Sustainability Practicum Essay 1

In class on Monday, we began discussion of sustainability by considering and comparing the definitions of sustainable development and sustainability offered by the Brundtland Commission, Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, and John Ehrenfeld.

For your first essay, I would like you to briefly critique (in both positive and negative ways, as relevant) each of these definitions.  Then, and more importantly, I would like you to offer and justify a definition that you can support.  This can be one of the formal definitions we discussed, a combination of them, or one of your own creation.

Post your essay as a comment to this post by Monday, June 3rd, at 9:00 am

15 Comments

  1. Maeve Sherry says:

    Sustainability has become a buzzword that some argue has lost its meaning due to “greenwashing.” Because of this it is important to identify the definition of what sustainability is. Through different lenses, Brundtland, Ehrenfeld, and Wackernagel and Rees have established their own definitions of the term. I believe that the most important aspect of describing sustainability is being able to engage all people to encourage collective action.

    Brundtland’s words encapsulate the need for accountability for unborn generations. Her definition also implies that unsustainable development is not development, rather, it is harm to us and those who will inherit this planet from us. However, I hesitate at her exclusion of the intrinsic value of the natural world- I interpret this phrasing as suggesting that the earth serves as a mine for our needs.

    Ehrenfeld’s interpretation of sustainability is eloquent and pleasing; his definition is also broad enough where almost anyone could relate to it. In contrast to Wackernagel and Rees’ mathematical definition, Ehrenfeld creates a vision. This charming vision of flourishing forever has a catch though- it’s only a possibility. Later on in the chapter, he discusses how flourishing is not an end goal but a process that must always be attended to. The greatest strength of his definition is also a weakness in that his mellifluous language is the vaguest of all three. It lacks measurability that would be useful to track our progress toward sustainability.

    Finally, the definition of Wackernagel and Rees is the most technical and specific, but also the most unfeeling. An issue within the EF/BC calculation itself is that it does not account for environmental impacts that occur outside the measured region. On top of this, to the average person, this definition may be indigestible due to its concise jargon. While the most useful for mathematical representation of sustainability, I don’t believe that it is useful for reaching people.

    All in all, Ehrenfeld’s definition is the one which I align mostly with. Sustainability is a concept that needs to reach, inspire, and motivate all people from all education backgrounds. While not particularly measurable, the idea of all life forms flourishing is something that could accomplish just this. I admire his ability to capture such an enchanting vision in one sentence and I feel that messages in a palatable vernacular like his are the ones that will be successful in the public eye.

  2. zoe zeerip says:

    I feel that each definition we discussed in class last week came from a different background. Brudtland’s definition has an economic undertone, Ehrenfeld is romantic in his approach, and Wackernagle brings science to the table. Each definition is distinctively different from the others, yet the end goal is the same. All definitions want to see better future.
    Brundtland states that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition does many things. It creates a divide amongst the generations. You have those present now, and those who have yet to come. This can be seen as lack of cohesion in societies as we move forward. But this definition does hold the current generation accountable. It also assumes that future generations will have right. Mean, they too must be respected. Finally, it addresses equality of resource distribution and acknowledges Earth’s limits. Brundtland’s definition is not as pretty as the next.
    Ehrenfeld states that sustainability is “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth Forever.” This is a beautiful definition that is easy on the public to digest. But that can always address the issue of its vagueness. It does not address who is to be held accountable. What it does to well is acknowledge more than the human world’s ability to flourish. As well, it aims to say that all generations will be engaged in the practice. Ehrenfeld’s difintions can get everyone on board with the idea of sustainability, but will it get them to act?
    Finally, we discussed Wackernagle. Wackernagle defines sustainability as “living within the regenerative capacity of biosphere.” This definition is scientifically sounds and that is also one of its downfalls. The language used in this definition is not common to the general public. I would worry that people may have to google “regenerative capacity” to understand the definition is its full capacity. The definition is very analytical. Due to its scientific lean the definition does acknowledge Earth’s limits and our ecological footprint. Reading this definition you understand the need for balance.
    Understand that no definition of sustainability is perfect I propose this definition that works to encompass all three ideas.
    Sustainability is the ability for all life to live within the means of the earth while ensuring future life the ability to live within those same means. This definition recognized more than just human life. It also works to make all generations responsible by stating that there will be limits to live within. I work to talk about regenerative capacity though different language that is less science based and more everyday language. I hope this definition can bridge some gaps.

  3. Lydia Waldo says:

    The initial definitions of sustainability and sustainable development can be traced back to the Brundtland Commission in 1987. This definition highlights some of the crucial elements of sustainability that remain relevant today: living within the limits of our system, Earth, and meeting present needs while still being conscious about what future generations will need. Brundtland frames sustainability in terms of its economic and social and environmental values however, which brings into focus the anthropocentric lens through which sustainability is addressed in this definition. A dichotomy between humans (economic and social values) and nature (environmental values) is formed, where the condition of the natural world is important but only because it is viewed as a resource for humans.

