There is a conflict these days among the different ways people understand sustainability and sustainable development. The definition of the 1987 Brundland Report of the United Nations is classic: Sustainable development is one that attends the needs of present generations without endangering the capacity of future generations to attend to their needs and aspirations. This concept is correct, but it has two impotant limitations: it is anthropocentric (it only considers human beings) and it says nothing about the community of life (other living beings that also need a biosphere and sustainability).
The Triple Bottom Line of Sustainability
I will try to make a formulation that is as inclusive as possible: Sustainable development is every action destined to maintain the energy, information, and physical-chemical conditions that make all beings sustainable, especially the living Earth, the community of life and human life, seeking their continuity, and also to attend the needs of present and future generations in such a way that the natural capital is maintained and its capacity of regeneration, reproduction and eco-evolution is enriched.
Let’s rapidly explain the terms of this holistic vision:
To make sustainable all the conditions necessary for the creation of all beings: they exist starting with the combination of energies, of the physical-chemical and informative elements that, combined together, give origin to everything
To make sustainable all beings: this is about completely overcoming anthropocentrism. All beings emerge from the process of evolution and enjoy an intrinsic value, independent of human use.
To especially make the living Earth sustainable: the Earth is much more than a «thing» (res extensa), lacking intelligence, or a mere means of production. She does not contain life; she is alive, she self-regulates, self-regenerates and evolves. If we do not guarantee the sustainability of the living Earth, called Gaia, we take away the basis of all other forms of sustainability.
To also make the community of life sustainable: the environment does not exist as something secondary and peripheral. We do not just exist: we coexist, and are all interdependent. All living beings are carriers of the same basic genetic alphabet. We form the net of life, microorganisms included. This net creates the biomass and the biodiversity that is necessary for the subsistence of our life on this planet.
To make human life sustainable: we are a singular link of the net of life, the most complex being in our solar system and a spearhead of the process of evolution as we know it, because we are carriers of consciousness, sensibility and intelligence. We feel that we are called upon to care for and to guard Mother Earth, to guarantee the continuity of civilization and also to be vigilant of our destructive capacity.
To make the continuity of the process of evolution sustainable: all beings are conserved and supported by the Basic Energy or the Source that Creates all Beings. The universe possesses an end in itself, by the simple fact of existing, of continuing to expand and create itself.
To make tending to human needs sustainable: through the rational and caring use of the goods and services which the cosmos and the Earth offer us, and without which we would cease to exist. To make sustainable our generation and the generations that will follow ours: the Earth is sufficient for each generation so long as a relation of synergy and cooperation with the Earth is established, and goods and services are distributed equitably. The use of those goods must be guided by generational solidarity. Future generations have the right to inherit a well preserved Earth and nature.
Sustainability is measured by the capacity to conserve natural capital, that it may renew itself and, perhaps through human genius, that it may be enriched for future generations. This widened and integrating concept of sustainability must serve as criteria for evaluating whether or not we have progressed along the path of sustainability, and should serve equally as inspiration or idea-generating for making sustainability a reality in the different fields of human activity. Without it, sustainability is pure rhetoric of no consequence.
Sustainable Development: a Critique of the standard Model
Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
Leonardo Boff Blog, 6 February 2012
Official UN documents, as well as the current draft of Rio+20, devote substantial space to the model for sustainable development: It must be, they say, economically viable, socially just and environmentally correct. It is the famous triplet called The Triple Bottom Line (the line of the three pillars), coined in 1990 by John Elkington, from Great Britain, founder of the ONG SustainAbility. But this model cannot withstand a serious critique.
Economically viable development: in the political language of business managers, development is equated to increasing the gross national product, (GNP). Woe to the enterprise and the country that do not have positive indices of annual growth! They fall into crisis or recession with the consequent reduction of consumption and increase in unemployment: in the business world, it consists of making money, with the least possible investment, the maximum possible profitability, the strongest possible competitivity, and in the least possible time.
When we speak here of development, we are not talking about just any development, but of the one that actually exists, that is, of industrialist/capitalist/consumerist development. It is anthropocentric, contradictory and wrong. Let me explain.
It is anthropocentric because is centered only on the human being, as if the greater community of life (the flora, fauna and other living organisms), that also need the biosphere and equally demand sustainability, did not exist.
It is contradictory, because development and sustainability obey opposing logistics. The development now in existence is lineal and increasing. It exploits nature and favors private accumulation. Its political economics is of a capitalist character. The sustainability category, to the contrary, comes from the sciences of life and ecology, whose logistic is circular and inclusive. It represents the tendency of the ecosystems towards a dynamic equilibrium, an interdependency and cooperation of all with all. As can be seen, these are two contrasting logistics: one favors the individual, the other the collective; one promotes competition, the other cooperation; one the evolution of the fittest, the other the evolution of all, interconnected.
It is wrong, because it asserts that poverty is the cause of ecological degradation. Thus, the lesser the poverty, the more sustainable development would be, with less degradation. This is incorrect. By critically analyzing the real causes of poverty and the degradation of nature, one can see that they result primarily, if not exclusively, from the type of development now in existence. That kind of development is what produces the degradation, because it degrades nature, pays low salaries, and thus generates poverty.
This kind of development is a trap set by the prevailing system: it co-opts the ecological (sustainability) terminology in order to gut it. It assumes the ideal to be the economy (growth), thus masking the poverty it produces.
Socially just: if there is one thing the present industrial/capitalist development cannot say about itself, it is that it is socially just. If it were, there would not be 1.4 billion starving human beings in the world, with the majority of nations in poverty. Let us look only at the case of Brazil. The 2010 Social Atlas of Brazil, (IPEA), states that 5000 families control 46% of the GNP. The government gives annually 125,000 million reales to the financial system to pay back the loans they received, with interest, and only gives 40,000 million reales to the social programs that benefit the great majority of the poor. All this reveals the fallacy of the rhetoric of socially just development, which is impossible within the current economic paradigm.
Environmentally Sound: the present type of development implies an endless war against Gaia, taking from her everything that is useful, and susceptible to profitting, especially by the minorities that control the process. According to the 2010 UN Living Planet Index, in less than 40 years, global bio-diversity suffered a 30% decline. From only 1998 to the present, there has been a 35% rise in the emission of global warming gasses. Instead of talking of limits on growth, we should be talking about limits on the aggression against the Earth.
In conclusion, the leading model of development that calls itself sustainable is pure rhetoric. It advocates the production of less carbon, utilization of alternative energies, strengthening of degraded regions and the creation of better means of waste disposal. But let’s be clear: all this is dependent on not impairing profits and not reducing competitivity. The use of the expression «sustainable development» has an important political meaning: the necessary change of the economic paradigm, if we want a real sustainability. Within the present one, sustainability is either localized, or non-existent.
Leonardo Boff is former Professor of Systematic and Ecumenical Theology, Franciscan Theological Institute, Petrópolis, Brazil and former Professor of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology, State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a renowned liberation theologian and author of more than sixty books in theology, spirituality, philosophy, anthropology, and mysticism. His weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. For translations to English, see Iglesia Descalza. He presently lives in Jardim Araras, an ecological wilderness area on the municipality of Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro, and continues to work as a liberation theologian, writer, professor, conference speaker in Brazil and other countries, as well as an adviser of social movements such as the Landless Movement and the Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs). For more information visit the Leonardo Boff web site.
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