In a post on the Athens Banner opinion page, Harold Brown, emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia, asks if sustainable development is an oxymoron. Development is a process and, in any living system, goes on forever or at least until life stops. He, as I do also, interprets sustainable development to mean that the present state of the world should last indefinitely. While not truly an oxymoron, the phrase is certainly a contradiction of terms.
I have noted in several previous posts that sustainability is a noun and refers to the possibility of flourishing far into the future. Cutting back, as Professor Brown says, is not the way towards a sustainable future. But he misses the point that, unless we do reduce the unsustainability of the present world, it will be problematic to attain a flourishing state even with his answers, “education, freedom and the inspiration to cope.”
I have been arguing that it takes a different kind of actions to get us on the right road to sustainability:
1) Get the difference between the adjectival use of sustainable (as in sustainable X) and the noun sustainability straight.
2) Get the difference between reducing unsustainability and creating sustainability straight.
3) Do what works to reduce unsustainability, but recognize that all such actions are quick or temporary fixes.
4) Start to expose the underlying cultural beliefs and values that have produced the threats to our future and work to exchange them with a set that is consistent with and can begin to put us on the right trajectory.
Professor Brown says,
The notion [of sustainable development] is ridiculous that we can manage the resources of future generations. Thinkers of five generations ago would have wished for a better horse and buggy or a quieter steam engine.
Yes, we cannot anticipate what kind of world our children and further generations will face. But he makes a mistake is talking about managing in the first place. The world is a complex system and like other such systems it can shift into new regimes without much warning. We have seen the virtual disappearance of many of the world’s fisheries from overfishng. Although we can’t and shouldn’t manage in the way he suggests, we should most certainly try to govern the present world such that those generations that follow ours have the resources they need to construct the world as they would have it.