    By 2002, Wackernagel and Rees had watched as the “Ecological Footprint” model was developed, a metric to quantify human impact on Earth, and used it in shaping their new definition of sustainability: “living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere”. This definition is similar to Brundtland’s because it perpetuates the division between humans and nature. Although less economic in overt presentation, nature is still inherently commodified for the benefit of humans in this definition rather than addressing planetary sustainability in a way that humans become equal to the trees, butterflies, and glacial ice in the greater system of Earth.

    Seven years after Wackernagle and Rees define sustainability, Ehrenfeld redefines it and includes life other than humans in the definition for the first time. Also unique to this definition is Ehrenfeld’s use of the phrase “possibility of flourishing” to express the need for a paradigm shift, if we want the system that is Earth to become sustainable. This definition includes the most equality between humans and nature of the three addressed, however fails to hold anyone or anything accountable for making this paradigm shift towards a continuing unfolding of healthier and more diverse lifeforms on Earth now and into the future.

    All three definitions presented above focus on a different scale, extent, and level of comprehensiveness for sustainability. When one or more of these forces is altered, from general to specific for example, the value on the definition changes accordingly. Sustainability therefore can be most effectively defined at some balancing point between completely encompassing in scope but too general, and too specific/limited in scope but implementable. The phrases “without compromise” (Brundtland), “within the regenerative capacity” (Wackernagle and Rees), and “possibility of flourishing” (Ehrenfeld) stand out as important to incorporate into a far reaching yet achievable definition of sustainability. Thus, growing towards sustainable boundaries should be “the responsibility of humans, today and in the future, to live within the regenerative capacity of Earth’s system, in symbiosis with other lifeforms, and without compromising the possibility for all life to flourish on Earth forever.”

  4. Gavi Kaplan says:

    Defining Sustainability: a Changing Concept
    By Gavi Kaplan

    Definitions change over time. Specifically, the change in a definition can be directly linked to one’s changing agenda. For example, “fake news” meant something entirely different before the 2016 election cycle. The concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have seen similar evolutions. Sustainable development was a term coined by the Brundtland report, an economic concept where the needs of future generations were not compromised by the present generation’s development. Here, sustainability takes on an anthropocentric definition tied to the United Nation’s developmental agenda. On a brand scale, the operative word here is development, not sustainability. The definition has changed as our understanding and desire for sustainability has broadened to include a more holistic, less anthropocentric view of the concept. Humans, and other life, should flourish on this Earth forever. This is the correct framework through which we should choose to understand sustainability. There is no one way to define sustainability, but an inclusionary definition that takes into account not just the future generations of humans, but all species, is the lens through which we should all be gazing through. The environmental agenda changes, and so do her definitions with it.
    Maybe, just maybe, the most profound mistake human beings ever made in defining sustainability was placing ourselves smack dab in the center of the concept. In my humble opinion, I do not believe it is necessary to include human beings in the definition of sustainability at all. What has suffered from this anthropocentric lens are all the other biological and geological things on this planet. Human beings could benefit from a definition that leaves us out entirely. It would shift the focus from “us” being the primary stakeholder, or even being a stakeholder at all. My definition would read simply: sustainability (noun) is the concept that human beings must ensure that the cycle of the natural world continues uninterrupted by human actions for the rest of Earth’s history, regardless of what this means for the human species.
    A child would not be trusted by their mother to decide what is best for the family. Yet somehow, we humans (the children) have decided that Mother (Earth) doesn’t know what is best. Just like the mother, planet Earth was chugging along just fine before we came along. It is high time we reverse this disastrous and anthropocentric way of thinking, and it all begins with reshaping our definitions away from ourselves, and towards the larger system at play.

  5. Rayna Berger says:

    The Brundtland Commision offers a definition of sustainability specifically focusing on development. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. While this seems to be the most commonly cited definition in environmental fields, I find the phrase “needs of the present” limiting in the capacity of change. We should be critical of our consumption rate, not only of the resources we choose to consume. This definition fails to address the human side of sustainable development.

    Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees’s Ecological Footprint “measures how much bioproductive area (whether land or water) a population would require to produce on a sustainable basis the renewable resources it consumes, and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology”. This definition offers two great areas of information; the demand on nature in the measurement of our ecological footprint, and the ecological supply in biocapacity. As we become more self aware, this is a great tool in understanding both our individual and collective impact as well as the resource limits on Earth. A shortcoming of this tool is it’s inability to represent the full range of environmental problems. For example, pollution by heavy metals and radioactive material in nuclear energy has no “significant absorptive capacity” and therefore cannot be covered in this equation.

    John Ehrenfeld completes the missing component of humanity in sustainable development in a captivating, romanticized definition. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever”. Ehrenfeld invites us to think about sustainability on the time scale of “forever”, including not only humans, but other life. It paints a beautiful image of peace on Earth. This definition shifts from rigid, rational to more spiritual language, which can make it easier for the general public to relate and understand our place on this Earth.

