Sustainability

As Klaus Bosselmann points out [ewl, 204-213], sustainability is not a new idea, but in the 1980s it got shmushed with ‘development’ to form ‘sustainable development’, which it turns out neither is sustainable nor provides true development.

Sustainable development involves the triple bottom-line of ecological, social, and economic systems. They aren’t seen as conflicting with each other, however, because ‘modern society has ignored this [the sustainability of ecological systems]’ [ewl, 208].

That reminds me. Years ago I learned ‘The Rule Of Threes’–people like things in threes–start with tell ’em what they’re gonna hear, then tell ’em what they’re hearing, and finally tell ’em what they heard. Beginning, middle, end. One two three. A B C. Do re mi. Bosselmann’s piece is full of threes, not just the triple bottom-line. For example, two sets of threes are time and a way we study it:

  1. past–history
  2. present–science
  3. future–ethics

With history, we construct meaning from the past; with science we observe and describe things in the present, in the now; and with ethics we ponder and proscribe events in the future. Sustainability has a wisdom from the past that can guide us into the future by thinking on it now.

The triple bottom-line is famously represented by the three-legged stool and its priorities by three nested bowls sitting on the stool. The stool has to be stable, meaning all three legs must receive equal attention; yet, the nested bowls tell you which is most important: the environment, then the society, then finally the economy. But some of us have these priorities backwards, and our laws reflect that.

Unfortunately, the Rio declaration of 1992 was ‘soft’ (non-binding) and anthropocentric, resulting in one of the legs–the environment–being shorter and the outer bowl woefully misshapen.

What good is a stool if one of its legs is shorter? How can you nest three bowls if the outer bowl is misshapen? What good is a triple bottom-line if the most essential bottom-line is ignored?

Today, our religion, our cosmology, our story is known as ‘economic rationalism’. Economic rationalism rules both capitalist America and communist China. Bosselmann identifies six characteristics (6=2×3!) of economic rationalism. The acronym, DAMAGE, says it all:

  1. D–dualism (of humans and nature)
  2. A–anthropocentricism
  3. M–materialism
  4. A–atomism (reductionism? compartmentalism [external]? fragmentation [internal]?)
  5. G–greed (individualism gone mad)
  6. E–economism (no economic limits; perpetual economic growth)

This false view of the environment results in false laws of the environment: ‘Most [environmental] laws have natural resources as their subject, not the natural world.’ Further error, says Bosselmann, results in thinking we can fix this ‘without challenging underlying values’ [ewl, 205].

However, ‘there is a wealth of sustainability wisdom in the history of all cultures,’ including European [ewl, 207]. The notion of progress from the Industrial Revolution buried this wisdom, but it is well-rooted and still with us, with the people. ‘International environmental law has emerged through the pressures of the environmental movement,’ notes Bosselmann. ‘This gives the institutions and groups of civil society special importance. Like human rights, environmental rights are being pushed by society, not by governments’ [ewl, 208].

Failures of the past, Bosselmann writes, ‘can be overcome by incrementally incorporating sustainability into the interpretation of existing laws and the design of new laws.’ They can be seen as baby steps (Bosselmann calls them ‘spanners’) towards success in the future. Seeds are planted. The anthropocentric-caused failures of Rio in 1992 germinated in the ecocentric success of the Earth Charter.

A baby step on the way was the 1982 Brundtland Commission Report which defined sustainability and gave us the term ‘sustainable development’. Three decades later it is time to revisit that term and environmental law with new understanding. It may not be perfect–what is? But it could be a step in the right direction, into the future, into the ultimately unknown. Like George Michael sings, you gotta have faith.

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