Friday, January 27, 2012

An Attempt to Define Sustainability

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

There is a conflict today between different understandings of sustainability. The definition in the UN's Brundtland Report (1987) is classic: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and aspirations." This concept is correct but it has two limitations: it's anthropocentric (it only considers the human being) and it says nothing about the community of life (the other living things that also need a sustainable biosphere). I'm going to try to make a formulation that is as inclusive as possible:

Sustainability is any action to maintain the energy, informational, physical-chemical conditions that make all beings sustainable, especially the living Earth, the community of life and human life, seeking their continuity, and also meeting the needs of the present generation and future generations, so that natural capital is maintained and its capacity for regeneration, reproduction and eco-evolution is enriched.

Let us quickly explain the terms of this holistic vision:

Making all the necessary conditions for the generation of beings sustainable: the latter only exist from the set of energy, physical, chemical and informational elements that, combined, give rise to everything.

Making all beings sustainable: here we're talking about radically overcoming anthropocentrism. All beings emerge from the evolutionary process and enjoy intrinsic value, regardless of human use.

Making the living Earth sustainable especially: the Earth is more than a "thing" (res extensa), without intelligence, or a mere means of production. She doesn't contain life, but is alive, self-regulating; she regenerates and evolves. If we do not guarantee the sustainability of the living Earth, called Gaia, we remove the basis for all other forms of sustainability.

Making the community of life sustainable too: the environment doesn't exist as something secondary or peripheral. We don't exist; we coexist and we are all interdependent. All living things carry the same basic genetic alphabet. We form the web of life, including microorganisms. This web creates biomass and biodiversity and is necessary for the survival of life on this planet.

Making human life sustainable: We are a unique link in the web of life, the most complex being of our solar system and the advanced tip of the evolutionary process known to us, as we are bearers of consciousness, sensitivity and intelligence. We feel we are called to care for and save Mother Earth, to ensure the continuity of civilization and to monitor our destructive capacity.

Make the continuity of the evolutionary process sustainable: Beings are preserved and supported by the background energy or the original source of all being. The universe has an end in itself, simply because it exists, continues to expand and create itself.

Making attention to human needs sustainable: We do it through rational and careful use of goods and services that the cosmos and the Earth offer us and without which we would succumb.

Making our generation and those that follow ours sustainable: The Earth is sufficient for each generation as long as it establishes a relationship of synergy and cooperation with her and distributes goods and services fairly. The use of these goods should be governed by generational solidarity. Future generations have the right to inherit a conserved Earth and nature.

Sustainability is measured by the ability to preserve natural capital, allowing it to remake itself and, even through human genius, be enriched for future generations. This expanded concept that integrates sustainability must serve as a criterion to evaluate how far we have progressed or not along the path of sustainability and should also serve as an inspiration or idea-generator to make sustainability a reality in different fields of human activity. Without this, sustainability is pure rhetoric without fruits.

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