Companies everywhere extol their sustainable development programs and goals. Sustainability drives UN programs like Agenda 21, EU and US green energy initiatives, and myriad manufacturing, agricultural, forestry and other efforts. But what is sustainability? What is – or isn’t – sustainable?
Former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland said sustainability means we may develop … and meet the needs of current generations … only to the extent that doing so “will not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
At first blush, that sounds logical, perhaps even ethical. But on closer examination, it is neither. It’s right out of Alice’s encounter with an anthropomorphic egg in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” Humpty Dumpty replied, “who is to be master. That’s all.”
Obama presidential science advisor John Holdren has said we cannot talk about sustainability without talking about politics, power and control. That troubling reality is at the core of growing debates about Washington, DC central power versus state federalism, individual rights and liberties, United Nations and European Union attempts to make decisions for sovereign nations, and the growing power and influence of activist nongovernmental organizations on energy, environmental, economic and other matters.
Because those who define the terms of debate increasingly determine public policies, they also determine who is to be master: those who must live with the consequences of their personal choices, or unaccountable mandarins who impose policies, regulations, decisions and consequences on others.
Putting that vital discussion aside for another day, one can discern three kinds of sustainability.
The public relations variety promotes corporate images and inspires flattering ads and press releases, but is largely devoid of real substance. A favorite example is a consulting company’s annual sustainability report, which boasted of having reduced the number of – paper cuts among employees.
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