Sustainability Renaissance: embracing strong sustainability in the 21st century and leaving the weak sustainability in the past.

A blogpost by Dominika A. Teigiserova
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
Outstretched hand holding a pile of soil with a flower. Coins in the foreground.

What does sustainability mean? These days, the word is used everywhere – we see it in media, scientists use it in their research, and companies promote it in their marketing… if you ask for a definition, you get a variety of responses, many of them phrased to give you a sense of "we are the good guys" while vague enough not to be held responsible. Sustainability has become a buzzword. It has been stripped of its true meaning and simplified, adopted by the masses, and so often used for sustainability-washing. In a world facing imminent crises with sustainability listed as "the solution," this concept deserves a public debate, asking the right questions and establishing its scope and meaning so our 21st-century world can get on track with sustainable development. 

Earth resource consumption by country and SDG ranking

Are we even sustainable?

Since the beginning, it has been clear that sustainability has three spheres (sometimes called dimensions or pillars): environmental, economic, and social. Combining these three pillars with governance is what should make sustainable development achievable. The most commonly used definition was established in 1987 in The Brundtland: "Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (UNDP, 2011)Since then, the new generations have arrived, and to say that their future and our future were not compromised leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. In 2009, the planetary boundaries were established, consisting of nine categories, defining the planet's limits in terms of natural resources, i.e., how much our planet can handle before it comes to the tipping point, after which it is hard to tell what will happen. (Rockström et al., 2009). The planetary boundaries are sometimes combined with other frameworks to provide more complexities to reach sustainability, for instance, in combination with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – global goals to achieve sustainable development) (Allen et al., 2021) or notably in combination with the twelve categories of social foundation in the Doughnut Economics developed by Kate Raworth (Raworth, 2018). Her model ensures that no one falls short of life's essential needs while staying within the ecological limits. However, the recent update reported that we are no longer in the safe operating space as six out of nine planetary boundaries have been transgressed (Richardson et al., 2023). We already had a warning in 1972 when the Club of Rome discussed economic growth and the increase of resource consumption on our planet with finite resources in their book "Limits to Growth". Many countries did not heed their warning and continued and even accelerated their consumption of resources equal to several Earths each year. Even more so, some of these countries are regarded as leaders in reaching sustainable development. For example, Denmark is ranked third as the best performer in achieving SDGs, while it consumes resources equivalent to 4.2 Earths. Even if we say that these figures and data are, in reality, different, improved, and not as extreme, they will remain in opposition. Two forces pulling sustainability apart, each in different direction.

Diagrams explaining weak and strong sustainability.

Two worlds, two sustainabilities

How can the sustainability concept be in opposition? It becomes clear when we look at its approach to manufactured (man-made) and natural capital (nature and its limits) and its link to two typologies of sustainability that have been long debated:  weak and strong sustainability. Weak sustainability sees the two capitals as constant and interchangeable. It does not matter if we exhaust natural systems as long as we have machines to replace those systems, and it assumes that technological advances will always solve any issue that arises. On the other hand, in strong sustainability, the two capitals are interconnected and have supporting functions. It accounts for interconnections and trade-offs between nature (biosphere), people (sociosphere), and economy (econosphere), depending on and influencing each other. While manufacturing capital can decrease and increase, natural capital can be irreversibly damaged, and thus, parts of it – called Critical Natural Capital –  need to be protected. It also recognizes that natural capital is multifunctional, providing essential ecosystem services beyond the economic terms in the current system. For instance, a forest can provide a habitat for fauna and pollinators, capture emissions and pollutants, be used for economic products such as wood, regulate the nitrogen and carbon cycle, filter water, be a recreational spot, have spiritual value, and more. Thus, for economic systems to function and to maintain the well-being of society, nature needs to retain its functions to replenish and regenerate. 

One explanation of weak sustainability being the dominant approach over the past few decades is simplification for the sake of economy and politics. Weak sustainability was supported by neoclassical economists and popularized as the main approach because it does not require change in the economic systems, while strong sustainability does. It is simple to represent the whole system by a number or a percentage. Often focusing on quantity because it signifies growth rather than quality (as Hemrna E. Daily describes in his book Beyond Growth). We measure everything by performance. Did recycling increase by X %, did GDP grow, and did we reach some arbitrary target?  This simplification is like describing a human by looking at one single cell and saying if this cell improves by a few parameters, it means the whole body is on the right track, and we don't need to do anything else. Would it be right to dictate someone's health and lifestyle by looking at one cell? Planetary ecosystems are even more complex and interconnected than the human body, yet that is how we analyze its health. Even more so, economic parameters, such as GDP growth, are used as main indicators for the sociosphere, often without looking at the actual quality of life and systemic consequences.