    I resonate with Ehrenfeld’s definition of sustainability. “Forever” is the time scale I examine sustainability through, as well as including all life and not just my own human species. I want to unpack the depth of being able to “flourish” forever – this would require a shift in more than just language, but mindset. Especially in the United States, we are roughly 5% of the world’s population yet we consume many times our size. A sustainable future does not only re-examine its systems and look for renewables, but re-examines its current state of actions in consuming and producing waste. Are we an active participant in the cycle of nature or are we only consuming? Let us reduce our consumption and waste, consider all life in our future, and flourish forever.

  6. Elissa Edmunds says:

    Elissa Edmunds
    Sustainability Practicum Weekly Essay #1
    July 1, 2017

    Trying to understand what sustainability is can be an arduous task due to there not being one set definition or understanding of what sustainability entails. The word sustainability has been used to try and raise awareness of issues of climate change and the overconsumption of resources, but has also simultaneously been used as a marketing tool to support the green economy. Different organizations, scholars, researchers, and people have tried coming up with a definition that they believe best defines sustainability, but not all definitions are all-encompassing or easy for everyone, including the general population, to understand.

    The Brundtland Commission is a committee formed by the United Nations to try and develop, educate, and work towards sustainable practices. Their definition of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” From this definition, it seems as though the Brundtland Commission wants for the past and current generations to be mindful and intentional with what they are consuming (including food, energy, etc.), to actively seek knowledge on the subject, and to be careful about how much resources are being used. In a way, this definition holds present generations accountable and responsible for what they are doing, and making it clear that our attention needs to be not only on not depleting all resources for the future generations, but to conserve, protect, and limit our usage. This definition, though, was presented in a fashion that, at the time, may have only been accessible for people who had access to United Nations information, and before a time where it could be widespread. Furthermore, the definition does not provide detail on what exactly it means to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” The word “needs” is loosely defined, and could be misinterpreted. However, the full report does include what needs are, what resources are being used, and what can be done to ensure their definition of sustainability is an achievable goal to reach and uphold. This definition does set a specific goal and holds generations responsible for what they are doing.

    Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees developed how to measure ecological footprints, and published a book about it in 1996. Their definition of sustainability is “living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere.” This definition has the potential of being off-putting just by the language used in it. If a person does not have a scientific background, there is a chance that they will not understand what regenerative or biosphere means, or what all of the terms mean together. However, the audience whom this was written for is for those of a scientific background. Unfortunately, though, that leaves out people without the expertise. This definition, if worded differently, has the potential of setting a clear definition of what sustainability is in a scientific way, but lacks power on political and social grounds. Wackernagel and Rees were straight to the point with this definition, though, and includes responsibility of humans. They are stating that we need to live within the Earth’s ability to regenerate, regrow, and heal from the toxins that we are constantly damaging the Earth with. The phrase “living within” sets an exact expectation—and makes it clear that sustainability is not overconsuming. However, there was no information on what the regenerative capacity of the biosphere is, which could have helped to further the definition, but potentially would have made it too long.

    John Ehrenfeld is a leader in industrial ecology, as well as an author. His definition of sustainability is “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.” This is the only definition out of the previously mentioned ones that explicitly includes other life in the definition. This definition also seems to be the easiest one to understand, and can be relatable for all people—not just experts. However, this definition is broad, and does seem to lack accountability that it is up to humans to work towards sustainability. Furthermore, the use of the word “possibility’ makes it seem a little less urgent, instead of using a word that would have pushed or influenced action to work towards sustainably. Out of all of the definitions, though, this is the one that I can support the most. Nevertheless, though, there are some changes that I believe would need to be made in order for the definition to be all-encompassing. With that, my definition of sustainability would be along the lines of, “the possibility that humans and other life will healthily flourish on Earth, if humans work towards respecting and not pushing the Earth’s boundaries, while actively educating themselves on what those boundaries are.” To me, that definition includes the need for responsibility and that the Earth, humans, and non-human others will flourish if humans are taught, teach themselves, or know how much can be consumed, conserved, and protected.

  7. Colleen Dollard says:

    Sustainability

    As environmental issues and public health concerns became increasingly problematic towards the latter half of the twentieth century, the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development gained popularity in the United States and globally. Many environmental thinkers and leaders of the time wrote about sustainability, often with their own biases included.

    In 1987, the United Nations developed a definition of sustainable development in the Brundtland Commission that is still widely referenced today. World leaders defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). They placed emphasis on human needs, like the social and economic factors that are tied to sustainable development.

    Mathis Wackernagle and William Rees, authors of Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, defined sustainability as living within the regeneration of the biosphere. Like the definition that came out of the Brundtland Commission, Wackernagle and Rees emphasize that sustainability is not ceasing to use natural resources but to better manage them. An underlying principle of traditional sustainability definitions is that no matter what humans will continue to exploit the natural resources of the environment because of the dependency of most modern societies on these resources. According to their descriptions, the reason to protect natural resources is not for their inherent value on this planet, but because they have a value to the survival and comfort of humans. Additionally, both definitions are anthropocentric and ignore the value of non-human life on Earth.

