This is the title of the United Nations Report that brought the world the idea of sustainable development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The definition is terse but full of moral content as well as real concern for the state of the world. The moral core of this statement is equity. It recognizes the finite capacity of the Earth to support all who are alive today and all those who will inhabit the planet in the future. Most simply stated, all have a right to have their needs met.
Better known as the Brundtland report, it added human needs to the prevalent concerns about environmental degradation. The report made clear that the affluent nations of the world must act to ease and eliminate the poverty rife in much of the world. The rapid development of China and India has mitigated that situation to some degree, but the gap between rich and poor still remains huge. As an aside, the gap between the ultra-rich plutocrats in the US and the middle class is larger than the distance between the richest and poorest nations. The report also recognized that the current nature and use of technology was inimical to the health of the environment.
The Brundtland definition is not perfect. I have argued that, while giving explicit weight to equity and recognizing limits, it rests on the same economic paradigm that has created the situation it aims to correct. That’s not where I am going today. I am focusing on the title of the report, “Our Common Future.” In part I am moved by the devastation in Japan. I feel the impact even in the security of my home perched high enough above sea level to survive a tsunami or even the worst predicted ocean rise due to melting ice caps, but I am as dependent as those left homeless in Japan on the continued largess of the Earth for support.
We do share a common future. The devastation on the other side of the globe leaves its mark here. We should never forget that ultimately our future rests on a healthy planet. We cannot and must not add our own devastation to that which comes from the complexity and unpredictability of the Earth system. We cannot avoid tragedies coming from nature, but we can and must avoid tragedies of our own doing.
Two stories I read today indicate how far we are from recognizing our commonality and the imperative to act in concert to keep the Earth as a hospitable and life supporting system. The first one asked a question on many minds in the aftermath of our economic crunch, “Can the US Maintain a Green Advantage Over Asia?” Should we not be asking the opposite, “How can all the nations of the world cooperate to create the technology needed to harness the Sun–the only source that will suffice in the long run? The place of nuclear energy may have slipped down a few notches in the last few days. The idea of comparative advantage of David Ricardo may have fueled the colonial mercantilist past, but begins to lose its power in a shrinking and finite world. The whole idea of sustainable development falters under the umbrella of competition and of winners and losers. We are all losers without cooperation.
The second article was about the difficulty of implementing green ideas against privileged, liberal, local opposition that should in theory be aligned with it. The article starts with:
Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cape Cod, Mass. Berkeley, Calif. Three famously progressive places, right? The yin to the Tea Party yang. But just try putting a bike lane or some wind turbines in their lines of sight. And the karma can get very different.
It’s OK to be green until it encroaches on my turf, my view, my convenience, and so on. The roots of these controversies are at heart about winners and losers, just as is the first case. There just isn’t enough of anything material to share in a way to satisfy demand at the level of affluence in the United States and similar wealthy nations, and maintain the level of equity implicit in the Brundtland definition. In both cases, it’s the current winners trying to maintain an edge, but an edge in what?
I have been teaching my class at Marlboro that sustainability, a better way to think about a flourishing future than greening or sustainable development, rests on an appreciation that we humans are just a part of the web of life on Earth. We come from the same source and must share the same world. Taking the Brundtland definition further along its moral pathway, it’s a short step to add all life to those whose needs must be met today and tomorrow. The supply of care and compassion on Earth is infinite. The supply of material property is not and is getting scarcer by the day. It seems obvious that sustainability, however it is defined, demands a shift away from the competition for material goods at all scales, from one’s river view to some nation’s advantage in winning an economic war. Circling back to the beginning, great tragedies, like the Japanese disaster, bring home the undeniable realization that we are all connected and must take care of the web of life that gives us our Being, the most precious gift of all.