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Sustainability: adjetive or noun?

12/06/2011

It is fashionable these days to talk of sustainability. It is deemed proper to give assurances that an enterprise, when producing, is respectful of the environment. Several truths lie behind this word, but also many lies. Sustainability is generally used as an adjective, not as a noun.

Let me explain: as an adjective, it can be added to anything without changing its nature; for example, I can diminish the chemical pollution of a factory by putting better filters in the chimneys that spew gasses, but this does not change the way the enterprise relates to nature, whence it extracts the raw materials; it continues its devastation. It is concerned not with the environment, but with the need to guarantee profits and competitiveness. Consequently, sustainability is only a form of accommodation, and not of change; it is an adjective, not a noun.

Sustainability, as a noun, demands a change in the relationship with nature, with life and with the Earth. This change begins with a different vision of reality. The Earth is a living being, and we are her organ of consciousness and intelligence. We are not outside of or above her, as one who dominates, but within, as one who cares, using her goods, but respectful of her limits. Human beings are part of nature. If I pollute the air, I end up getting sick and adding to the greenhouse gasses, which cause global warming. If I preserve the jungles by the rivers, I preserve the waters, increase their volume. I improve the quality of my life, and that of the birds and the insects that pollinate the fruit trees and the flowers in the garden.

Sustainability as a noun happens when we take responsibility for protecting the vitality and integrity of the ecosystems. With the abusive exploitation of her goods and services, we are reaching the Earth’s limits. She can no longer replace a 30% of what is extracted and stolen. The Earth is getting poorer and poorer, in terms of jungles, of waters, of fertile soils, of clean air; and of biodiversity. What is worse still, the Earth is becoming poorer in terms of people with solidarity, compassion, with respect, caring, and with love for that which is different. When will all this stop?

Sustainability as a noun will be achieved the day we change our way of inhabiting the Earth, our Great Mother, when we change our ways of producing, distributing, consuming and of dealing with wastes. Our lifestyle is dying, lacking the capacity to solve the problems it has created. Worse, it is killing us and threatening all life systems.

We must invent a new way of being in the world with the others, with nature, with the Earth and with the Ultimate Reality. We must learn to be more with less, and to satisfy our needs with a sense of solidarity towards the millions who go hungry, and towards the future of our children and grandchildren. Either we change, or we will encounter predictable ecological, and human, tragedies.

The gatherings of those who control the finances and the destinies of the peoples of the world are never to discuss the future of human life and the conservation of the Earth. They meet to deal with money, with how to save the financial and speculative system, how to guarantee interest rates and the banks’ profits. If they talk of global warming and climate change it is almost always from the point of view of asking: how much would we lose with these phenomena? Or, alternatively, how much can we earn buying or selling carbon permits (buying permits to continue polluting from other countries)? They talk of sustainability neither as an adjective, nor a noun. Is pure rhetoric. They forget that the Earth can live without us, as she did for thousands of millions of years. But we cannot live without the Earth.

Let us not deceive ourselves: the great majority of enterprises only assume socio-environmental responsibility to the extent that it does not reduce their profits or threaten their competitiveness. There is nothing about changing course, of a different relationship with nature, nothing about ethical and spiritual values. As Uruguayan social ecologist, Eduardo Gudynas, has said very well: «the task is not to think of alternative development, but of alternatives to development.».

We have reached a point where we have no other alternative than to make a paradigmatic revolution; otherwise, we will fall victim to the savage Capitalist logic, that can carry our civilization to a phenomenal impasse.

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  1. 13/06/2011 18:21

    Amen, Dr. Boff! The problem of incarnating a real ethic of sustainability (as a noun) is the crucial requirement of our day. However, because so many of the feedback loops for our environmental destructiveness are so convoluted, and so difficult for people to track (in large part due to our severely impoverished capability to understand cause and effect in the richness of a highly inter-relational cosmos) that in the hustle and trivia of daily life the impact of our actions is entirely obscured. ‘Ignorance is bliss,’ as is often said. While not all of us are blissfully ignorant, the sad reality is that those of us in radically consumptive societies that bow to the God of free-market-capitalist-economism (or those who suffer at that God’s tyrannical hands) know there will be easily trackable retribution (i.e. very evident cause and effect!) when we dare to blaspheme against this ‘real’ God by even suggesting that sustainability should be a noun that is an actual entity, and not just a wisp of anesthetizing adjectival rhetoric.

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