If you are like me, there are certain “buzzwords” or phrases that enter the lexicon periodically that begin to get on my nerves after awhile. “Best practices” in education is one of these. And now the word “sustainability” is near the top of my list. Where did this term originate in its current social context? I recently read an article by Glenn Ricketts of the National Association of Scholars, “The Roots of Sustainability”, which enlightened me on this irritable term.
It turns out that the word has roots in the romantic period and in the American transcendental movement (no surprise there), but more directly in the turbulent 1960’s and 1970’s, and its core text, according to Ricketts, appeared in a document titled “Our Common Future” published by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. This paper promoted “sustainable development” as the essential remedy for the interlocking crises confronting humanity and defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs……….it involves a progressive transformation of economy and society”. That last part is the kicker, for, as Ricketts further notes, while this concept smacks of radical environmentalism, it is actually much more comprehensive because it requires that we connect with other matters of concern to social activists and submit to new structures of authority in which those who possess this new wisdom of interconnectedness will make the right decisions for us. In fact, it is this notion of “interconnectedness” as it relates to sustainability which has replaced radical environmentalism as the new religion of social justice. Just words, of course, but as we know, ideas have consequences, so beware of those who peddle “sustainability” without a very good explanation.