    Years later, a more inclusive definition developed. In 2013, John Ehrenfeld, author of the book Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability, wrote, “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever” (Ehrenfeld and Hoffman 17). I relate most with this description because it recognizes the value of non-human life in the long-lasting health of the Earth. It is the least anthropocentric definition of all three. It is important to remove humans from being the center of the definition because they are not the center of the global ecosystem, they are a part of it. Yes, human actions have had an adverse impact on the planet that cannot be ignored, but we are not the central entity that needs to be protected. A more inclusive definition, like the one offered by Ehrenfeld, would be the most effective in creating a balanced ecosystem in which human and non-human life are able to thrive.

    1. Joshua Yuen-Schat says:

      According to the Brundtland Commission, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I think that a key word that stood out to me was development. The attention seems to be geared towards the economic aspect. This implies that we will continue on a process of expanding and increasing our consumption of the Earth’s natural resources. I feel that this word choice is still deeply enrooted in our society to the idea of consumerism. People grow up in a society where they are forced to purchase materialistic things in order to survive. In addition, advertisement companies manipulate consumers by influencing our values and social standards to fit the needs of corporate companies. Often, we find ourselves purchasing materialistic things that have no use to us. We end up purchasing things that we want rather than what we need. On another note, this definition does recognize that we need to take in account the needs of our own children and as well as our children’s children. There is value in recognizing that our actions today have effects directly or indirectly to the future. Therefore, we have to apply a long-term mindset to take in account issues such as CO2 emission, waste reduction, food production, water supply, etc. To what extent will people be willing to ensure the needs of the future generations? Are people willing to sacrifice their current lifestyles for people in the future? I would like to believe that we will be willing to compromise or even give up our livelihood for our children so they may have the opportunity to experience the life we had. Ultimately, it boils down to this wicked question: Is my life worth more than yours? Our internal selfishness and self-preservation may have a very different answer than our loving and compassionate self.

      Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Nees defined sustainability as “living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere.” They introduced the concept of “Ecological Footprint” as a way to measure the impact that humans have on the Earth. Specifically, it measures the quantity of bio-productive area (land or water) and people in correlation to the natural resources they consume and waste absorb. The Biocapacity is the regenerative capacity of the biosphere such as arable land, forest, ocean, etc. The Ecological Footprint (EF) and Biocapacity (BC) is represented as a demand and supply relationship. If EF > BC = unsustainable, if EF < BC = sustainable. It’s a method to address the ultimate question, “Is human demand within the regenerative capacity of the planet.” This simplified version is our attempt to quantify something that is beyond our understanding and comprehension. This doesn’t fully encompass the entirety of environmental issues. A key factor that they recognized was the speed in which we consume a specific resource. This has become a major concern because in the past half a century, world population has multiplied more rapidly than ever before. Our continual development of technology has also increased our ability to obtain resources in larger quantity and shorter time. With the current human population, our consumption of natural resources has increased drastically compared to half a century ago. The lack of reliable data is also another issue because the world is constantly changing, therefore the data is constantly outdated.

      John Ehrenfeld defined sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life with flourish on the Earth forever.” My first reaction was doubt because this had a very idealistic and romantic tone which disregards the complexity and difficultness it requires to obtain the goal. I feel like it seems too good to be true, therefore I initially didn’t think that this was an effective way to realistically address the issue of sustainability. Then the author continued to break down what he meant by providing his definition of flourishing as “the realization of a sense of completeness, independence of our immediate material context.” His approach to sustainability are focused on social and cultural change in values rather than the economic aspect. He believes that humans created this problem, therefore humans are capable to solve it. I think that the root of all environmental problems is tied to the way humans view themselves in this world. Our core values are what defines and influence our actions. Ehrenfeld emphasized on the qualities of the human experience such as our emotions, spirituality and pragmatism to challenge the way we see sustainability. My definition of sustainability will include components of each of the definitions that I addressed. The long-term mindset, regenerative concept and societal change are the three components that I believe will fully encompass the meaning of sustainability. It recognizes that humans are the core of the problem and there needs to be a shift in our societal values. In addition, we need to do more than just sustain the world, we need to regenerate in order to offset the damage already done by humans.

  8. Matia Whiting says:

    The Brundtland Commission, Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, and John Ehrenfeld each define “sustainability” differently, reflecting the wide-reaching but multi-faceted nature of the word. “Sustainability” has become an almost glamorous title—an enticing term with which companies label their products to make them more attractive. Although societies tend to be drawn to products that they see as “sustainable,” many people do not have an all-encompassing understanding of the word. The Brundtland Commission, Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, and John Ehrenfeld attempt to overcome this knowledge gap with their own definitions, all of which have strengths and weaknesses.

