Sustainability is a fashionable word in politics. You may think this a good thing, but when the use of a word becomes fashionable its meaning very quickly becomes vague; at best it starts to mean different things to different people, at worst it becomes devoid of meaning altogether. This trend is even more acute for a word like ‘sustainability’. The English philosopher W.B. Gallie used the term essentially contested concept to refer to concepts that have formed through the amalgamation of many ‘smaller’ concepts of which no single user ever agrees on exactly which set applies. In other words, the default position is that everyone uses it in a slightly different way to mean slightly different things. Philosophers have been arguing that ‘sustainability’ is such a word for several years. This does not mean, of course, that we should not seek some clarity.

A good place to start, as ever, is the dictionary. ‘Sustainability’ is the ability to sustain, and phrased in that way the first problem becomes clear – the ability to sustain what? The verb ‘sustain’ is a transitive verb (it requires a direct object) that simply means to maintain or prolong. On a purely abstract level, talking about the ability to maintain or prolong makes some sense, but we can really only have clarity when we know what it is we want to maintain or prolong. The ability to maintain my house is radically different from my ability to maintain a relationship with my daughter or to maintain a note of a certain pitch with my voice. Constantly referring to my commitment to ‘maintainability’ is close to being devoid of meaning – the skills sets required for each example are so radically different. So, when politicians or environmentalists talk about sustainability what is it they are trying to maintain or prolong?

The use of the term ‘sustainability’ entered popular usage following publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. Here it refers quite specifically to ‘sustainable development’, and whilst sustainability can be used in just about any context it is in this particular context that it is most commonly used. But use of the concept ‘development’ is not without difficulty. My dictionary defines ‘development’ (noun) as “the act or process of growing, progressing or developing” and ‘develop’ (verb) as “to come or bring to a later or more advanced stage; to grow or cause to grow gradually.” Again, clarity regarding the context or the object of development is crucial to any understanding.

There are two particular aspects of the above definitions that are worth examining: the act or process of growing, and that of progressing to a later of more advanced stage. Starting with the latter, when we talk about later or more advanced stages the implication must be that we have some type of blue-print or dynamic model in mind that gives shape, meaning or purpose to the process. This works fine with, for example, notions of child-development. Medicine and psychology have, over the years, charted the ‘normal’ course of development of human children. We can use this to quite accurately predict what will happen to any particular child and assume that there is a problem if it doesn’t. However, this doesn’t work when when applied to human collectives, whether communities, particular societies, or humanity as a whole. Here we have no experience, no evidence at all, that allows us to construct a model of ‘normal’ development.

There are similar problems with the notion of ‘growth’, the most obvious meaning of which is to increase in size. Applied to individual children growth is considered good – provided it is within the boundaries of our model of ‘normal’ development. We expect babies to put on weight (though not too much) and to grow in height. However, such growth is limited. No human child, or any other living being, continues to grow for ever. There are limits – both in terms of age and size or weight gained during the aging process. To go beyond certain limits of weight is to create health problems. So if there are limits to the growth of any particular living being, why should there not be similar limits to the growth of collectives of such beings, or limits to any of their enterprises? Well, there are, as any ecologist will explain. All living collectives are interdependent with other collectives and the environment in which they live. Push any boundary too far and the balance is too greatly disturbed: the result is a feedback reaction which causes the balance to go in the other direction. So in terms of human ‘development’, development cannot mean either constant growth or the progression towards some pre-ordained future state. Neither can be maintained or prolonged. So where does this leave the notion of ‘sustainable development’?

Increasing in size isn’t the only meaning applicable to ‘growth’ – there is also the development of novelty. And this is where systems thinking comes to our aid. All collectives of living beings, from ant colonies to large human cities, form complex, dynamic systems, whose structure can, to a large degree, be understood and described through complexity science. These systems are always embedded within larger systems that form their environment, and form a dynamic balance with the other living systems that share that environment. Together with the Earth, all these systems or collectives form one immensely complex dynamic system: our ecosystem. One of the very few certainties for any individual system within this interdependent whole is that, because of the sheer complexity and dynamics of that whole, their immediate environment will change. If that system does not adapt to these changes, if it doesn’t develop novelty, if it is not creative in its response – it will stagnate and die. This applies to human communities as much as to any troop of wild animal or species of plant.

According to this line of thinking, sustainable development is the ability to develop novelty in response to changes in the environment, to be creative when considering how we do things, or, as Jared Diamond so brilliantly argues in Collapse, to have the “willingness to reconsider core values”. Diamond also argues that in order to survive potential collapse, in other words to maintain or prolong themselves, societies also need long-term planning rather than the short-term planning that seems to dominate politics.

And this brings us nicely back to the Brundtland report. This defines sustainable development as the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The working definition of sustainable development that I suggest, therefore, would simply prefix this with: “The ability and willingness to reconsider our core values in order to meet…”. Oh, and please note, the Brundtland report says ‘needs’, not ‘wants’!

Sustainable development: The ability and willingness to reconsider our core values in order to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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