What is sustainability, anyway?

First Published in the Chronicle Journal Monday, April 20, 2015

By Jason MacLean
Dear reader, I owe you an apology. I’ve been writing this column on sustainability for nearly two years now and I’ve yet to define what sustainability means, exactly.
A close friend who’s evidently not a regular reader of mine told me how interesting he found a recent column. But he quickly — if a little sheepishly — added that “sustainability” seems to be a bit of a buzz word that gets used in a number of different ways, not all of them reconcilable.
He’s not wrong. Not entirely, anyway.

For one, lots of folks whose actions appear utterly unsustainable proudly bandy the word about.
Take TransCanada Pipelines, the company behind the Keystone XL and Energy East oil pipeline projects. It might surprise you to learn that TransCanada was named to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for the 12th consecutive year in 2013. The Dow Jones sustainability index purports to measure the stock performance of the world’s leading companies in terms of economic, environmental and social criteria.
According to estimates prepared by the Pembina Institute, the crude production needed to fill the Energy East pipeline would generate an additional 30 to 32 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year — the equivalent of adding more than seven million cars to Canada’s roads (pembina.org/pub/2519). How can a company proposing such a project be lauded as “sustainable”?
Or take our federal government, which also happens to be TransCanada’s biggest cheerleader. In 2008, the Harper government simultaneously passed and then erased from its memory the Federal Sustainable Development Act, my favourite law.
Why’s it my favourite? Section 5 of the Act proclaims that “[t]he Government of Canada accepts the basic principle that sustainable development is based on an ecologically efficient use of natural, social and economic resources and acknowledges the need to integrate environmental, economic and social factors in the making of all decisions by government.”
How great would Canada be if the government integrated environmental, economic and social factors when making policy decisions?
But I digress. The point I really want to make is this: Just because some misuse and abuse the term, sustainability is still a useful concept.

The term was first defined in 1987 in what is known as the Brundtland Report, which defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
OK, you say, that’s a start, but that definition seems to raise as many questions as it answers. What are our “needs,” exactly? And what will be the “needs” of future generations, who can’t yet even speak for themselves? How do we sort this out?
There’s certainly no shortage of proposals at the moment. In fact, we seem to have entered a new phase in environmental law and policy. I call it the manifesto phase, because it seems like there’s a new manifesto released every other week proclaiming a solution to the sustainability riddle.
Last month, for example, over 70 Canadian researchers released Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars, which I’ve already discussed in a couple of recent columns (www.sustainablecanadadialogues.ca/en/endorsement).

Not to be outdone, another Canadian group, which styles itself as Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, released a report earlier this month called The Way Forward: A Practical Approach to Reducing Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions (www.ecofiscal.ca/wayforward/).
At the same time, yet another manifesto — An Ecomodernist Manifesto (www.ecomodernism.org/) — seeks to liven things up by outright rejecting the ostensibly responsible idea that we have to harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse, which, to be fair, would certainly put a damper on things.
Instead, the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto argue that “[i]ntensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.”
And coming soon, just in time for the summer blockbuster season, is Pope Francis’ highly anticipated encyclical on climate change, which will follow from the conference being held later this month in the Vatican City entitled Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development (www.endslavery.va/content/endslavery/en/events/protect.html).
Of all the recent sustainability manifestos I’ve cited, the Pope’s encyclical may be the most important. More than any of the others, the Pope’s encyclical is expected to highlight the social dimensions of sustainability, including the moral responsibility of everyone — world leaders, corporations and ordinary citizens alike — to become involved in imagining what exactly a sustainable future might look like.

Jason MacLean teaches environmental law at Lakehead University and writes here biweekly.