    The Brundtland Commission defines “sustainability” as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Clear and diplomatic, the Brundtland commission’s definition of sustainability is valuable in that it both acknowledges the relevant time frame and emphasizes the need-based nature of resource consumption. By connecting the present to the future, the definition holds current societies accountable for their level of consumption. In doing so, it gives today’s consumers a feeling of responsibility to live in a manner that does not jeopardize the chances of survival of future generations by overly depleting available resources. The word “needs” separates survival-based living from extravagant lifestyles, highlighting the merit in reducing consumption levels from a lavish high to a more necessity-based low. Furthermore, the definition inherently implies limitations, which are a central component of changing peoples’ mindsets in terms of consumption levels. Current habits disregard the existence of these limitations, paving a path that—if continued on—will eventually void the earth of certain resources, thus preventing the survival of future peoples. That said, the definition is problematic in that it is very anthropocentric—placing all importance on the continuation of the human race—and does not address the lives of animals or plants. It suggests that the Earth exists for the sole purpose of meeting human needs, and that the survival of other species is largely unimportant.

    Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees define “sustainability” as “living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere.” Their definition of the term has merit in that it acknowledges limitations, but does so in a more hopeful tone by highlighting Earth’s possibility for “regeneration.” Wackernagel and Rees paint the biosphere as resilient, while at the same time holding people responsible for living within the capability of this resilience. The definition is relatively vague and could potentially be confusing for individuals who are uninformed on resource availability and consumption patterns. It implies but does not explicitly mention the recycling of certain resources, and does not specifically outline how one could live within the “regenerative capacity of the biosphere.” That said, these clarifications could be saved for sub-sections or elaborations of the definition. Similarly to the previous definition, this definition lacks mention of non-human other living beings, which has problematic implications.

    John Ehrenfeld assumes a more “reflected” definition of “sustainability,” defining it as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.” On the one hand, the dreamy, cutsie tone of Ehrenfeld’s definition almost takes away from the urgency of the situation. In emphasizing the “flourishing” of life, Ehrenfeld ventures away from survival-based needs and veers towards more lavish wants, which is dangerous as some people perceive this as a justification for over-consumption. That said, Ehrenfeld elaborates on the word “flourishing” in the rest of the chapter, emphasizing its qualities of completeness, possibility, more-than-human benefit, and timelessness. These aspects of the word are highly important and make the definition more holistically encompassing than those of Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees and the Brundtland Commission. The word “forever” at the end of the definition sounds slightly naïve, especially when taking into account evolutionary timescales and geological events. “Forever” is largely meaningless; nothing truly lasts forever. This language is not all bad; however, as it could be more effective than other definitions at fostering hope within people and thus inspiring action. It is more accessible to people who do not have a background in science or do not see themselves as “experts” on the subject. Additionally, the Ehrenfeld definition of sustainability is the only definition of the three that incorporates non-human other living beings, which is highly important. The divide between humans and nature is dangerous, as it perpetuates the mindset that plants and animals exist for the purpose of serving humans, and that humans thus have the right to dominate the natural world. Ehrenfeld bridges this divide, giving “other life” the right to “flourish” alongside humans.

    In an attempt to draw from the strengths of all three of the definitions, I have drafted a definition of “sustainability.”
    Sustainability: living in a manner in which human consumption habits and activities do not exceed Earth’s biological capacity, allowing for the possibility of boundless perpetuation of all of Earth’s living beings.
    This definition draws from the Brundtland Commission’s clarity and accountability, Wackernagel and Rees’s idea of biological capacity and the importance of remaining within Earth’s regenerative capability, and Ehrenfeld’s mention of non-human other beings, as well as his emphasis on possibility.

  9. Thomas Wentworth says:

    In order to properly frame this critique, it is important to first discuss the word sustainable itself before moving into its various definitions that are very much associated with certain groups and agendas. The word comes from the Latin sustinere, meaning to “bear, undergo, endure.”1 The first definition that comes up when one searches sustainable is “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” At its roots, the word is about perpetuating the status quo. It’s about continuing operation as usual.

    Let’s keep this in mind when reading the Brundtland Commission definition from 1987, stating that “[s]ustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” One could argue that this definition does a good job, on a psychological level, of activating our fundamental care for our (potential) offspring. There is a direct connection to caring about family, which makes it relatively personal. And, in a very literal sense, this definition is accurate. If the goal was to describe development in a way that meant it could be maintained at the same rate forever, just barely enduring the pressures we insist of it, then this definition is spot on.

    The second definition, given by Wackernagel and Rees in Our Ecological Footprint, states that “economic activity is… ultimately constrained by the regenerative capacity of the ecosphere” (1996, pg. 41). This framework is very helpful in that it provides a tool with which to measure how much we are compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. However, in both of these cases, one is left to interpret what the true intention was behind the definition.

    Simply judging on the widespread use in everything from McDonalds commercials to Sierra Club newsletters, it would be impossible to define sustainable. The widespread use of this word, as it is spun and twisted in corporate greenwashing, has lost any trace of a unified intention. The word can be added to any noun in a system in order to make it sound appealing: development, sourcing, agriculture, homes, tourism. Here is where the problem lies; we are struggling to define a word that has been so disconnected from its roots that it hardly means anything at all.

