There is no one set way of defining or thinking about ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable development’. In my case I was introduced to these ideas mostly in a business context, where related concepts such as the ‘triple bottom line’ framework (i.e. financial, social and environmental performance) and ‘sustainable enterprise’ are central. Within the consulting world I often felt like a bit of an interloper. Most coworkers and our clients used to work in the ‘environmental’ space, e.g. having a background in environmental management and planning (and often a degree in environmental science), which had evolved into ‘sustainability’, or they used to work in functions such as community and government relations and/or in health and safety (this was often the case in the resources sector where firms often now have a broader ‘Health, Safety, Environment and Community’ function that integrates these activities). I had experience of neither, and hold very different degrees (marketing, strategic foresight). Initially my consulting work often drew on my background in communications to produce annual sustainability reports.
Discussion of ‘sustainability’ in the context of my strategic foresight studies tended to be incorporated into a wider critique of contemporary Western capitalism. Richard Slaughter asserts that “if there is a single concept which challenges existing economic practice, and especially the notion of unrestrained economic growth, it is sustainability” and argues that “it calls the bluff of those who have forgotten that the Earth (in terms of its capacity to provide resources and absorb waste) is finite”. This macro framing of sustainability focuses on limits to growth – particularly limits to material consumption – and prescribes a shift towards a “steady state” economy. These ideas and concerns tended to be outside the scope of consulting assignments!
I’ve since learned that there are many additional conceptualisations of sustainability. In political scientist John Dryzek’s model of environmental discourses adherents to the sustainability discourse view conflicts between environmental and economic values as being capable of resolution by refining concepts of growth and development. My friend Peter Ellyard advocates this perspective. He argues there are, in principle, no limits to growth if the focus of economic activity shifts from the physical to ‘metaphysical’ (e.g. information, creative and cultural industries, etc). I.e. a paradigmatic shift towards non-material ‘things’. In a recent essay he asserts that “a sustainable society need not be a non-growth society”.
Beyond these competing perspectives I’ve also come to understand ‘sustainability’ as an “umbrella” term that captures the general gist of the 21st century context. That is, the need to work out how to sustain – and broaden – ‘prosperity’ (broadly defined) as we add two more “Chinas” of people to the total number of people alive by 2050 (to around 9-10 billion). With only around 7 billion now, and a small percent of these people (~15%) living in high-consumption developed countries, we are already significantly shaping the Earth’s climate and natural systems. We increasingly must understand and respond to global environmental change. (Nb. Within futures discourse this is increasingly referred to as ‘the global megacrisis’).
Similarly, the most common definition of ‘sustainable development’ is brought to life by considering this challenging context: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. (Thus seeking a long-term orientation, ensuring intergenerational equity). Current development clearly does threaten to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Having said all of this, the conception of sustainability that currently informs a lot of my thinking was articulated by European scholars who have theorised the concept of ‘reflexive governance’. Their book, ‘Reflexive Governance for Sustainable Development’ – as per the publishers summary – ‘deals with the issue of sustainability in a novel and innovative way’ by examining ‘reflexive modernisation’, and moving ‘away from endless quarrels about the rightness of normative claims and from attempts to define sustainability on the basis of biophysical principles’. They develop a broad-ranging critique of modernist (or rationalist) problem solving – in particular the regular creation of unintended consequences, the ‘second-order problems’ which are often more severe and difficult to handle than the initial problems that were being addressed. In their view issue of “sustainability is one, if not the main, second-order problem of modernist problem solving”.
These scholars observe that “when it comes to practical implementation the concept seems to dissolve into rhetoric that masks familiar conflicts” in areas such as energy, agriculture, transport, and housing. In their view the concept of ‘sustainability’ should be primarily understood for its fundamental governance implications – that is, of the increasing focus on “the systemic and long-term nature of social, economic, and ecological development”, which “brings complexity and uncertainty to the fore”. Thus, they argue sustainability refers to a “kind of problem framing that emphasises the interconnectedness of different problems and scales, as well as the long-term and indirect effects of actions that result from it”. Indeed, we are learning how to handle complex ecological and social problems for which ‘rationalist’ problem solving is often unsuited.
They consequently see ‘sustainable development’ as being “more about the organisation of processes” (rather than about particular outcomes) and advocate viewing it as “modes of problem treatment and the types of strategies that are applied to search for solutions and bring about more robust paths of social and technological development”. These strategies focus on aspects of the problem-handling process, such as goal definition (making this more participatory), and strategy implementation (which is argued to need to be far more dispersed). Examples in the book of emerging approaches include ‘transition management’, ‘adaptive management’, ‘constructive technology assessment’, and ‘strategic niche management’. They also note the growth of ‘foresight exercises’. Such approaches tend to “emphasize participation, experimentation, and collective learning as key elements of governance”. These academics argue that sustainability cannot be unambiguously or unproblematically translated into a blueprint.
I agree that sustainability calls for new forms of problem handling. (Just look at the increasingly conflict over the management of many environmental issues, e.g. the long-term degradation of the Murray Darling Basin). However, I also recognise this view of sustainability is a challenging one for people with set/clear vision of what the world should look like.
Nonetheless, futures research is clearly highly relevant to this conception of sustainability and sustainable development. Futures research methods and foresight methods can surely contribute to new modes of problem treatment which better address complexity and uncertainty, and pay greater attention to the long-term effects of actions. Sounds like foresight to me!