March 15, 2010

Sustainability – what exactly does it mean?

3/15/10 -
Ramona Madhosingh-Hector, Urban Sustainability Agent, Pinellas County Extension

Have you heard the term sustainability? Do you know what it means? What makes sustainability something that we should be interested in?

In this article, we will explore
(1) The origins of sustainability
(2) The primary ways to measure our success, and
(3) How we can be more sustainable.

Birth of sustainability
Defined in 1987 by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), sustainability is described as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In many respects, sustainability is related to environmental equity and more specifically intergenerational equity. What exactly does that mean? Intergenerational environmental equity refers to the concept that we should not raid the environment for our own benefit; we should consider what will be left behind for our children and grandchildren. Future generations will be affected by the decisions we make now. The concept of equity ensures that fairness will guide our use of resources.

More than two decades ago, the United Nations commissioned the WCED to develop a “global agenda for change” because even then the organization recognized that environmental problems were global in nature and it was in the common interest of all nations to establish policies for sustainable development.

From sustainability to sustainable development
The WCED identified that the “strategy for sustainable development aims to promote harmony among human brings and between humanity and nature.” Success in whole is based on success in part. Each individual part of the system must work in unity with the others to ensure sustainable development.

The key focus areas for sustainability are the environment, the economy and society, but there are other systems that provide the supporting framework for measuring success in these areas. They include the
~ Political system that provides opportunities for citizen input
~ Production system that allows development while protecting ecosystems
~ Administrative system that is flexible and adaptable
~ International system that supports sustainable patterns of trade and finance
~ Technological system that is committed to finding new solutions (adapted from WECD, 1987)
Many times, sustainability is viewed using the economy, environment and society as the indicators, since these areas measure a communities’ quality of life. They are usually drawn as overlapping circles to indicate that each area is linked to another. Sustainability isn’t just about our quality of life; it’s also about understanding, respecting and balancing the links between all of these areas within the community.

This is a sample of some of the issues that communities face in these categories:

Economy - availability of jobs, job pay rate,availability of affordable housing

Environment - quality of air and water, open areas for recreation, disease

Social - crime rates, social capital, lifestyle
Moving ahead
A global agenda for change has been established by the United Nations but success cannot be achieved unless all levels of government participate. What is the recipe for success? National, regional and local strategies must be mixed together to achieve sustainability. This means that member countries, such as the United States, should establish national policy to achieve sustainability. States within the United States should create policy that sets the stage for counties to meet sustainability goals. Counties should draft policy to assist local governments within their borders to be sustainable.

The sum total of all of these efforts will assist with creating sustainable communities which will achieve the global goal of sustainable development.

In my next article, we will look at how the United States supports the global sustainability goal.

United Nations
World Commission on Environment and Development

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