5 Common Myths About 'Sustainability'

05/08/2017 01:16 EDT | Updated 05/08/2017 01:16 EDT
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Over the past 30 years there has been an increasing recognition of, and interest in, a concept often called "sustainability." Sustainability is a complex and sometimes challenging dialectical concept, much like beauty, justice, democracy, and equality, etc. By dialectical I mean it is difficult to analytically define the term; more commonly you have to discuss the matter conceptually and show examples to illustrate your arguments.

Dialectical issues are often considered 'soft' or 'fuzzy' because they include a lot of qualitative, even philosophical, aspects. But this doesn't mean they are not important or lightweight. In fact some of the most important issues in our society are dialectical, such as justice (i.e., what is justice?), democracy (i.e., what does democracy really mean?), and human rights (i.e., what does it mean to have human rights?).

Because of its inherent fuzziness, sustainability is fertile ground for the development f many myths. By this I mean some people have developed views of sustainability (intentionally or otherwise) that they purport to be correct, but are really incorrect or only partially correct. Some of these myths come and go quickly, some linger on, and some become a key part of the arsenal for people who argue against sustainability (and there are, believe me).

This list is deliberately incomplete. I could easily come up with a list of 10, 20 maybe even 50 myths, but I don't think any reader would be interested in that. Similarly, these are not necessarily the "top" five, because I am not sure how one would rank the myths in terms of priority without doing a formal statistical survey, which I have not. These are presented roughly in terms of my perceived frequency of appearance (with #1 being more frequent than #5), and nothing else.

So with that, I would like to present to you what I believe are five persistent myths about sustainability.

1. Sustainability is anti-development

Sustainability is absolutely not anti-development. In fact, the term 'sustainability' is short hand for 'sustainable development' which was studied by the UN's Bruntland Commission in the mid 1980s and reported on in 1987 in the Bruntland Report, more commonly known as Our Common Future. It was this Commission and book that coined the term 'sustainable development'.

So sustainability is not anti-development; instead it is about responsible, controlled, sustainable development. If you want to know what that means, pick up a copy of Our Common Future at your local bookstore.

2. Sustainability proponents are just a bunch of tree hugging hippies

First of all, there is no singular profile for proponents of sustainability. In other words, if you've met one sustainability proponent, that means you've met only one sustainability proponent.

Sustainability proponents include lawyers, engineers, scientists, politicians, business people, communications specialists, farmers, mechanics, doctors and nurses, housewives, students, carpenters, clergy, and celebrities... in other words, people from all professions and walks of life. Their interest in sustainability may be professional -- i.e., it's closely tied into how they make their living -- or personal -- i.e., they simply want to ensure the world is a livable place for future generations -- or some combination of the two.

And secondly, even if sustainability proponents were 'just a bunch of tree hugging hippies', so what? Does that mean their views and concerns are automatically less valid than the views of politicians and corporate leaders? I don't think so.

3. Sustainability is just a covert form of wealth-distributing socialism

While this is patently false -- sustainability is as much a scientific concept as it is an economic one -- it is understandable why some people may perceive it.

Many, but not all, of the current global environmental challenges we face today were caused over the past decades and centuries by uncontrolled, irresponsible policies and development in developed/richer countries. To keep from exacerbating these problems, it is critical that developing countries not repeat the mistakes of the developed countries. In many cases this means that the developed countries have to help the developing countries through knowledge transfer, technology transfer, and yes even re-directing national funds to other countries to help fund the necessary changes.

Also, it is also important to remember that often the most cost effective way to addressing a global environmental problem is through prevention of further damage, not simply clean up of past damage. Consider climate change. Addressing climate change by dealing with the carbon that has already been emitted is typically more costly than preventing the emission of more carbon. Similar, on a pure cost-benefit analysis project in developed countries routinely show they are offer more benefit for the cost. Is that socialism? No, its simple economics.

4. Sustainability is anti-capitalism

Some vocal capitalists have stated that sustainability threatens and may even ruin capitalism and the economy dependant upon it. This misconception stems from the argument that investors of capital have certain rights, usually argued in the context of private property rights (i.e., the corporation is private property owned by the investors) and that other people need to respect those property rights.

Sustainability does not argue against respect for property rights. What it argues is that property rights aren't the only type of rights recognized by society, and aren't automatically the most important right. Rights such as human rights, environmental rights, and rights to compensation, to name a few, must also be considered when making development decisions, and sometimes these rights will, based on the evidence and arguments put forward, will override private property rights.

5. Sustainability is just a passing fad

That, my friend, is what you call an oxymoron.

Sustainability is inherently about, well, sustainability. It's about taking the long term view when making decisions and by 'long term' I mean generations into the future, not just the next business quarter. To further my case, sustainability is becoming integral to many government policies, laws, regulations, international treaties, corporate programs and community level programs. Calling sustainability a passing fad is a bit like calling democracy a passing fad.


So there you have it: the five myths about sustainability that I have encountered over my career and travels over the past 30 years. If you would like to challenge, elaborate, or add to this list, please feel free to do so in the Comments section below.

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