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Concepts for Environmental Sustainability

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Published: Wed, 21 Feb 2018

A Perspective on environmental sustainability?

Environmental Sustainability

The Commissioner acts as an independent voice that advocates, audits and reports on environmental sustainability. The purpose of this paper is to explore the meaning of environmental sustainability. The community needs a definition of environmental sustainability that is easily understood, is logical, and is helpful in facilitating understanding, communication and effective action by all key players (government, community, business, innovators, academia, communicators, etc.).

The paper also explores the meaning of related terms and definitions eg.

  • ‘sustainability’ and related words in common usage
  • ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (as defined by the Commissioner’s enabling legislation)
  • ‘sustainable development’ (the Brundtland definition)
  • ‘triple bottom line’.

A preferred definition of environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability is “the ability to maintain things or qualities that are valued in the physical environment” This is the simplest and most fundamental way to express the concept.But people using the term environmental sustainability can specify or elaborate the term further to add extra meaning or to apply the concept to more specialised contexts.

What is the physical environment?

This is the physical surrounds to something.For example, the land, waters and atmosphere, physical resources and thebuildings and roadsand other physical elements go to make up the urban environment.Rural environments are made up of the farms and living areas of people andthe land and waters and atmosphere and biological elements (species utilised by agriculture, pest species, and native species, and ecological communities both human induced and natural).Natural environments are those where the influence of wild species (indigenous and naturalised) is dominant or very strong.Physical resources, of all sorts, including mineral resources, can be considered to be part of the environment. Physical environments can be considered on all scales from the micro to the local, global and even larger scales. There is no sharp distinction between the environmental and other domains (eg. social and economic) – in fact the content of each domain overlaps other domains massively. The key to understanding doesn’t lie in trying to set non-overlappingboundaries between the domains but lies in being clear about the focus of different domains.

(Link to) Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Act 00 The physical environment includes the natural and biological environments. What makes an issue a sustainability issue? A sustainability issue arises whenever a valued system, object, process or attribute is under threat.The existence of the valued system, object, process or attribute could be threatened or its quality could be threatened with serious decline. In other words there is a sustainability issue whenever there is something that is valued that faces the risk of not being maintained.

Whenever there is a strong sense of urgency, there is always a sustainability issue involved.This urgency couldrelate to something thatalready existsortoan understood potential.For example biodiversity might be threatened with extinction or the chance to realise the potential of a human being might be threatened, for example, if they remain in poverty or their lives are threatened by violence or disease.(The latter would usually be thought of as being social sustainability issues.) What exactly are we trying to maintain in the physical environment and who decides?

There is no automatic, fixed agenda built into the term environmental sustainability. We have to look to the context to see what might be sustained.And many people and organisations already have well developedideas about what aspects of the total ‘environment’ should be sustained when environmental sustainability is pursued. In a place like Victoria, with our culture, political processes and physical environment, there is strong public pressure to maintain (sustain) things like:

  • ecosystem services (eg. nutrient cycling, the water cycle, natural water purification, climate moderation, soil protection
  • high quality urban environments
  • areas of natural beauty
  • other species and ecological communities
  • the user value flowing from physical resources (eg. minerals, energy, renewableresources, water)

What motivates us to want to sustain something in the physical environment? We might want to sustain something in the physical environment because it is useful to us: e.g. the quality of local urban environments. Or we might want to do it because we care about the wellbeing of other people or other species – for their sake, not ours. That is we can be motivated by utilitarian concerns and/or altruism. Sometimes we maintain something in the environmental domain in order to make it possible to achieve another goal in another domain.For example, we might sustain marine habitats in order to support the livelihood of coastal townships.Or we might sustain renewable resources so that we can support economic development or genuine progress Genuine progress is development that creates new benefits without undermining or destroying old benefits that are still valued in the community.In recent years a lot of work has been done on ‘genuine progress’ indicators as alternatives to GDP measures.) How long should we try to sustain something? This question can only be answered after deciding specifically what needs to be sustained and why.

For example, ecosystems services for clean air would need to be sustained as long as there are living things (including people) that need to breatheclean air.For all practical purposes that means ‘forever ‘. Living species seem to last on average a few million years before becoming extinct though some may evolve into new species.So if we maintained a natural extinction rate for species it is so low that for practical purposes we would need to manage in the here and now as if we wanted all species to survive, effectively ‘forever’. Sustaining the recycling of certain materials may only need to continue for as long as those material types are needed technologically, and depending on the pace of technical change this could be for centuries or for decades.It is risky to assume that resources are only needed for a short time however as society might find new uses for materials as technology, lifestyles and environmental awareness develop. When it comes to trying to sustain habitat on a site-specific basis, very specific localised habitat or ecological community patches might need to persist for anywhere between thousands of years and just a few years – depending on the ecological system involved – provided all of the dependent species can access these habitat or ecological community typessomewhere consistently and at adequate scale within their local ranges ‘forever’.

