A System's Approach to Sustainable Development

Sustainability is about a transformation of human consciousness. Social and economic systems that force people to live in ecologically degraded places or choose between rent and food are not sustainable.


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Sustainability is much more than being “Green”

In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book “Silent Spring,” which exposed the dangers of insecticides and inspired the environmental movement. Sadly, as E. O. Wilson observed in 2002, "we are still poisoning the air and water and eroding the biosphere"40 years after Rachel Carson started us thinking about these things. Society’s present situation can be summed up by human disregard of natural laws, which is having disastrous consequences for the future of all life on Earth. Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has become the contamination of human's total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm — substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals, in the atmosphere, and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. A world without plants, animals, birds and fish is not sustainable.

And a global society that is driven by the emotion of fear cannot find the answers. Sustainability is about a transformation of human consciousness that will allow our small, endangered planet and its interdependent species of plant and animal life to survive, endure, and thrive. Fear, anxiety and denial are not sustainable. Only hope and the courage to act decisively are sustainable. And this action for global change begins on the local level because we must take drastic action to reduce the depletion of resources, carbon emissions, and other pollutants, which includes educating for sustainability.

Unfortunately, most people think sustainability implies converting SUVs to run on salad oil, or heating our homes with cow chips instead of oil or gas. These actions could certainly help, but sustainability is not just about driving a hybrid car, recycling newspapers and cans, turning the thermostat down or replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. It's also not only about putting up windmills and solar panels, although these are real money-savers for those who can afford them.

Sustainability implies informed civic engagement and working partnerships among diverse groups in the community systemically/simultaneously considering economic, social, and environmental needs so that all people can enjoy a decent quality of life. Social and economic systems that force people to live in ecologically degraded places or choose between rent and food are not sustainable. Poverty, illiteracy, and disease are not sustainable. Offering expensive catastrophic medical insurance in place of health care that supports wellness for every man, woman, and child is not sustainable. Racism, sexism and homophobia are not sustainable. Hatred, violence and war are not sustainable.

Sustainability is about cherishing biodiversity and human wellness, equity, and freedom. It means maintaining economic security without contaminating the water, soil, and air. It requires creating economic and social systems that concurrently meet human physical needs, such as adequate clothing and shelter, nutritious food, a good job, and affordable health care, along with needs of the spirit like music and laughter, family and friends, and enjoying the wonders of nature.

Modern agribusiness is not sustainable when we ship fresh food 1,500 miles in gas-guzzling trucks instead of supporting local family-owned organic farms. Profit-based corporate practices such as injecting carbon monoxide into beef to make it look fresh and adding high fructose corn syrup to a wide variety of foods and beverages to save money, in defiance of studies that show they cause brain damage, diabetes and cancer, are not sustainable. Strip malls and mega-chains that depend on cheap, dirty energy and exploited workers are not sustainable.

A sustainable society needs an educated workforce comprised of people who work with their hands — farmers, fishermen and skilled craft and trades people — as well as teachers, doctors, and business managers. Sustainable education is interdisciplinary, multicultural, and holistic. Sustainable schools teach critical thinking and conflict resolution skills along with mathematical and scientific literacy. Schools without music, arts and real physical education are not sustainable. Ignorance of history, philosophy, world religions, and literature is not sustainable.

In a world desperately in need of compassionate problem-solvers who have imagination and creativity, inordinate emphasis on teaching to standardized tests is not sustainable. Sustainable schools encourage intellectual curiosity and empower children to be life-long learners and wise human beings.

Oral storytelling and written literature, philosophy, theology, science, and the arts have given us diverse visions of the interconnectedness of all creatures, great and small, which cling to the web of life. Even before Aristotle argued that beauty has an ethical dimension, the spider's web was admired by Native American and African storytellers as a shimmering symbol of the strength and fragility of life.

Sustainability is about stewardship, cooperation and moral responsibility — about treating all living creatures as embodiments of a universal spirit. It means learning from our mistakes and correcting them, as well as regaining a sense of proportion and caring about the world we live in enough to reduce needless acquisition of extravagant consumer goods that end up as mountains of garbage that leach toxins into the soil.

Many of the ideas here were adapted from an Opinion Editorial of Laurie Robertson-Lorant in the January 8, 2008 SouthCoast Today Newspaper.


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Last Update: 7/1/10
Web Author: Dr. R. Warren Flint