Sustainability, sustainable, sustaining and peace

Frans Verhagen - November, 2007

Creating Sustainable Communities

Frans C. Verhagen, M. Div., M.I.A., Ph.D. is a sustainability sociologist, co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE), and director of its sustainability education and research program. He is also the founder and president of the International Institute of Monetary Transformation.

The terms ‘sustainability’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustaining’ often vary in meaning causing confusion to those of us who wish to educate or plan for sustainable communities. The confusion can be reduced to some extent if we remember that concepts are born, not in vacuum, but in a certain socio-political context. By tracing the socio-political origin and development of ‘sustainability’ it is possible to acquire a better understanding of this contested term, which, to many, may seem to be more a buzz word than an expression of a new way of looking at reality.

  Sustainability was first used in the foreword to Limits to Growth, authored by Donella Meadows and her team at MIT in the early 1970’s. ‘Sustainability’, here, was considered a holistic concept, indicating a worldview that integrated the social, economic and ecological dimensions of reality. Also writing in the 70’s, William Ruckelshaus, the head of the new US Environmental Protection Agency, considered this worldview a conceptual revolution—a totally new way of conceiving reality and of planning and evaluating. He compared the significance of the sustainability revolution to the significance of the Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of several hundred years ago. Again, sustainability was viewed holistically.

  In the 1980’s, the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, whose conclusions were widely accepted by the international community, brought a new meaning to the term with the introduction of the notion ‘sustainable development’, which became an economic development paradigm for third world countries. ‘Sustainable development’ emphasized economic growth, underemphasized social concerns, and limited the notion of sustainability to its ecological dimension. It became the hook on which the various meanings of development could be hung. Being ambiguous, one can argue, the term found wide acceptance on account of that ambiguity. This usage of sustainability as economic development with an ecological dimension was further reinforced by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development also known as the Earth Summit) held in Rio in June 1992. In government documents resulting from the conference, development was viewed primarily in economic terms giving only a secondary emphasis to the environment, though the conference’s official title took the environment as its focus.

  Presently, in common parlance, sustainability is understood to mean ecological sustainability. Speaking of life styles, people may refer to them as being sustainable in the meaning of environmentally friendly. If a company takes environmentally sound steps, it is considered by many to be sustainable.

  Though never completely absent from various discussions since the 1970s, the holistic notion of sustainability was re-introduced and refined by the author at a peace conference in Bethel, Kansas (in the early 1990’s) in a paper on contextual sustainability, which proposed a values approach for understanding sustainability. ‘Contextual sustainability’ assumes that the Earth is the primary context and essential foundation of all social activity and that ecological sustainability is key to achieving a culture of peace. Reciprocally, respect for human rights characterizes the social context essential to ecological sustainability, in other words, a society whose norms are based on the following values, i.e. nonviolence, social justice, intergenerational equity and participatory decisionmaking. Viewed from this perspective, contextual sustainability is another way of understanding peace.