Is there any connection betweenenvironmental sustainability and social or economic sustainability? Since humans depend in countless ways on the physical environment (both natural and human constructed) sustaining desired environmental conditions directly contributes to the sustaining of people and human societies, that is, to social sustainability.The viability of theeconomy clearly depends on environmental resources and service flows so economicsustainability depends on environmental sustainability.

More generally it can be seen that sustainability in one domain can be necessary for sustainability in another.Sustainability requirements can be mapped to show complex dependencies across domains.We classify sustainability issues into separate domains, not because the sustainabilityissues are unrelated, but for reasons of convenience and tradition, for example, to allow specialisations to develop in R&D and administration, to break up complex whole into mentally manageable chunks, to reflect historical connections, etc. Can the idea of environmental sustainability drive commitments to specific action? While the idea ofenvironmental sustainability is very broad in its possible scope, concerns for environmental sustainability can be translated in specific practical goals – and these can and should drive action programs.See the section “How to use the definition of environmental sustainability to facilitate effective action.” on page . Is restoration part of an environmental sustainability program? In a world where life-support systems and other conditions required for sustainability have been run down,environmental sustainability can only be achieved through a combination of both preventive and restorative actions.So restoration is a key part of what needs to be done to achieve sustainability.In most instances it is better to avoid destroying environmental values in the first place rather than relying on restoration as the primary strategy.However, where damage has been done that could prevent valued elements of the physical environment being sustained, restoration should not be overlooked.

If we pursue an environmental sustainability program how much should we try tosustain?

The physical environment is powerfully affected by and is made up of evolving systems – ecological systems, societies and economies.These evolving systems will create changes in some aspects of the physical environment and will prevent or resist changes in other aspects.So anenvironmental sustainability program could never aim to sustain or maintain absolutely every component and attribute of the entire physical environment.Anyenvironmental sustainability program must start out by being clear about what it is hoped will be maintained in the physical environment and what can be allowed to change or what will be made to change.Precisely what people set out to sustain within the physical environment will depend on their value judgements, needs, skills and technology and available resources to support the action program and the current state and the dynamics of the physical environment.We cannot assume that we automatically know what should be sustained (and what should not) in the physical environment just because there is an environmental sustainability program operating.We need to work the answer out explicitly. The origin of the core word ‘sustain’ and its main derivatives The word ‘sustain’ has been in the language for thousands of years.It comes from the Latin sustenare meaning “to hold up” ie. to support.From there it evolved long ago to mean to keep something going or extend its duration, with an overtone of providing the support or necessities that made the extended duration possible eg. a sustaining meal.These days, for commonest non-specialised use of the word the closest synonym is ‘maintain’.

Sustain and its derivatives (eg. sustainability, sustainable, sustaining) were first used in a micro or personal context.However several hundreds of years ago the Swiss and Germans invented a form of forestry designed to keep the forest going as productive systems over the very long term and this was called, in the English speaking world, sustainable forestry.The idea was then extended to sustainable fisheries. From there it was not such a big step for the term to be applied, during the 0s and 0s, in the macro context of environmental issues where there was a need to sustain the whole environment and human society.This usage was established by the time of the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm. The drifts in meaning

Having reached a macro level of application sustainability was most often talked about in terms of ‘sustainable development’.The 0 World Conservation Strategy produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN or World Conservation Union) put forward the concept of ‘sustainable development’ meaning development that would allow ecosystem services and biodiversity to be sustained.The Brundtland Report shifted the meaning of sustainable development to mean “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generationsto meet their own needs”. Then the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio set in train processes such as Agenda and Local Agenda that resulted in many people coming to the view that sustainability equals the integration or balancing of environmental, social and economic issues or simultaneous progress in the environmental, social and economic domains, often in the context of strong programs of consultation and participation.

