergenerational distribution.

Another problem for SA noted by Bond and Morrison-Saunders (2011) is the uncertainty and vagueness of the boundaries for intragenerational and intergenerational equity. They further explained that time duration of a generation would vary depending on the region were one lives. This can be clearly seen in the different life expectancy values for different countries. For example, the estimated value for the UK is 80 years while that of Nigeria is 47 years in 2011 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2009).

A classic example is the CoRWM radioactive waste report. The report indicated that around 300,000 years would have to pass until radioactive decay would be sufficient for the activity of the fuel to return to that of the natural uranium ore from which it was originally produced (CoRWM, 2006). Despite the fact that the general view among the committee is that the present generation should remove the burden imposed by its actions from the future, the difficult faced is the fact that institutional control, the time period over which a Government is expected to be in existence with knowledge and resources to handle any arising issues, was assumed to be a period of around 300 years (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011; CoRWM, 2006).

Another example is the Western Australian Government Gorgon gas development on Barrow Island. Bond and Morrison-Saunders (2011) indicated that the gas processing facilities designed for an operational lifespan of 30 years, is at odds with the sustainability criteria which promises ‘long-term’ economic growth for the Pilbara region and Western Australia in general.

This unclear meaning of terms (for example, “short, medium and long-term” and ‘forever’) has resulted in how SA is seen to achieve sustainable outcomes.

Reductionism versus holism

Sustainability assessment process can be carried out by applying different approaches and tools ranging from indicators to a system-based approach with greater stakeholder participation. (Gasparatos et al., 2009). Amongst academicians/practitioners, there is a current debate on which assessment process (reductionism or holism) is best for assessing SA progress towards sustainability.

Reductionism defined by Bond and Morrison-Saunders (2011, p.2) is “the breaking down complex processes to simple terms or component parts”...and “in the context of SA, this can be illustrated by the approach taken of using a few selected sustainability indicators to represent the sustainability of a whole system”. Also Bond and Morrison Saunders (2009) noted that the key component of any SA is having a suitable sustainability indicator, which are associated with set sustainability objectives and targets, to ensure that project, plan or programmes achieve sustainable outcomes.

George, (1999) also argued that assessment done aggregately (holism), tends to conceal any form of possible tradeoffs between individual aspects or components. For example, deterioration in quality of life for some social groups may not become apparent, and potentially unsustainable environmental effects may go undetected. He suggested that this shortcoming can be reduced if the assessment is done in detail, through individual indicators for each of the relevant components.

Costanza (2000) and Bond and Morrison-Saunders (2009), noted that the flexibility or “user friendliness” of reductionism is one of its main advantages, given its ability to reduce the overabundance of the environmental impacts to a limited set of numbers in order to integrate social, economic and environmental consideration into decision making.

On the other hand, there is also an argument that environmental systems need to be considered as wholes rather than broken down units (Holism). This is because the environment and human societies are complex systems which are dynamic and non-linear in nature, and are also involved in complex interactions. Hence, understanding this complex system, requires a holistic approach, to fully assess the cumulative effect of all impacts acting together to have unacceptable environmental consequences. (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011; Cashmore, 2004; Gasparatos et al., 2009, 2008; Morrison-Saunders and Bailey 2000). Steinemann, (2000), also suggested that “moving away from analyses of isolated risks and toward a broader understanding of environment will require a more holistic, integrated view of impact assessment”.

Reductionism according to Gasparatos et al., 2009) is currently still the dominant paradigm for sustainability assessments. There are different degrees of reductionism where complex systems are reduced to smaller number measures or the extreme being a single value (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011). Examples of reductionist approach can been seen in the UK SAs undertaken for core strategies of 38 local authorities in England, where the greatest number of indicators used was 151 and the lowest 24 (Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011).

Discussion and Conclusion

The success of Sustainability Assessment is dependent on a number of different interpretations. The first step is to acknowledge this different interpretation, recognize that these interpretation influences what different stakeholders view SA in achieving sustainable outcomes. Ideally, SA integrates social, environmental and economic considerations at every stage in decision-making, but how this integration should be carried out, without considering one aspect more than the other has been a source of environmental controversy.

Some advocates of environmental assessment suggested that environmental assessment could contribute to sustainability by extending its scope to include social and economic considerations along with environmental ones (Pope et al., 2004), while on the other hand many advocates of environmental assessment view sustainability assessment with some suspicion, seeing it as a potential mechanism for legitimising the trading off environmental concerns for socio-economic gain (Pope and Grace 2006).

Evidences from SA practices in several countries (for example, Western Australian Government Gorgon gas development) have shown that the weak sustainability or anthropocentrism currently prevails in the world today.

Another aspect considered in this paper is the problem of intergenerational and intergenerational equity. What approaches would be best to address multitude of environmental, social and economic issues, together with intergenerational and intergenerational equity concerns?

A “pluralistic stewardship” that is, integrating core elements of anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism, has been suggested by Barrett and Grizzle (1999), to be the best approach for SA to achieve sustainable outcomes. Gasparatos et al., (2009) also suggested that “methodological pluralism coupled with stakeholder participation seems a safer path to tread”. Hence, one can argue that no one valid process or standpoint can provide an ample and appropriate solution to this issue (SA achieving sustainable outcomes). Also any sustainability concept /related frameworks or process must be adapted to suite regional and local conditions (for example the different life expectancy in different countries) (Lawrence, 1997).

In conclusion, it is evident that Weak Sustainability with Reductionism remains the prevailing sustainability approaches in current sustainability agenda, with strong focus on short term sustainability gains rather than crave for intergenerational equity. These different interpretations of sustainability, (encompassing timescale, reductionist and holistic) is liken to the statement “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. In other words, to the EIA practitioner/stakeholder/individual, their meaning and interpretation of the term sustainability would determine if SA has achieved sustainable outcome.

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