    This leads me to say that, with one proposition, I am partial to Ehrenfeld’s definition in his book, Flourishing (2013). He makes a very important distinction between sustainable as an adjective (which can be added to any business strategy where “they have no idea of what it is they want to sustain except the status quo”) and sustainability as a noun (pg. 23). This requires, as he points out, that we also clearly define the intention, or the thing we are interested in sustaining, which he proposes is flourishing. This takes the emphasis off of the static, almost meaningless word sustainable, and highlights the importance of the dynamic process of flourishing which not only involves all living things, but also implies a beneficial growth.

    Finally, for the proposition. In all of the above definitions, there is a lack of emphasis on the potential to reduce human needs. In order to address many of the problems we are having today, we do need to improve our technology and efficiency, but it is equally, if not more important that we also re-asses our own habits and systems and are willing to sacrifice some material comfort in the developed world. Sustainability of flourishing does not imply that your children should be as privileged as yourself, it encourages equitable distribution of resources now and in the future. “Developing sustainability may actually require a reduction in aggregate economic throughput, while enabling the poor to consume more” (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996, pg. 33). At this point, we have an understanding of what sustainability is. Therefore, the important word that should be defined is flourishing. I propose that a flourishing world is one in which humans are fierce in our challenging of the status quo, humble to our animal nature, and living equitably, and conscientiously within the capacity of the planet.

    1. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sustain&allowed_in_frame=0

  10. Dinatalia Farina says:

    The word Sustainability has been defined by many. As we read in the Brundtland Commission, Wackernagel and Rees, and Ehrenfeld. All having their own definition of the word and practice of Sustainability. Because a practice was implied from every definition; which is one cohesive, positive aspect from all authors. They implied that an action had to be made.
    Firstly, the Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” I perceived this as a rather positive definition. It highlighted and acknowledged that there is a future that we have to prepare ourselves for. There are future generations we have to consider in the process of dealing with present issues. There is no sustainable future, without a sustainable present. A negative connotation I perceived was, the word “meeting”; this word almost implies some sort of promise, which we can agree on has not been meant. Sustainably wise, we can do much better. Instead of using meeting, maybe use the word promoting for the present and eventually graduate to the word meeting.
    For Wackernagel and Rees, they defined sustainability as “living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere.” This was a more scientific definition because of the words “regenerative” and “biosphere”, therefore someone without a science background may or may not know how to react to this definition; but does have the capacity to perform their own research. Language is not much of a barrier in this case. Although, I do believe that including science in sustainability is important as well because we do not have sustainability without the science.
    Lastly, and the definition I found most enjoyable, was Ehrenfeld’s. He defined sustainability as “…the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.” This definition sheds a positive light on the often dreary topic of sustainability by using the words, “forever” and “flourish.” This does romanticize the word a little, also while being honest. Though, one word that Ehrenfeld could have done without is “forever.” As an environmentalist, coming to terms with the fact that Earth will not exist forever is engrained early on. Whereas, someone who is just getting their toes wet on this topic may find a false hope. Earth won’t be here forever, but we can try our best to prolong the existence.
    Overall, a definition that I can support, by adapting from the others is, understanding that Earth is not immortal, and working towards a flourishing future for the next generation, is critical.

  11. Sadie Rose Zavgren says:

    Sadie Rose Zavgren
    Sustainability Practicum
    Essay #1 (Brundtland Commission, Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, and John
    Ehrenfeld)

    As we discussed in class this past week, sustainability has become a sexy word. Most people, however, are seemingly blind to the true meaning of sustainability, yet use it mindlessly in conversation. But what is the “true meaning” of sustainability? The Merriam Webster dictionary defines sustainability as “capable of being sustained,” and yet that definition is vague. What exactly as we trying to sustain? We use this word without having a strong academic or colloquial definition, which is detrimental. The readings this week presented us with three different definitions of the word sustainability from a variety of contributors: a Norwegian politician, the executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology, and a sustainability advocate. Each one of them provided something different, however even their definitions are either out of date, or fail to include specifics and clear goals.
    The first definition comes from the United Nations, developed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. The report defines sustainability as a development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland et al. 1987) This thirty-year-old definition emphasizes our obligation as a society to ensure that presently we meet the needs of people, without damaging the next generation’s quality of life. The language used in this definition suggests that past and current generations must be conscious of their consumption (energy, land, produce), however this is never explicitly stated. This definition also fails to clearly define what their use of the word “needs” means. If we as a society agree that one of our needs is to own three cars each, then this will certainly be counterintuitive to the intent of this definition of sustainability.
    The second dentition hails from Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees. Together, they wrote Ecological Footprint, a book published in 1998 which presented the world with a tool for measuring the resources required to sustain our households, communities, regions, and nations. Their definition of sustainability is: “Living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere.” (Wackernagle 2002) This definition asks us to live within the Earth’s capacity to replenish resources, rather than the earth adapting to the needs of humans. Out of the three, this definition is by far the most inaccessible to the general population. It is important to note that this was written for a science oriented audience, however if this were to be used as the sole definition of the world sustainable, a large population would be unable to understand this language. It is crucial that the definition of sustainability be clear, accessible, and have to ability to inspire people with powerful language to strive to do better as a collective whole.
    The final and most up-to-date definition that we examined was John R. Ehrenfeld’s, the author of Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. He writes that sustainability is the “possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.” (Ehrenfeld 2009)
    Out of the three, Ehrenfeld is the only contributor that included “other life” in his definition. This is an important addition because it acknowledges the reality that humans are not the only living beings on Earth. This definition is more accessible than the previous one, however it is not strong enough. The use of the word ‘possibility’ suggests that sustainability is an option, rather than a requirement. Also, the word ‘flourish,’ while well intentioned, somehow seems to be too informal. That word is not strong enough and this definition does not explain what flourishing means. Does it mean we progress as a society? Evolve and improve? Multiply and bloom?
    In order for people of all education levels to be committed to the definition of sustainability, we must find a way to make the meaning accessible, uncomplicated, direct and clear. In this global age, we must find a way to include the worldwide community in this definition because as we know, climate change is a borderless condition. Therefore, sustainability must also be seen as a borderless commitment. To begin working towards a new, more inclusive definition we can begin by thinking about including specifics such as: respect for the Earth and humans and other life, environmental protection, social responsibility (it is up to us as a collective whole to achieve the agenda), and explicit language about ways people can actively contribute to living a sustainable life, such as changing our economic practice. The definition must has a ring of urgency and a call to action, because at this time we must act quickly. Perhaps this word must be redefined periodically to match our changing environment.

