A System's Approach to Sustainable Development

The one immutable law of nature is to continue existing. All of nature’s creatures work to a single, unified purpose: to stay alive. It’s the one indisputable theory of everything!

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Simple & Integrated Perspective on Sustainability

The quality of human life in the future is about the choices we make. For our choices and actions to be sustainable, they must be ever elastic, adaptable, and creative. You can plan and plan, but then also leave yourself open to mystery and discovery; for biophysical research and ecosystem science have demonstrated the interdependent functions in nature, as well as between nature and humans, and how recognition of these interconnections is important to preventing harm from our actions (Jacobs, 2000; Norton, 2005).

But the difficulty that arises from the complex issue of sustainable development is considering the following: we may have equal or better economic opportunities than our ancestors, but do we have more social and environmental benefits or opportunities? Sustainable development involves the carrying out of activities that offer economic benefits in the present without negatively affecting social and environmental choices that are available to people in the future, or in other places.

Most discussions about the meaning of sustainable development are usually reduced to the Brundtland Commission statement that we should be concerned about the "needs of the future" in our thinking about sustainability. Sustainable futures, however, are not clear in advance. Instead of attempting to understand the potential needs of the future, which is really impossible to do, present societal members, through a program of participatory social experimentation and learning, should instead be concerned about making sure that the opportunities they have to achieve their own values, the things important to them, are not in any way constrained for other places or the future by actions they might take. And this process must encourage the connection of scientific information with cherished human values.

To hold options open requires the complicated and difficult process of a community attempting to conscientiously specify what obligations toward people in other places and the future it accepts, which require protection of the stuff so designated as long as present society’s costs are bearable, and to compare those ideals its members would like to project into the future with the very real and present needs of people in the present generation (Norton, 2005). If individuals fulfill their needs in such a way as to destroy important options, for example individuals in earlier generations over-consume and do not create new opportunities, changing the environment that subsequent generations encounter, than this leaves more constraints and reduces opportunities, making survival more difficult.

In other words, people should be concerned about making sure the opportunities they have to achieve their own core values, the things important to them (range of environmental, social, and economic opportunities), are not in any way constrained for other places or people in the future by actions taken today. When we state a set of ideals (values) for what we want our community to be like, we identify those options and opportunities that give meaning to life in a place (Norton, 2005) for the present and for as much as we know about the future. “Important options” represent a variable to be specified as particular communities articulate their values and decide what is important to save for posterity. “An action or a policy is not sustainable if it will reduce the ratio of opportunities to constraints on people in the future” (Norton, 2005).

All people today should have sufficient resources (human, financial, environmental) to meet their needs, provided in a way that does not interfere with the ecological integrity of natural systems (options always depend upon having healthy environments and productive natural resources), so that similar options will be open to future generations. Our task ahead is to shape a sustainable future, using resources less intensively, where “resources” includes those things that support our economic and social productivity while also absorbing our waste products, by combining social, economic and environmental strategies that produce opportunities and minimize constraints for future generations (Norton, 2005) and people in other places through the practice of sustainable development.

The bottom line: communities themselves are responsible for choosing what is important to monitor and what is important to protect, not inhibited by some kind of sustainability definition established somewhere else. Acting sustainably, assuring sufficiency and opportunity, guarantees a resource will not fall below a threshold required to perpetuate it through time as a foundation to insure all people have sufficient resources to achieve a decent life and that everyone has opportunities to seek improvements in ways that do not compromise future generations (Gibson, 2006). In many instances it comes down to differentiating “needs” from “wants.” Decision-making should encourage equitable distribution of resources to create a sense of fairness, identifying and satisfying real needs before wants and leaving options open for future generations. Living sustainably is maintaining the important mix of options and opportunities while creating no new and burdensome constraints; living unsustainably is losing them, narrowing the range of options that people in other places or subsequent generations can choose among in their attempt to adapt, survive, and prosper (Flint, 2006). Sustainability is most fundamentally equality over time and place, making sure we consume less than Earth’s natural resources can provide. Economic development that is sustainable must be both environmentally sound and shared fairly among all societal members. Not to meet this objective is to open the doors of conflict.

Flint, R.W. 2006. Water resource sustainable management: Thinking like a watershed. Annals of Arid Zone 45(3 & 4): 399-423.

Gibson, R.B. 2006. Beyond the pillars: sustainability assessment as a framework for effective integration of social, economic and ecological considerations in significant decision-making. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management 8 (3): 259-280.

Jacobs, J. 2000. The Nature of Economies. New York, NY: The Modern Library. 190 pp.

Norton, B.G. 2005. Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 607 pp.

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Last Update: 1/1/15
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