Far too often, sustainability has become a synonym for more environmental or ethical production when these are two different concepts, each representing only one part of a whole. This synonymizing creates unsustainable consumption patterns and a mask of sustainability, beautiful on the surface but rotten inside. Using the word "sustainable" invites me to think: I made fewer emissions, or I bought a product from a more ethical company, and I helped the planet and the people. But even if something is truly a less environmentally or more ethical alternative, it does not contribute to sustainability overall. If we say product A has a lower environmental footprint than product B, it means just that: lower. It doesn't mean that it doesn't do any harm to the environment or people. Same if the production becomes more ethical, it doesn't automatically mean it is more environmental or even truly ethical. Thus, sustainable production is ethical and environmental, respecting the limits of nature and supporting the regeneration of nature, making a loop of create-take-regenerate.

Let's take a look at one of the most common sustainability solutions: solar panels. The sustainability of solar panels comes into question when we look at the supply chain of rare earth elements necessary for their production, like cobalt, specifically mining activities necessary for obtaining those rare elements, including occupational hazards, degraded community health, violent conflict, child labor, gendered structures of norms, modern-slavery, and workers' exposure to environmental hazards and environmental pollution of the entire area of the mining activities. Renewable energy is not automatically truly sustainable if it transgresses social and natural boundaries and needs intervention to be called sustainable. 

Stepping into the light

Planetary systems function as a complex equation where many variables are needed to maintain the balance. The balance of the air, the ocean, the soil, forests, biodiversity, deserts, and other parts of the natural world are essential for the planet's functions to create an environment in which humanity can exist. Humanity is the only variable in the equation that has to adapt; all else is vital for our survival. A new field of Planetary Health is showcasing more and more how Earth's health is tied to the health of people. This is supported by the Rights of Nature, a fast-growing legal movement where parts of nature gain legal personhood and are represented by guardians (local representatives, native people, scientists), protecting its rights, such as the right to be protected, maintained, cleaned, etc. Examples of such places can be found all over the world, from the Ecuadorian Law to the Whanganui River in New Zealand, and recently, the first in Europe, Mar Menor Lagoon in Spain, which are now legal persons. Nature is inherently connected to our survival and is rightly becoming a stakeholder in decision-making.

The weak sustainability approach should no longer be accepted as "sustainability" in the 21st century. The urgency for systemic change, unprecedented environmental harm with social issues persisting, and an overshoot of 6 out of 9 Planetary Boundaries prove that the weak sustainability approach has failed, and the future of the next generations is compromised. We need a nature-centric co-creation economic shift, redefining well-being, posing strict limitations to future-proof safe and just operating space for humanity and nature. Sustainability requires a renaissance, a rebirth, to come of "the dark ages" of complacency and sameness and step into the light that embraces complexities of local conditions, respecting the boundaries of nature, ensuring social and ethical systems, and supporting restoration and regeneration. It is what sustainability has to stand for.

As a report by UNDP states, we "cannot ask future generations to breathe polluted air in exchange for a greater capacity to produce goods and services. That would restrict the freedom of future generations to choose clean air over more goods and services."  (UNDP, 2011)

Co-existing in the time of crises: the need to embrace complexities 

The notions such as environmental justice, corporate responsibility, responsible economics, and others are becoming more popular, blending the dimensions of sustainability. The fact is that these dimensions cannot exist separately. One plus one never equals two in sustainability because sustainability is represented by intertwined concepts that exist in many dimensions at the same time. When a pilot operates a plane flying us somewhere, we only care about the time it will take to get us there. We understand it needs speed and an engine, but in fact, it is operating many systems that come into play simultaneously, and all are needed to get to our destination. It's time we drive a complex vehicle and not a carriage with horses we whip to exhaustion and the brink of death.

When discussing them separately, the environmental, social, and economic dimensions should not be considered sustainable without proven benefits and contributions to other spheres. The ecological dimension cannot be represented only by being less environmentally harmful. It needs to support the restoration and protection of ecosystems. Measuring sustainability needs to follow these rules beyond economic terms, assigning values to the biosphere and sociosphere. Yes, it makes it harder for businesses, corporations, and governments, but that is the point: the economy can no longer drive planetary and human well-being. If you think of using the word sustainability in your work or business, think twice and then think again if you are describing something as sustainable. Count all your puzzle pieces and add what is missing.

Allen, C., Metternicht, G., Wiedmann, T., Pedercini, M., 2021. Global Sustainability Modelling national transformations to achieve the SDGs within planetary boundaries in small island developing states. Glob. Sustain. 4, 1–13.

Raworth, K., 2018. Doughnut Economics : Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Cornerstone.

Richardson, K., Steffen, W., Lucht, W., Bendtsen, J., Cornell, S.E., Donges, J.F., Drüke, M., Fetzer, I., Bala, G., von Bloh, W., Feulner, G., Fiedler, S., Gerten, D., Gleeson, T., Hofmann, M., Huiskamp, W., Kummu, M., Mohan, C., Nogués-Bravo, D., Petri, S., Porkka, M., Rahmstorf, S., Schaphoff, S., Thonicke, K., Tobian, A., Virkki, V., Wang-Erlandsson, L., Weber, L., Rockström, J., 2023. Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries. Sci. Adv. 9, eadh2458.

UNDP, 2011. Human Development Report 2011. Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All.

Figure 1: Earth resource consumption by country and SDG ranking

Dr. Dominika A. Teigiserova

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