  12. Sadie Zavgren says:

    As we discussed in class this past week, sustainability has become a sexy word. Most people, however, are seemingly blind to the true meaning of sustainability, yet use it mindlessly in conversation. But what is the “true meaning” of sustainability? The Merriam Webster dictionary defines sustainability as “capable of being sustained,” and yet that definition is vague. What exactly as we trying to sustain? We use this word without having a strong academic or colloquial definition, which is detrimental. The readings this week presented us with three different definitions of the word sustainability from a variety of contributors: a Norwegian politician, the executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology, and a sustainability advocate. Each one of them provided something different, however even their definitions are either out of date, or fail to include specifics and clear goals.
    The first definition comes from the United Nations, developed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. The report defines sustainability as a development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland et al. 1987) This thirty-year-old definition emphasizes our obligation as a society to ensure that presently we meet the needs of people, without damaging the next generation’s quality of life. The language used in this definition suggests that past and current generations must be conscious of their consumption (energy, land, produce), however this is never explicitly stated. This definition also fails to clearly define what their use of the word “needs” means. If we as a society agree that one of our needs is to own three cars each, then this will certainly be counterintuitive to the intent of this definition of sustainability.
    The second dentition hails from Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees. Together, they wrote Ecological Footprint, a book published in 1998 which presented the world with a tool for measuring the resources required to sustain our households, communities, regions, and nations. Their definition of sustainability is: “Living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere.” (Wackernagle 2002) This definition asks us to live within the Earth’s capacity to replenish resources, rather than the earth adapting to the needs of humans. Out of the three, this definition is by far the most inaccessible to the general population. It is important to note that this was written for a science oriented audience, however if this were to be used as the sole definition of the world sustainable, a large population would be unable to understand this language. It is crucial that the definition of sustainability be clear, accessible, and have to ability to inspire people with powerful language to strive to do better as a collective whole.
    The final and most up-to-date definition that we examined was John R. Ehrenfeld’s, the author of Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. He writes that sustainability is the “possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.” (Ehrenfeld 2009) Out of the three, Ehrenfeld is the only contributor that included “other life” in his definition. This is an important addition because it acknowledges the reality that humans are not the only living beings on Earth. This definition is more accessible than the previous one, however it is not strong enough. The use of the word ‘possibility’ suggests that sustainability is an option, rather than a requirement. Also, the word ‘flourish,’ while well intentioned, somehow seems to be too informal. That word is not strong enough and this definition does not explain what flourishing means. Does it mean we progress as a society? Evolve and improve? Multiply and bloom?
    In order for people of all education levels to be committed to the definition of sustainability, we must find a way to make the meaning accessible, uncomplicated, direct and clear. In this global age, we must find a way to include the worldwide community in this definition because as we know, climate change is a borderless condition. Therefore, sustainability must also be seen as a borderless commitment. To begin working towards a new, more inclusive definition we can begin by thinking about including specifics such as: respect for the Earth and humans and other life, environmental protection, social responsibility (it is up to us as a collective whole to achieve the agenda), and explicit language about ways people can actively contribute to living a sustainable life, such as changing our economic practice. The definition must has a ring of urgency and a call to action, because at this time we must act quickly. Perhaps this word must be redefined periodically to match our changing environment.

