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SUSTAINABILITY – What does it Mean?
By Barb Hetherington

Yesterday, I went for a walk on the beach with my son Zachary for several hours. I had a million things to do including submitting this column. My head was overloaded thinking about the research for this piece. My research was uncovering more and more questions. Work and the million things that need to be done win out too often, and the walks on the beach are infrequent.

There was an eagle on a log, watching the beach. The beach was quiet and the area we were in had beach cottages that were boarded up for future demolition. Seagulls and crows waded in the small stream feeding into the salt water while the eagle perched still on the log. We also sat still very near to the eagle not wanting to disturb its meditation on the beach. My son spoke about the significance of the eagle in First Nations culture and being a birdwatcher, all the facts he knew about the eagle. The eagle, my son and I remained together; keenly aware of each others presence but sharing the space and time very peacefully until the eagle stretched its massive wings to effortlessly reach the sky.

Back home once again I began thinking about my question.  The words: sustainability, sustainable, sustainable development…WHAT DOES IT MEAN?   The answer is not easy.

The words “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are getting lots of use these days. Choices we are making in food production, transportation, housing, heating, and community planning are judged or evaluated on how ‘sustainable” they are. Tagging the description “sustainable” to many products, decisions, and government programs gives instant approval without question. We all know sustainability is good and unsustainable is bad. So then why can so many decisions we make be in conflict with each other? If we look at some of the definitions then we should all know what is sustainable, right?

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission drafted a definition of sustainable development. It reads “DEVELOPMENT THAT MEETS THE NEEDS OF THE PRESENT WITHOUT COMPROMISING THE ABILTY OF FUTURE GENERATIONS TO MEET THEIR OWN NEEDS”

What are needs? Researcher, Manfred Max-Neef defined 9 fundamental needs which are considered to be universal across all cultures, and historical times. They are:    

1.    subsistence
2.    protection
3.    affection
4.    understanding
5.    participation
6.    leisure
7.    creation
8.    identity
9.    freedom

No one need can be substituted over another need. If you are starving for food, a hug will not fill your stomach.

Going back to my beach walk in my late night thoughts, I realized I want my son to be able to share a similar beach walk experience with his children but is this going to be possible? Consider this: if in the future, man and child sit sharing a moment together on the beach but they now wear protective goggles and masks to protect their eyes from the acid in the air, the beach is quiet and the eagle is extinct perhaps rats the survivors of human waste and decay are the only animals sharing the moment on the beach: can I argue that I have not compromised his needs because my generation has created masks and breathing apparatus and manufactured food and his 9 needs have been satisfied. The world has changed with the effects of global warming, and my generation has not addressed the needs of the eagle, the air or the water. Is that really the definition of sustainability?

David Buzzelli, former member of Canada’s National Round Table on Environment and Economy, and former president of Dow Chemical  Canada Inc., says, “ Sustainable development is a journey rather than a destination.”  I am not so sure that I want to go on a journey with a company that is a leader in genetic and chemically altered seed stock or if I want my journey to include environmental disasters The Dow Chemical Company, with annual sales exceeding $30 billion US, is the largest chemical manufacturing company in the world. Despite being one of the richest companies on the planet, Dow has done little to be a good steward of the environment. Dow’s environmental track record includes the original manufacturing and distribution of now highly restricted or banned (in the United States) chemicals such as DDT, Agent Orange, Dursban (pesticide) and asbestos.

Dow’s ascension to the top of the worldwide list of chemical producers comes partially as a result of their recent purchase of Union Carbide, whose merger with Dow was completed on February 6, 2001. In acquiring Union Carbide’s assets, Dow also assumed responsibility for Union Carbide’s liabilities. These liabilities include Union Carbide’s negligent role in the worst chemical spill in history. This is not my vision of sustainable.

“Sustainable development means implementing a process that integrates environmental, economic and social considerations into decision making. This reinforces the World Commission on Environment and Development’s conclusion that development should be sustainable for the benefit of current and future generations,” according to Environment Canada. Is “implementing a process” not government speak for not acting on climate change? Just think of Copenhagen.
“Sustainable development requires environmental health, economic prosperity and social equity.” Was the definition from Earth Council. We live in a world of a few wealthy countries such a Canada consuming most of the world’s resources while other countries starve, children are sold into slavery to make our cheap sweatshop produced running shoes, climate change is causing environmental disasters and new plagues wiping out populations …so do we fix this or remain status quo? Are we prepared to take less to give someone else more?

“Sustainability is about creating the kind of world we want for ourselves, our neighbours, and future generations. It involves living our lives and making decisions as individuals, organizations and societies so that the quality of life available to future generations is equal to – or even exceeds – what we inherited from our ancestors” is the definition used by The Natural Steps.
Today, if I could reach out to a mother in Aids ravaged Africa, a mother  in India selling her child into sex slavery in order to feed her ever- expanding family and a woman waiting to hear if her child had been shot in one of the many war zones , would we have the same vision of what is sustainable? What happens if the world I want for myself and neighbours is not what they want for themselves? What about the non-human life on this planet?

While walking on the beach my son commented on the rhythm of the wind and waves. The wind came in like a breath exhaling, while the waves went out like the earth inhaling.

Perhaps we must take time to sit on the beach and walk in the forest, commune with nature and really think about our world and all who live in it now and in the future. We must resist attaching words to actions that may not mean the same thing to everyone. Perhaps we need to not only step into another person’s or community’s shoes but their environmental footprint. Perhaps the question really should be about “how can we live in one world as one.”

Earth does not belong to us; we belong to earth.” Is a quote attributed to Chief Seattle in 1857.

 

 

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