On not defining sustainability -- rage, and ideology
Thu, 21 May 98 10:48:12 CST
I see these recent themes of sanet exchanges as having some
interesting commonalties, although it seems a bit of a risk to
join into sanet discussions these days.
I concluded some time ago that we didn't need to spend much more
time and effort attempting to define sustainability. We have
sufficient commonality among our different understandings of it
to continue moving in the right general direction, even if we are
not yet all moving toward precisely the same destination by the
same route. More recently I have come to the conclusion that we
may never have a generally accepted definition of sustainability,
and perhaps, we don't need one.
I believe a general consensus has arisen that sustainability is
about the long run -- meeting the needs of the current generation
and all future generations for billions of years into the future,
if not forever. I believe there is a general consensus also that
sustainability has three critically important dimensions --
economic, ecological, and social -- not three separate objectives
but three dimensions of the same whole, like the length, width,
and height of a box.
A key concept in economics is profit. Yet after at least a
couple of centuries of intensive study, there is no generally
accepted definition of profit, even among economist. Is it a
return over variable cost, total costs, or cash costs? Is it a
return to land, labor, capital, or management, or a return to
risk? Is it before tax or after tax -- on a cash or accrual
basis? We can't agree on defining it, but we can agree it's
The word "social" implies relationships. A key concept in human
relationships in love. According to one author, there are at
least six different types of love; eros, mania, ludis, storge,
agape, and pragma -- none of which is easy to define. Most of us
would probably agree that while love may be the most important
single aspect of our lives, we are pretty much at a loss to
Ecology assumes some natural order of things. Spirituality may
be defined as a felt "need to be in harmony with an unseen order"
(paraphrasing William James). Regardless of whether our respect
for nature arises from our belief in God or our belief in God
arises from our respect for nature, ecology and spirituality are
two dimensions of the same whole. The vast majority of us
believe there is some higher unseen order of things, that there
is a God, but we would be hard pressed to define it.
I think most would agree that profits, love, and God are all
important concepts, yet none of three has a generally accepted
definition. Since sustainability embodies all three; profits,
love, and God; why should we expect to agree on a definition of
sustainability. We all "know" what profit, love, and God mean to
us, even if we can't explain them. And for most of us, the
meanings are not so different as to create inevitable confusion
or conflict. I submit that we all "know" what sustainability
means to us, even if we can't explain it, and the meanings are
not so difference as to create inevitable confusion or conflict.
So let's find ways to work in harmony as we pursue the common
purpose of building a more sustainable society.
How does the definition of sustainability relate to the issues of
rage and conflicting ideologies? I think we should pursue
sustainability by reflecting at least one definition of one
dimension of sustainability, love, in the way we communicate with
each another. The Holy Bible states: "Love is patient and kind;
love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or
resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the
right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all
things, endures all things. Love never ends..." (1 Corinthians
The sustainability movement is gaining in visibility and
credibility day by day. Many who are just now becoming
interested in the concept are still forming their understanding
of what it means to them. Their most important initial
impressions of sustainability likely will be made by the words
and actions of those of us who choose to be associated with the
Perhaps the greatest contribution we can make individually to
building a more sustainable society is -- to the best of our
ability -- to reflect love in our relationships with each other.
Each must judge for themselves, but most would like agree, some
have and some have not in the recent exchanges under the subjects
of "rage and ideology." We all fall short from time to time, no
matter how hard we try. But, we can at least try. Love forgives
all things and endures all things. Love never ends.
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