Rethinking Sustainability on Earth Day

As Earth Day approaches (April 22), it’s time to meditate on the meaning of the word sustainability. It is a multidisciplinary term by definition, since it can be applied to a plethora of economic forces that set the world in motion. It is also, or perhaps, mostly, a philosophical issue.

To adopt principles of sustainability is to move to adopt a new philosophy. It means to move away from centuries of a profit-driven, anthropocentric view of the world to include the preservation of the planet into the praxis of any human enterprise. For a long time mankind was under the illusion that the world was an endless collection of resources. Now we know it’s not the case and we have to re-think the way we exist on Earth.

I have heard from several brilliant minds, including the Indian Arundhati Roy, author of the best seller The God of Small Things, that we need to reinvent the concept of happiness. The idea of well-being has become too entwined with consumption and materialism. It is at the core of the environmental crisis we are faced with. We must rediscover the simplicity of life.

In the second half of the 20th century, the developed world’s middle and upper classes enjoyed unprecedented levels of material comfort. A lifestyle of international travel and access to the latest technologies was democratized to the masses. At the same we added a few billion people to the planet, with one to one billion of those aspiring to that same standard of materialistic lifestyle. The planet just isn’t big enough to support that way of life.

The Worldwatch Institute has released a book called State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity. The book is the 29th in a series that Worldwatch began in 1984 and stresses that “we must act quickly to redefine our understanding of the “good life” and redouble our efforts to make that life "sustainable.”

Amongst its postulations is an emphasis on a need to re-prioritize basic needs and pursue true sustainable prosperity, which it defines as happy and satisfied lives that do not put at risk the dignity of future generations and the health of the planet.

“Minor shifts in policy and technology will not be enough to save humanity. Rio+20 participants should re-consider the vision that guides their deliberations. If we do not radically change our consumer culture and collectively re-prioritize sustainable living, we will be the agents of our own undoing,” said Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at Worldwatch and co-director of State of the World 2012.

The report’s 35 contributors describe many of the currently untenable social and economic patterns and explore opportunities for creative alternatives on sustainability topics ranging from agriculture, communication technologies, and biodiversity to “green” construction, local politics, and global governance.

What is always very important to stress is that we can’t afford to allow meetings such as the Rio+20 to become platforms of conversations that result in no action. Time is running out and we have to act now.
The State of the World 2012 report is accompanied by other informational materials including policy briefs, videos, and a discussion guide, all of which are available here. WorldWatch Institute is disseminating the findings of the report to a wide range of decision-makers and activists in the sustainability field. To purchase a copy click here.

Image credit: WorldWatch Institute