Many people however felt uneasy with the notion of ‘development’ as it is often associated with the destruction of environmental and social attributes that they value, so they felt better talking about ‘sustainability’ rather than ‘sustainable development’. So, over time ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ came to be treated by many people as synonyms.This trend was reinforced because some people found the term sustainable development to be a bit of a mouthful and they used ‘sustainability’ as a convenient (if inaccurate) shorthand. As the scale of the taskof achieving a sustainable environment and society has become apparent many people have tried to insulate themselves from the enormity of the challenge by retreating into small incremental changes.So some people have started to say that sustainability is a process of change and not an end state, and that it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. As the terms sustainability and sustainable development have been used more and more in government and corporate circles, because of increasing discussion of environment and development, the business world has started using the terms more and more for its own purposes.Curiouslyin this context ‘sustainable’ has quickly reverted to its earlier simple meaning of ‘able to be maintained’.So sustainable profits, or sustainable competitive advantage mean profits or competitive advantage that can be maintained for the longer term.The straightforward use of ‘sustain’ and its derivatives within the domain of business is understandable because businesses face competition and hence the risk of decline and extinction every day of the week.This experience of threat leads business people to reproduce meanings of the terms that are the same as those in long-term common usage or those in the area of biological conservation.

The benefits of definitional clarity and a strong relationship to core meanings The important benefit of definitional clarity is that it makes it easier to avoid logical problems and makes effective action more likely. A search on the web reveals hundreds of definitions of sustainability and sustainable development Although this diversity is a little overwhelmingit is not really. surprising given that there are many diverse people involved in the sustainability debate and there are legitimate complexities involved.However, a careful review of these definitions reveals that they fall into four basic categories – only one of which (type ) is a normal dictionary-style definition.The other types are referred to in this paper as “contextual definitions” because they create a greater understanding of the context of a term rather than defining its essence.The four types of definitions are: Type : definitions based on the essence: ‘x’ is/means ‘y’ eg. ‘sustainability’ is/means the ‘ability to sustain something’; ‘sustainable development’ is ‘development that can be maintained’; ‘sustaining development’ is ‘development that sustains something’ Type : contextual definitions based onstrategies for achieving the thing being defined: the achievement of ‘x’ requires ‘y’ eg. the achievement of sustainability requires, for example, the integration of environmental, social and economic issues Type : contextual definitions based on the outcomes of the thing being defined: ‘x’ results in ‘y’; eg. sustainable development results inthe meeting of needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations Type : contextual definitions based on what amovement with that label tries to achieve or is interested in: ‘x’ is what the ‘X’ movement strives for eg. sustainability is what the Sustainability movement strives for ie. Sustainability encompasses the protection of the environment and people, peace, and end to poverty, the meeting of human needs, enhancement of human wellbeing, promotion of happiness, etc., etc., etc. Furthermore any of these types of definitions can be framed in a more general or a narrower context eg. applied to whole systems eg. society and the environment or just to specific contexts eg. ‘the environment’ of a particular species, or to specific human communities or a particular economy.

The last three types of definition can be useful as they are carefully expressed so it is clear what sort of context they are creating.But if they are written using words that See Susan Murcott’s list of definitions of sustainable development in the Reference section. Where sustaining is used as an adjective (not as a verb). suggest that they are type , or dictionary-style, definitions then these types of definitions usually cause significant confusion. For example, the type definition “the achievement of sustainability requires, for example, the integration of environmental, social and economic issues” is usually presented as if it were a type definition ie. “sustainability is the integration of environmental, social and economic issues”.This produces the absurd implication that if we simply consider environmental, social and economic issues together that this somehow generates a ‘sustainability’ outcome.Often the opposite is true because the issues are traded off against each other and one or more of the objectives are not adequately fulfilled leading to a decline (unsustainability) in the domains traded off. So in this case, a lack of clarity in the expression of the definition leads to a substitution of means for ends and the outcome is unsustainability. The much-used Brundtland definition of sustainable development is a type definition, that is, it describes what theoutcome will be of pursuing sustainable development.The wording that is universally used is “sustainable developmentis development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.But this is in fact a not-careful-enough paraphrasing of the original in the Brundtland report which read: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (definition quoted from p. of the Brundtland Report).The Brundtland statement should have been paraphrased along the followinglines: “sustainable development can under the right circumstances result in the needs of the present being met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This formulation then focuses people’s attention on what is to be sustained, what needs are to be met in different generations and what strategies are to be applied to get the desired outcomes.

