Student Blog: Alex on how we define sustainability

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I am studying at CAT as a part time student. The rest of my time is taken up working full time as a Fundraiser for the RSPB and building my own social enterprise ‘Growing Awareness’. When I am fundraising, I regularly, hundreds of times a week, ask people a seemingly idiotic question – what do you think about wildlife? I ask this question for various reasons: because it is phrased oddly and makes the person I am speaking with double take and think; because it’s what I really want to know and because it’s really a trick question, aiming at finding out how the person in front of me engages with the world around them, beyond working and consuming. Inevitably, surprisingly and comfortingly, such conversations lead to a question about how we as humans are affecting the planet. My job here is not to labour over lurid descriptions of an albatross being maimed by longline fishing, but to elaborate the positive and proactive action, work and achievements that are happening every day. Not just a world that ‘could be’ but rather ‘is’, all the time. This is really, underneath it all, a way of outlining sustainable interactions with our natural environment, world, or whatever we might call it.

Two lectures inspired me to write about sustainability in my first essay for the Msc. The first was Gary Grant’s session on an ecosystem services approach to master planning. The second was Jason Hawkes’ lecture which asked us to consider; ‘What is sustainability?’. I originally concentrated on researching the various questions I had scribbled down during Gary Grants lecture, I had presumed that I was going to enjoy that lecture and gain a lot from it. I did but that is not the point. As I began using my old academic skills and Blanche’s recommendations for structuring essays and research methods, I found increasingly that rather than concentrate on an ecosystem service approach I was erring towards questioning why we take an ecosystems services approach at all. I realised that the essay question I was circling in on, while discrete, was too large a scope for the short essay format. I was originally thinking of discussing how an ecosystem services approach to planning and building human systems displayed a regenerative rather than sustainable design methodology. To explain why I thought this and to be able to back such an assertion up with source material seemed too huge and fundamental a task to be reduced to a single paragraph.

I am a big believer in stating the obvious. It is tempting in many movements including environmental circles to assume common sense and common knowledge. I see my first essay as the opportunity I needed to lay out some of the background context to the debate about what sustainability is. I learn as I go, I think the only ’stupid’ trait is to not ask questions, but sometimes in the need for brevity, to give space to someone else making a point, or during a lecture where so many questions occur I am sure everyone has at some time nodded passively at some reference, theory or term and filing it under ‘find out later’ missed a fragment of what constitutes a greener more viable world.

Accordingly I decided on a narrow focus in my essay. I wanted to look at the most commonly referenced and therefore influential definition of sustainability, which determined rightly or wrongly as being the ‘The Brundtland Report’. I argued that although the report’s assertions about the state of nature and humankinds’ relationship with it were timely and indicative, the report recognises the potential for the loss of the regenerative capacity of natural systems, however its definition of sustainability still hinged, in my lowly opinion, on that regenerative capacity. The report didn’t include proscriptive measures to address this, nor was that its remit; however I feel the criticism still stands that sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland report falls short of explicitly highlighting the necessity for regenerative development. I argued that the earth’s natural systems were in many places so denuded and in parts almost abiotic that they were unable to support normative sustainable development. This, I determined, would render any definition of sustainability, that didn’t explicitly denote the vital importance of regenerativity, as meaningless and inapplicable.