In the February 2, 2007 issue of the journal Science, Editor Donald Kennedy mused on the definition of sustainability and how defining it can impact environmental policy and individual behavior. True to the journal’s technical nature, the editorial is a tad more dry than similar musings by me, Colin Beavan, and Rachel Cassel. I thought it was worthwhile to take a look at some of Dr. Kennedy’s points:
In its most straightforward formulation, sustainability would require that a resource be technically managed in such a way that its contribution to human welfare is conserved or improved for succeeding generations.
Interestingly, Kennedy’s analysis of this statement is heavily human-centric (there is no mention of conserving nature for nature’s sake, but only as it provides some resource base for people), but also gives considerable attention to issues of equity, which I find somewhat lacking in many discussions of sustainability.
These scenarios suggest a problem with the concept of sustainability, which turns out not to be just about resource use, efficiency of utilization, and conservation. Instead, the term carries with it strong social, economic, and cultural attributes. Different societies will therefore create their own definitions of sustainability and their own criteria for achieving it, and they are likely to set about the task in their own ways.
Again, the fact that different people ascribe different meanings to the concept of sustainability is a problem because many of our most pressing environmental problems are global, or certainly are multi-jurisdictional (they cross political and cultural boundaries).
Is there any hope that a common meaning of the term sustainability will be determined and if it is not, do we still have a chance of solving common-pool problems?