Not only is definitional clarity important but so is maintaining a strong relationship between the core meaning of words and their various derived forms.For example, the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ are now used interchangeably by many people.For some, the motivation fordoing this is to find a shorter term to substitute for ‘sustainable development’.Others prefer to use the term sustainability as a synonym for ‘sustainable development’ because they don’t like talking about ‘development’ since in their experience it has negative connotations either for themselves or for others. But the end result is that two terms that originally had distinctly different meanings which served practical communication purposes are now blurred into each other – thus losing the distinction of meaning. Or sustainable development.

Sustainability is about continuity and development is about change. There are manythings about life that we want to sustain (maintain) and many that we want to change.So it makes sense to create the notion of ‘sustainable development’ that combinesdesired change and desired continuity -for example we might change exploitation,unhappiness, poverty, destructiveness, etc.and sustain the rest of nature, trust, tolerance, honesty, happiness, health, etc.Treated in this waysustainable development doesn’t have to be an oxymoron (a combination of conflicting terms). While theory says that sustainable development does not have to be an oxymoron, it can sometimes take quite a bit of negotiation before a whole society can be comfortable with a shared definition of what should be maintained and what should be changed.

Developing a preferred definition of environmental sustainability

The meanings of words gain their legitimacy from shared use, so in the final analysis there are no independently ‘correct’ meanings, just meanings that are well understood by many people But words also help to shape our understandings and then our. actions, so the key question is not “what is the correct definition?” but “what do we want environmental sustainability to mean, what would be most desirable?” How we choose to answer this questiondepends critically on our preference for treating environmental sustainability as either a practical goal or a utopian concept. The historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee wrote in A study of history () that: “The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.” Sometimes the meaning of words can evolve into almost their opposite.For example ‘terrific’ used to mean ‘to cause extreme terror’ now it most often means ‘extraordinarily good’.The linking meaning was probably ‘exciting’ eg. ‘the roller coaster ride was terrific”. The quote by English historian Arnold J. Toynbee was used in Lester B. Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in . (Pearson won for introducing the concept of peacekeeping through the United Nations.)From: http://nobelprize.org/peace/laureates//pearson-lecture.html This could be extended so that we think of our present era as being distinguished as the age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of both the whole human race and the whole planet as a practical objective. If this is so then we can perhaps put aside the idea of seeingenvironmental sustainability as a utopian concept and, instead, opt for seeing it as a practical objective, that is, something to be both aspired to and achieved. But we should be doubly practical. We want to be able to use a definition of environmental sustainability that:

  • makes it easier for us to get things done (the first practicality) and
  • we want the definition to help us focus our minds on getting the most important or relevant things done (the second practicality).

To help in getting things done a definition of environmental sustainability will need to:

  • facilitate communication between all the people who need to be involved in the issue
  • make it easier to identify actions that need to be taken in order to achieve environmental sustainability

Before exploring how thechoice of definition ofenvironmental sustainabilitycan help us be doubly practical we need to identify some definitional choices that we can apply our choice-criteria to. Some of the basic types of definitions of ‘environmental’ and ‘sustainability’ that are used currently are: environmental……….

  • referring to just the biological environment
  • referring to all possible environments(contexts) eg. social, economic, physical,intellectual
  • referring to the physical environment including thebiological, the geomorphological environment and theconstructed and cultural physical environments sustainability……..
  • meaning “the integration or balancing of social, environmental and economic issues”,or “programs or actions based on stakeholder or community consultation”
  • meaning “sustainable development” or “making people better off in an ethically sound way”
  • meaning “the ability to sustain something”.

How should we select among these options if we want to facilitate communication? There is really no sectorof the economy or group of people in the community that should be uninvolved in efforts to achieveenvironmental sustainability.Soifitis possible to use simple definitions that are in common usage throughout the whole community there is a good chance that most people will be able to understand each0 other.Also definitions that are widely spread in the community are likely to be more stable because drifts in meaning that emerge in small groups are not likely to be taken up by the whole population.

The compound-concept of”environmental sustainability” is not widely used in the community, nor is the word “sustainability”.But the core concept “to sustain” is widely used, and the term “environment”or “environmental” is widely used.In common usage “to sustain” means to”keep something going” or “maintain something”.”Environment” means, incommon usage, either “the context” or “surroundings” of something, or itmeans, more specifically, the physical environment.Clearly the Parliament of Victoria, when it passed the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Act 00, was using the word “environment” in the sense of the “physical environment” rather than more universal meaning of “the context for anything”. How can our choice of definition make it easier to identify actions to take to achieve environmental sustainability? Having an action focus, especially where the aim is actually to achieve desired outcomes, means that it is not helpful touse definitions that are fuzzy or based on logical confusion.So treating “sustainability” and “sustainable development” as synonyms (ie. as having the same meaning) is not likely to be a good idea.Adding the word “sustainable” to “development” must change the type of development we are talking about – otherwise why would we bother talking about “sustainable development” if we could more conveniently just use the word “development”?So if we say that “sustainability” has the same meaning as “sustainable development” what we saying in logical terms is:

