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The Sustainability Spectrum

Among the many buzzwords going around these days, sustainability seems to crop up very often. Everyone from big businessmen and scientists to schoolchildren are talking about being more sustainable. So what is sustainability really?

To ‘sustain’ something is to carry on doing it indefinitely. Apply this to using resources and disposing wastes between mankind and nature, and we can sketch out a concept of sustainability. The idea of sustenance comes from pre-industrial economies where, say, a farmer or fisherman would produce just enough for their own use with the little excess being traded. A sustenance based lifestyle is an example of a beautiful symbiosis in which human needs are satisfied while respecting nature. Such a lifestyle is automatically kept within nature’s limits, as there is only so much fish that one man can catch in one day. A river too can only produce so much fish in one day in one place. So a balance is reached and maintained and there are neither very few fish nor too many. Both extremes would cause the river ecosystem to locally collapse.

Going out of balance

Such a balance changes drastically when people begin to use their ingenuity to catch more fish (technology), and when many people come together to invest in such technology (corporation). Technology allows us to harvest more fish per fisherman than ever before. Incorporation into companies and other abstract tools allow us to overcome financial, legal and oftentimes logical and moral barriers to implementing technologies.

It is in this context that it becomes relevant to introduce a term like sustainability, to inspect our ability to carry on doing everything that we do, with its material and ethical implications. Sustainability may be thought of as our ability to coexist on and with the Earth, in the face of the overwhelming environmental, economic, social and spiritual challenges that we face today.

Sustainable Development

The United Nations defines sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present (human) generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is the most popular definition of the term, and it gives us an idea of a certain state of society to aim for, where we aren’t consuming and wasting too much. The specific practices and methodology we use to achieve this goal are also termed sustainable development. Due to its stress on only human needs and ambiguity around the term development, such an approach is often termed as Weak Sustainability. It composes one side of the spectrum of ideas on how to best coexist with Nature. The definition becomes stronger as we embrace more sensitive, empathetic and hence more inclusive perspectives.

Several schools of thought can thus be identified to lie at different points on the sustainability spectrum.

  • Permaculture for instance, rests on the principles of Care of People, Care of the Earth, and Fair Share, and is thus a very inclusive and holistic system.

  • Eco-spirituality is a philosophy that recognises all external ecological challenges as manifestations of internal spiritual conflict. It inextricably links care of the Earth with the care of the Soul. “As within, so without” is the underlying principle.

  • Eco-feminism views disregard for nature as part of an overall decline in the balance between masculine and feminine tendencies. A similarity is drawn between the historical subjugation of women and the exploitation of nature to fulfil man’s needs.

Deep Ecology

Deep Ecology is a discipline at the other side of the spectrum of sustainability, which views humankind on an equal footing as other species and not as something superior. Contentment, humility and a deep reverence for nature form the basis of this system. In terms of inclusiveness, Deep Ecology recognises not only the rights of all living things, but also those of say a river, a mountain or a forest to exist as they are, without destructive human intervention. Protecting nature for its own sake and not for its utility to us is a powerful message in these times where rampant destruction is openly justified for financial gain. Although the term is a modern one, the essence of Deep Ecology is carried in all ancient traditions; from the Native Americans who regard rivers and animals as their own kin, to religions in India that condemn harm to the most minute soil organisms.

The Way Ahead

Modern cultures are averse to the idea of Strong Sustainability because it involves a radical restructuring of our perceptions, thought processes and physical interactions with nature. Weak Sustainability or shallow ecology on the other hand, offers an easier path that we all can take. Even the word sustain-ability seems to ask the question can we carry on without asking should we carry on doing the things we do in the way we do them, on a global to a personal level.

Our ability to ask tougher questions ultimately decides how much collateral damage we encounter as we trudge through our various global challenges, towards a balanced and peaceful world. Nature often astounds us with its amazing abilities to heal. So the sooner we start making positive changes, the sooner we receive positive feedback from nature. No matter which approach we choose to adopt, it is clear that we must get moving. These are pivotal times, when we get to ask ourselves questions such as: Will the next generation ever see a wild tiger? Or How many climate refugees will there be in 2020? It is a matter of great responsibility, urgency and most of all opportunity for us to realize that the answers must also come from ourselves and from the actions we undertake in the present.

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