  13. Dakotah Kimbrough says:

    Defining sustainability is akin to catching a butterfly; just when it seems firmly within our grasp, it flutters away ephemerally in a new direction. While it is helpful to think of it in many contexts, including economically, socially, and ecologically, framing it in a comprehensive manner is key. As our understanding of the effects of our actions have on the environment unfold, we can refine our definition so that it provides possibility for all life on Earth.
    The 1987 Brundtland Report on sustainable development was a leap forward in urging countries to focus on the impacts of today’s consumption to preserve resources for tomorrow’s populations. Sustainable development was promoted as a way forward, being defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. While promoting the rights of such generations, an important basis for making decisions, this definition falls short when it comes to reducing consumption or protecting non-human life. Additionally, it offers no critique of capitalism, which is the system which has endorsed gross overconsumption and resource use.
    In 1996, Rees and Wackernaegel extended the circle to consider ecological limits. In their report “Our Ecological Footprint”, they developed a framework to measure our impact and the Earth’s ability to respond to it. Ecological footprint is defined as our cumulative demands on the planet for energy, food, and other resources, while biocapacity is the regenerative ability of the biosphere to absorb wastes and meet our production demands. Comparing the two metrics will result in either a deficit, being under capacity, or overshoot, in which consumption must be reduced. Sustainability is then ‘living within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere’. This approach offers an analytical method and recognizes the boundaries in which we must conform ourselves to. However, it is still an anthropocentric view and fails in regarding economic trade as ecological protection.
    In “Sustainability by Design”, Ehrenfeld moves beyond a human-centered paradigm to encompass all life on Earth. In a hopeful outlook, he defines sustainability as ‘the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever’. Including non-human life is an important distinction, as it gives standing to other species and their roles. It is almost a spiritual message, urging us to focus on our inner development to ensure that we thrive in harmony. Yet, he falls short in offering any framework to achieve this, and leaves vague who is responsible for ensuring that life does flourish.
    I would like to offer a corollary to Ehrenfeld’s definition, being that sustainability presupposes death as a condition for life to flourish. A large factor in how unsustainable we currently are is that we leave our impact in permanent structures and institutions and deleterious effects. We need to learn how to decay organically back into the world, just as we are grown from it, and this means learning to let go of thoughts and methods which artificially extend our presence long after we are gone. Death is the only thing certain in this world, and we are going to be experiencing it on unprecedented scales if we keep our current course. Learning how to die with peace and reverence for those who come after, as individuals and communities, will foster fertile ground from which new life will arise.

  14. Elizabeth Roginkin says:

    Over the years, as environmental awareness, knowledge of earth system sciences, and the anthropogenic role of climate change have grown and reached greater levels of political salience, one concept of particular importance frequently referenced in environmental rhetoric and literature has been the concept of both sustainability, and sustainable development. Despite the popularity of the phrase however, there is unfortunately no single definition that encompasses all that sustainability represents. However, through an analysis of several definitions – specifically the definitions offered by John Ehrenfeld, the Brundtland Commission, and Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, a more complete understanding of sustainability may be gleaned.
    According to John Ehrenfeld, sustainability is “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.” In describing his process of fine-tuning diction for the definition, Ehrenfeld mentions that the word “flourishing,” refers to a “state of being,” – he does not believe that sustainability means remaining level at a certain steady state. Rather, Ehrenfeld implies that “sustainability-as-flourishing” refers to reaching a favorable possible future that may not yet exist, but that may eventually reach fruition and continue to exist in perpetuity. This definition can be considered quite palatable to the general public as it is free from scientific jargon and puts the concept of sustainability in the context of its relation to humans while also mentioning “other life.” However, the same language that makes Ehrenfeld’s definition friendly to the masses also runs the risk of alienating those with very pragmatic mindsets on the issue who are more used to scientific diction.
    The Brundtland Commission defines sustainability in terms of sustainable development which it describes as as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Overall this definition is quite thorough, and like Ehrenfeld’s definition, it places a distinct human-centered emphasis on the idea of satisfying essential needs both presently and in the future in equitable fashion. Practical in its description, the Brundtland Commission’s definition would appeal most to those who consider resources and sustainability in economic terms. However, unlike Ehrenfeld’s definition, the definition of sustainability offered by the Brundtland Commission does not mention “other life,” and only truly seems to consider sustainability in the context of “development.”
    As described by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, a third definition that exists for sustainability is “living within the means of the biosphere.” Based on an accounting system (EF/BC accounting) that balances ecological footprint with biocapacity, this definitions calls for better management of Earth’s resources that are largely overextended based on current models of consumption. According to Wackernagel and Rees’ model, resource use or development is sustainable if consumption is within the limits of what Earth can sustain. While their definition is relatively technical, Wackernagel and Rees have also made it a visual way to understand sustainability through data. Unfortunately however, the accounting process – and by extension the definition, is limited in scope in terms of what problems it can correct account for, may not be straightforward in its interpretations, and can provide differing results based on the type of data provided.
    Overall however, when considered together, all three of the aforementioned definitions may provide a more complete image of what sustainability entails. To me, a true definition for sustainability must consider prudent resource use, consideration of the future in addition to the present, and account for both human and non-human life.

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