Concept A= Concept A + Concept B

In other words it doesn’t make any logical sense at all! This sort of definitional fuzziness and confusion can only persist where people are not trying to be clear about what they are talking about.And indeed some people argue that sustainability is anunattainable goal so they are not greatly fussed about the details of the definition that they use. (That is, they treat environmental sustainability as a Utopian concept rather than a practical goal.) However, if we want to use a definition ofenvironmental sustainability that makes action easier then we should avoid confusions like defining “sustainability” as “sustainable development”. How can our choice of definition help us focus our minds on gettingthe most important or relevant things done? We can only answer this by going back to what motivated society’s interest in environmental sustainability in the first place.The historical record makes it clear that people became concerned aboutenvironmental sustainability when they discovered that aspects of the environment that they loved or depended on for survival or quality of life were threatened with extinction or serious degradation.There was an urgent concern about loss that made people think about sustainability.Were they originally thinking about integrating environmental, social and economic issues?Not at all.They were worrying about maintaining or keeping going something that they valued.How then did the ‘integration’ or ‘balance’ definition emerge?After some years of trying to achieve environmental sustainability people realised that unless they also dealt with the interacting social and economic issues they would simply not succeed in achieving their environmental goals.But did this practical/pragmatic (and perhaps ethical) realisation, change people’s environmental goals? Not really. So why did some people then change the definition of environmental sustainability to mean the “integration of environmental, socialand economic issues”? It was most likely because their practical focus of attention had shifted to the integration issue and they inadvertently made a classic mistake of confusing means with ends (ie. methods with goals) There is another issue that bears on thequestion of getting the most important or relevant things done.Andthat is, in what way does “environmental” qualify the notion of “sustainability” when they are compounded?Doesenvironmental sustainabilityimply the sustainability of thewhole physical environment?Or just parts of it?From a practical point of view the physical environment is so inclusive that no real-lifeenvironmental sustainabilityprogram would everset out to sustain and maintain every aspect.If we tried to do that we would, for example, freeze in place or maintain the distribution and abundance of pest plants and animals, the reduced distribution and abundance of native species, coal-fired power stations and an excessive allocation of land and resourcesto road-based transport, dangerous and resource inefficient buildings, over-built flood plains, etc. Society’s are always selective about what they want to sustain even if the agenda for action is still a huge one (eg. maintaining life support systems, maintaining quality of life, keeping native species going, maintaining the resource-base for the economy, etc.). Finally, if we are concerned to get the most important or relevant things done, what definitions should we rule out? Definitions of sustainability such as “the integration or balancing of social, environmental and economic issues”, or “programs or actions based on stakeholder or community consultation” no longer seem appropriate and definingenvironmental sustainability as applying to absolutely everything in the physical environment no longer seems useful. Pulling all these issues together, it is now possible to propose a preferred definition for environmental sustainability as follows:

environmental sustainability is “the ability to maintain things or qualities that arevalued in the physical environment “. This happens because people have a way of expressing themselves that goes like this: environmental sustainability is ‘all about’ …….(insert the practical action or implication of their choice).Then people forget that this is not a definitional statement and they go on to treat it as one. A compatible suite of sustainability terms This suite of words has been developed to distinguish: between what is doing the sustaining and what it is being sustained – ie. between means and ends the scope of what is being sustained Word (form) Meaning Suggested usage Incompatible usage sustain (verb) means ‘to maintain something through time; to keep it going; to extend its duration’ eg. communities are working to sustain ecosystem services, or quality of life or other species sustainability (noun) means ‘the ability or capability to sustain (maintain) something’ eg. will this community achieve sustainability for the things that it wants to persist through time (adjective) means ‘related to or having to do with sustainability’ eg. a ‘sustainability action plan’ is an action plan about sustainability not an ‘action plan that can be kept in operation over an extended period’ sustainable (adjective) means ‘able to be sustained, durable or able to be maintained’ (note: in this meaning the noun that the word is attached to is the thing that is sustained) eg. a ‘sustainable policy’ is a policy that is kept in force over an extended period not a policy ‘about sustainability’ sustaining (adjective) means ‘having the propensity or tend


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