Sustainability: Principles Behind the Vision

PCDForum Column #58,   Release Date September 1, 1993

by Stephen Viederman

Most discussions of sustainable development overlook a simple human reality: the environment is the basis for all life and all production. It is not just another special interest competing for attention. It is the playing field on which all interests compete. This reality puts in perspective the substantial body of data indicating that continued growth in our consumption of environmental resources is inherently unsustainable.

  • Humans and their economic activities already consume 40 percent of the plant material created each year by photosynthesis. The rate of increasing human use is about two percent per year, meaning a doubling in 35 years. Since humans are but one of between 5 and 30 million species on earth dependent on this photosynthetic product, the result of another doubling will be ecologically devastating.
  • Global warming is increasingly being accepted as fact.
  • Evidence of ozone depletion over temperate zones increases concern about the magnitude of the problem.
  • Land degradation is proceeding at alarming rates. Thirty-five percent of the earth's land is already degraded and soil loss currently outpaces soil formation by at least ten times.
  • Some 5,000 species become extinct each year, a rate 10,000 times higher than in pre-human days.

This environmental distress is a direct consequence of the quintupling of the global economy's output since 1950.

Consistently our approach to using environmental resources, i.e., our management of the economy, has failed to recognize that the economic system is an open system in a closed and finite ecosystem. Until recently, the scale of the economic system was sufficiently small compared to the ecosystem that we could easily overlook the unsustainable consequences of our actions. This is no longer the case.

  • With new awareness, we can identify a number of ecological principles to serve as the foundation of a new vision of sustainable human societies.
  • Nature will be a source of knowledge. The study of natural processes will teach us how to meet our needs in environmentally benign ways. Examples include the use of sunlight, plants, bacteria, and aquatic animals to treat waste water and sludge, obviating the need for damaging chemicals.
  • Issues of environmental deterioration, social oppression, and violence will be linked in our analysis and action. Gender and racial oppression have a common root with efforts to dominate nature. Likewise, the manifestations of violence child and spouse abuse, war, disregard for the environment are manifestations of the same dysfunctions.
  • Humility will guide our actions. As stewards of the earth's resources we will behave with the restraint befitting that role.
  • We will consider "right scale", taking place and locality as the foundation for all durable economies and for the beginning of action to deal with our problems. When the scale is appropriate, we gain confidence to move ahead because we are more sure that our knowledge is adequate to the task.
  • Sufficiency will replace economic efficiency. We will learn to live within our means by using renewable resources at rates that do not exceed their capacity to renew themselves; using nonrenewable resources at rates that do not exceed our capacity to substitute for them; and using no resources at rates that exceed the capacity of the natural world to assimilate or process the wastes associated with their use.
  • Community will be seen as essential for survival. This will require a new vision of citizenship and accountability at all levels. We will work for the creation of a "global community" as a community of communities.
  • Diversity both biological and cultural will be preserved and defended. In society, as in nature, a polyculture has strengths not seen in monocultures. Diversity will be an index of human and environmental health.

As poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry has suggested, "The answers to human problems of ecology are to be found in the economy. And answers to the problems of the economy are to be found in human culture and character."

Actualizing the principles of the new vision will require deep psychological changes in individuals, as well as a significant restructuring of society's institutions. We cannot wait for leaders intent on pursuing the unsustainable economic path we currently tread to chose a different one. We must be prepared as citizens to move ahead with creating the new society of our vision, leaving our leaders with the choice either to follow or to step aside.


Steve Viederman is president, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, 16 East 34th Street, New York, NY 10016, U.S.A.; and vice president, International Society of Ecological Economics. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his article "Sustainable Development: What Is It and How Do We Get There?" Current History, April 1993.

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