"Is that Sustainable?!"Credit: cepolinaP
"Sustainable." It's a popular word these days. Want to perk some ears? Use the word "sustainable." Often, the term is applied to the concept of development, though few people seem to be asking "what does sustainable development mean?" Are the two really compatible - development and sustainability? The classic "triad" of sustainability consists of three legs: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. An understanding of each and where the triad concept originated will help us understand this basic question: what does sustainable development mean?
The concept is simple, something sustainable can be sustained.
Sustainable Development? For folks who like definitions, here's the most popular: A model that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This answer to the question of what is sustainable development was given at the United Nation's Brundtland Commision in 1987. Since, the term is popularly applied to many practices and concepts: sustainable building, sustainable forestry, sustainable education, sustainable travel, sustainable tourism, sustainable community, sustainable cites, sustainably transportation, etc.
Learning some about sustainable agriculture can help us better understand the question of what is sustainable development. A sustainable agriculture is a model of providing for food and fiber that, theoretically, continually enhances (or at least doesn't degrade) the so called natural resources necessary for growing plants and animals. Tilling, thus, would arguably be an unsustainable agriculture practice because it increases erosion, the leaching of valuable mineral, the decay rates of organic matter, kills earthworms, and much more. So not tilling would be considered a practice in sustainable agriculture systems; well, at least some sustainable agriculture systems, as not all "sustainable farmers" see tilling as inherently unsustainable.
A number of prophetic voices have raised much awareness about the need for a more sustainable, ecological, environmentally sound agriculture. Joel Salatin, Virgin writer and farmer at Polyface Farm, is one of these. The investigative food journalist Michael Pollan is another. Among others are Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Steve Solomon, John Jeavons, and Sally Fallon.
Triad of Sustainability
As with all triads, the goal is stability. A stool with one or two legs won't stand, three are the minimum. A stool with three legs of unequal length won't necessarily stand, and if it does it won't be stable. The goal: A stool with three equal legs.
The three legs of the "sustainability stool" are economic, environmental, and social.
The concept that something must be economically viable if it's to be sustainable. How can one continue something if it makes them no money, arguably a necessity these days? Opponents, however, point out the fallacy of trying to develop sustainable systems and practices within the concept of an inherently unsustainable economic system. Basically, if the free market economic system is bound for collapse, why should the "economic leg" exist at all?
Regardless of the arguments, the concept economic viability and even profitability within the sustainability movement encouraged many farmers and others to transition to more ecological, environmental practices in the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, such remains the case today. And also, the concept of economic sustainability, in large part, should be thanked for the establishment of government funded sustainability programs such as SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), both two incredible resources (links open in new window).
While the concept of economic sustainability may be inherently flawed, it nevertheless has and continues to serve as an important motivator for individuals and groups alike to move towards more sustainable practices.
The environmental leg of the sutainability triad seems most self explanatory. In the sense that we are all part of the natural world, the environmental leg is really the only one of much importance (after all, trees only have one trunk). So the concept is simple: Anything sustainable must only not harm the natural world but, moreover, must enhance it.
Because we humans are part of the natural created world, it seems funny to have an entire leg for "social" sustainability. But think of this leg more as the "social justice" work of the sustainability movement. A sustainable development that marginalizes some while raising up others is not sustainable. Socially just sustainability makes it possible for every persons needs to be met.
What does Sustainable Development mean?
Now that we've explore some underpinnings of the sustainability concept, readers should have more insight towards the question of what does sustainable development mean. To apply the triad concept , it means it's a model of development that is economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially just. While much of the philosophy and basic assumptions that these understandings are based on seem perhaps a bit short-sighted and even untruthful, chances are that we'd all be much better off working towards greater sustainability in our micro lives and the macro systems and practices we support.
May we each find the strength and fortitude to work towards something greater than ourselves.