The Concept of Sustainability: Multiple Crisis and Systemic Change

From a principle of forestry known for centuries ("Cut only as much wood as can grow back," Carl von Carlowitz, 1713), the concept of sustainability has evolved into a guiding principle for the global community of the 21st century:

In the 1972 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, "Our Common Future," also known as the "Brundtland Report," a synthesis of environmental (conserving nature and resources) and developmental (prosperity for all worldwide) discourses was initiated with the concept of "sustainable development". This was defined in it as "development that meets the needs of the present without risking that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs." In addition to this idea of INTERgenerational justice, the concept of sustainable development also contains the idea of INTRAgenerational justice, i.e. that people must not satisfy their needs at the expense of others.

The concept of sustainability / sustainable development is mostly operationalized with the sustainability triangle, which includes the areas of environment, economy and society, which are understood in interdependence, sometimes supplemented by politics as the central field of action.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (2015) break down these areas further and establish a holistic understanding of sustainability that identifies problems and solutions in an interdependent manner in all areas of human activity. Issues of poverty and wealth, food sovereignty, gender justice, peace or good education are just as important a part of a sustainable transformation as the protection of resources, biodiversity and the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions.

The concept of sustainability thus points far beyond purely ecological issues, even if it is repeatedly reduced to environmental protection measures in everyday usage and political discourse. However, even if at the target level sustainability is understood narrowly as combating climate change and preserving the natural foundations of life, it is undeniable today that comprehensive social, economic, political and cultural changes are needed to achieve this goal. The multiple crisis of modernity, manifested in ecological as well as social dislocations, is a whole-system crisis that will only be solved by a whole-system transformation.

A central concept for understanding ecological sustainability is the Planetary Boundaries - as ecological guard rails of sustainable development, which was originally developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. In nine areas, it assesses the extent to which human activities comply with or have already significantly exceeded the Earth's ecological limits.

[Translate to English:] Graphik Planetare Grenzen nachhaltiger Entwicklung [Translate to English:] Graphik Planetare Grenzen nachhaltiger Entwicklung [Translate to English:] Graphik Planetare Grenzen nachhaltiger Entwicklung © Julia Blenn / Helmholtz-Klima-Initiative

 The human impact on the ecosphere is so immense that the term "Anthropocene" emerged as a proposal of a new geochronological epoch and is increasingly used to describe the modern Earth Age, in which humans have become one of the most important factors influencing biological, geological and atmospheric processes on Earth.  In geoscientific terms, the term is controversial, but because of its normative nature, which emphasizes human responsibility for the increasing destruction of the planet, it nevertheless enjoys great popularity.

As inflationary as the term sustainability is used, it must also be critically examined:

In many ways, the concept of sustainable development (as well as the SDGs) can be understood as a minimum consensus of the international community of states and various social currents. It thus only partially reflects the radical nature of the necessary change - depending on how it is filled with life. There is little dispute in public discourse that sustainability is a good and important thing. Meanwhile, however, we continue to live in a system that is predominantly unsustainable, and we find hard and controversial social struggles taking place along the fault lines of that system. The extent of the modern multiple crisis may be obscured by the "feel-good notion of sustainability" and depoliticized by a detectable focus on individual behavior change and technological advances.

It is important to consider in each individual case whether sustainability efforts have more the character of "greenwashing" (cosmetic changes of small effect without changing anything in the non-sustainable basic practice) or whether they are actually system-transforming approaches.

Another criticism of the sustainability discourse relates to the anthropocentrism identified in it: nature is to be protected, but the motive and approaches to protecting it lie in the preservation of nature for the sake of human needs. This would reproduce the appropriation of nature by mankind that is alienated from nature, which is also a cultural basis of the dominant non-sustainable economic system. The "Rights of Nature" movement, on the other hand, ascribes to nature its own rights, as something that exists independently of humans and is worthy of protection.