Sustainability: A Working Definition

The mission of the Global Action and Information Network (GAIN) is to provide high quality information to inspire, support, and encourage the most effective actions possible for sustainability and environmental preservation. But what do we mean by "sustainability"?

One definition comes from Beyond The Limits*: "A sustainable society is one that can persist over generations, one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support. In order to be socially sustainable, the combination of population, capital, and technology in the society would have to be configured so that the material living standard is adequate and secure for everyone. In order to be physically sustainable the society's material and energy throughputs would have to meet economist Herman Daly's three conditions: "Its rates of use of renewable resources do not exceed their rates of regeneration; its rates of use of nonrenewable resources do not exceed the rate at which sustainable renewable substitutes are developed; and its rate of pollution emission do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment."

To meet the above conditions, GAIN maintains that the certain essential qualities, rights, and opportunities must be present and available for everyone. Specifically, all people: Live in dignity, having their basic needs met for water, food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education. Have time and ability for clear reflection and analysis to make free and informed choices in all aspects - social, economic, political, physical - of their lives. Are supported physically, socially, and economically through their involvement in environmentally, socially, and economically vital local communities. Seek a just balance between maximum empowerment in their individual lives and maximum contribution to the common good.

Make decisions and policies cooperatively and justly based on respect for all living beings and things. Resolve conflicts nonviolently.

Are connected to one another and to the natural world in a healthful environment. Have opportunity to learn by trial and error in ways that result in no or minimal harm to other beings and the physical environment.

Experience an abundance of joy and compassion.

By "all people," GAIN literally means every individual - anything less falls short of being truly sustainable. In practical terms, this means that if one of these qualities is not present in a particular situation, the community responds immediately and compassionately. for example, if someone cannot live with dignity because he or she not have his or her basic need met for adequate housing, that community will have immediate response procedures to fill that need. Or, in a case of domestic violence, that act of violence is a signal for help that is responded to immediately by the community. these elements and qualities are not merely desirable, but essential for a truly sustainable society.

It is the composite of such vital local communities which will constitute a sustainable society. We use "community" as defined by Wendell Berry,** "... the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature." It is at the community level (including families and individuals), and only at the community level, that the definition of sustainable society can inform appropriate actions equal to the magnitude of the problems we face. GAIN believes that people have the capacity to believe in such a society and to choose to act for its creation.

* Meadows, Meadows, and Randers; Beyond The Limits

** Wendell Berry; Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community Reprint from Gaining Ground, Autumn, 1994 edition.

Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.

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