Alan Kirker

Sustainability

November 24th, 2020 by

The broadest definition of sustainability is “the ability to exist constantly”. Nowadays, despite its buzzword-popularity, “refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to co-exist” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). One important notion regarding sustainability is that of the “commons” in the environmental sense; the air, the water, the lands that we all share or have access to and depend on, but by their nature as intrinsically essential often exist apart from our spatial and temporal boundaries, and tragically apart from our priorities.

In nineteen sixty-two biologist Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring“, whose title alludes to a nature without the sounds of birds or insects, threw a spotlight on the effect of chemical pesticides upon the landscape and effectively launched the modern environmental movement. Carson ascribed the problem underlying our perilous course as a desire to “control nature”… “a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man” (1962, p. 297).

Formalizing this movement began several decades later with the publishing of Our Common Future: The United Nations Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Bruntland Report, in 1987. This document established a framework which defined sustainable development as that which“meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs” and thus sought to move environmental practices beyond the regulatory compliance of the seventies, the anticipatory cost-avoiding measures undertaken in the eighties, through proactive measures such as eco-efficiency and strategic environmental management in the nineties, to what is regarded as the mainstreaming and integration of sustainability practices overall into the new millennium. The report presents “not a detailed blueprint for action, but instead a pathway by which the peoples of the world may enlarge their spheres of cooperation” (1987, p. 11).

Despite strong public awareness about the topic of sustainability, some sectors within modern society have been accused of greenwashing, “a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). Increasingly, global accords, regulatory frameworks, and industry certifications are required to help shepherd sustainable development forward, insofar as these sorts of instruments are supported by policymakers. The key lever currently needed to effect meaningful environmental change, according to most scientists and economists, is for nations to broadly implement a carbon tax.  Thanks for this reminder, Elon 🙂  [JRE #1609]

Critical too in this broader context is the challenge of assigning a value to both finite and renewal resources which form the planet’s natural capital and that often also provide essential ecosystem services. Can technology and innovation play a role in the vast accounting necessary to adequately undertake such initiatives? Moreover, do large, governing bodies such as the United Nations not now have a more crucial role than ever in uniting the peoples of the world in order to face such global challenges?

Top-down regulation and guidelines must also serve to augment and incentivize necessary bottom-up approaches to a circular economy. Critical to sustainable developments themselves is an understanding the wider, often complex spheres into which they fit. For example, its possible that many millions of solar panels will reach the end of their lifespans over the coming years. Could industrial ecology and material efficiency strategies such as the industrial symbiosis of their manufacture and the “loop-closing” reverse logistics of their recycling, be factored in to their design, development, and deployment? Does manufacturing sufficiently capitalize on these and other progressive environmental practices? As echoed in Carson’s commentary about modern society, we live in an “era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits” (1962, p. 13).

Sustainable development as a practice applied to various broad sectors of society might be viewed as three legs supporting a table. An economic one relates to issues of growth, sufficiency, and stability; an environmental one includes issues of resilience, resource use, and pollution; and a third, social one, sees people as stakeholders; clients, employees, members of the local community, broader markets, supply chains, populations, to name but a few, and all of their related interactions. How must these three legs balance so society can truly progress sustainably?


Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring. New York, USA: Mariner Books – Houghton Mifflin (2002 ed).

Green Growth Knowledge Platform (N.D.) United Nations, Green Growth Knowledge Partnership [website]. Retrieved April 2021

One Planet Network (N.D.) United Nations, One Planet Network [website]. Retrieved April 2021

Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) [PDF document]. Retrieved from the United Nations website

United Nations Environment Programme (N.D.) United Nations [website]. Retrieved April 2021

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