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Environmental Sustainability – A Mirage?

6 min read
Environmental Sustainability – A Mirage?


Trying to have matured adults agree on one concrete definition of “Sustainability”, is by far one of the toughest jobs. Though various organizations and thought leaders have tried their best to explore, analyze and beat it down to one precise meaning without success, there seems to be the common thread of Environment, Society and the Economy, running through them all. Northwest Environment Watch, a not-for-profit research and communication center based in Seattle, has according to me given a definition that is by far the closest to appropriate. It said that sustainability is “an economy and way of life in which both people and nature flourish, a culture that can last.” The Executive Order 00-07, signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber of the State of Oregon, in May of 2000 says that, “Sustainability means using, developing and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs.” It also goes on a step further to say that, “Sustainability requires simultaneously meeting environmental, economic and community needs.” This again almost co-relates to the Northwest Environment Watch’s stand. Let us now venture to explore three of the most critical influencers, and analyze their roles in achieving the goal of sustainability.

Growth of World Population

Agenda 21, The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet. (Sitarz 1993) explains very well the relation between population growth and the environmental health of the planet: “The spiraling growth of world population fuels the growth of global production and consumption. Rapidly increasing demands for natural resources, employment, education and social services make any attempts to protect natural resources and improve living standards very difficult. There is an immediate need to develop strategies aimed at controlling world population growth.” (p. 44)

Scientists, since a long time, have been underlining that, the Earth, if we believe in the fact that it’s a spherical surface, does have a capacity and limit to which it can carry or support. The Population of the planet, rising in leaps and bounds, will soon lead to a complete utilization of the World’s depleting Natural Resources. As May observes (May 1993): “…the scale and scope of human activities have, for the first time, grown to rival the natural processes that built the biosphere and that maintain it as a place where life can flourish. Many facts testify to this statement. It is that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of the earth’s primary productivity, from plant photosynthesis on land and in the sea, is now appropriated for human use.” This truly is matter of alarm. If we continue the growth of population at the current rate, we would be in a situation, where Sustainability would be a myth. Hence at no point of time should the Growth of Population be considered in isolation. Its growth in relation to the depleting Natural Resources in the planet is what heightens concern.

Governments, Association and Individuals of credibility, have continuously assembled and voiced opinions that “something” out to be done to “save the life and the planet”. Global Warming has been an issue within an agenda, in almost every summit. But all that came out of the discussions and the so called “action plans” are vague terms like “we need to Control the population”. Never has it moved towards action steps to actually stop population growth. The Report named Agenda 21, The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet, under the heading of “National Population Policies” goes to state that: “The long term consequences of human population growth must be fully grasped by all nations. They must rapidly formulate and implement appropriate programs to cope with the inevitable increase in population numbers.” (p. 45). Surprisingly such reports, continuously contradict themselves. Firstly they do not lay down concrete steps to stop the growth, even as they underplay the total problem at hand. On one hand they say that there is an immediate need to “control” the population growth to reach the goal of sustainability. With the same breath they point out, that population growth is “inevitable”. So when they do believe that the Population Growth is inevitable in spite of all, their claim of undertaking “appropriate steps” to curb or Control Population growth makes Sustainability sound like an oxymoron. Doesn’t it?

Consumer – Oriented Lifestyle

In the light of the definitions of Sustainability indicated earlier, the consumer-oriented lifestyle is best analyzed through a Social Practices Approach to Environment. We have been pushing the blame of an ever-increasing population for an Environmental crisis towards under-developed and developing nations so far. Apart from the fact that our home ground is also no lesser evil in this respect, there is a bigger problem of our consumer-oriented lifestyle that is contributing substantially to killing the existing Natural resources and has become an important issue to be addressed to reach the goal of sustainability.

According to Prof. dr. ire. G. Saracen in his The Social Practices Approach for Environmental Policymaking; theory, methodology and policy-development for sustainable domestic consumption, “The Social Practices Approach offers an integrative model to analyze and under-stand transitions towards sustainable consumption at the level of everyday life”. He also says that individual Consumers “develop ‘story-lines’ with respect to the environmental dimension of their lifestyles and provide legitimacy and rationality to the choices they make at the different segments of their lifestyles”. The three major consumption needs of an individual in a Society, namely Home and Maintenance, Food Consumption, Travel & Transport, have led to Rapid Urbanization & Home Construction, increasing vehicles and road construction, food preparation, and building Factories. As you see, a consumer-oriented approach is directly proportional to Industrialization, which in turn directly affects the Environment with its depleting Natural resources. When the need of the day is to increase rapid Agricultural Opportunities to counter the depleting Natural Assets of the Environment, isn’t a consumer Oriented Lifestyle with it’s need of sustenance a contradiction to the attainment of the goal of sustainability?


The last topic we would explore is the role of Stewardship. Sustainability is just not an individual problem or issue anymore. Though the life of every individual in this planet is affected, the magnitude of the problem is so vast, that no single department, or government can be held responsible. It is a Global issue, and needs to be addressed collectively. The inattention so far to attributing a direct responsibility, has been one of the major problems of not acting in the direction of attaining the goal. Hence every individual, every Government, every Organization or Association Body, and every Educational Institution has to own stewardship, to take steps, of reaching the goal of Sustainability.

This being said, the second aspect of Stewardship that needs to be addressed is “who leads?” We at United States, being the most developed, has a direct role in leading the world towards the goal. As they say that the best way to lead, is through example. “Our own country is the leading polluter on Earth, generating more greenhouse gases, especially CO2, than any other country. Not a word alone but by binding action, our nation has an inescapable moral duty to lead the way to genuinely effective solutions. We …call upon our government to change national policy so that the United States will begin to ease, not continue to increase, the burdens on our biosphere and their effect upon the planet’s people”. (Joint Appeal by Religion and Science for the Environment “DECLARATION OF THE ‘MISSION TO WASHINGTON” Washington, D.C,, May 12, 1992) What action steps have we really taken so far since then?


Bottom line: the word “Sustainability” has been continuously used so freely. If it is a sustained effort to cure today for a better tomorrow, what have we done for the immediate present? Every result of a meeting, every conclusion of a summit, has been filled with redundant usage of vague terminologies as “efforts will be taken”, “control will be exercised”, “reduction in population growth” etc. It has been interspersed with blame games. But never has any one body pointedly answered the specific question of “How”? It is about time, that we did this, unless everyone of us living today, every government in power, and every responsible organization wish to be accountable for the total extinction of the human species on earth.

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