Sustainability is a tricky word. It can appear to be intuitively simple to understand and at the same time extremely complex to analyse and practice. The simplicity comes from a fairly straight forward manner in which we intuitively connect the end state of sustainability to environment, ecology and planet earth. No matter how we slice and dice it the end state essentially boils down to one single point: humanity has to take collective responsibility for their actions so that the natural resources of the earth are used in a frugal and thoughtful manner so that our future generations are protected. The complexity emerges when such an intuitive understanding of sustainability is located within the specific context of societies, local politics, economic systems and the relational dynamics of groups. Within this context there are two clear nodes that generate complexity. The first
is the how local cultural, political, social and economic factors have historically architected and defined relationships of communities and people with natural ecosystems. The second
is how contemporary notions and definitions of development aggregate with such inter-generational systems of knowledge and practices.
The fundamental challenge of Sustainable Development comes from having to constantly reconcile this trilateral gap between people and their inter-generational socio-cultural relationship with environment and ecosystems, modernist definitions of development and the models that have emerged from it; and a contemporary and an evolving understanding of biodiversity, ecology and climate that is scientific, rational and based on empirical data and evidence. It is a gap that has quite noticeably narrowed in many respects. For instance, there is now a general consensus that human activity induced climate change is real and is already impacting people, communities and several geographies. But it is also a gap that has quite arguably widened on several counts ironically because the science and empirical evidence on climate change is now indisputable. For instance, what the right model of development that keeps the current pace of economic progress intact while also protecting the environment is a hotly contested domain. It has divided nations to the extent of some withdrawing from multilateral agreements mandating time-bound greenhouse gas emission and carbon reductions.
There is now a general consensus that human activity induced climate change is real and is already impacting people, communities and several geographies...however, what the right model of development that keeps the current pace of economic progress intact while also protecting the environment is a hotly contested domain.
Looking at this context one can reach an easy, but a largely uni-dimensional conclusion, that true sustainability is but a mirage that can never be achieved. After all, one can also argue with reasonable evidence that even concept of sustainable development as mandated by United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hasn’t really translated yet into a coherent system of interconnected practices. Sustainable Development at the moment, in all fairness, is just a motley collection of clean technologies, experimental business models and disparate efforts to mesh development and ecological sensitivity. But this context, as challenging as it is, is also rich with possibilities of converting the concept of Sustainable Development into a coherent set of practices that genuinely adhere to principles of a circular economy. But for those possibilities to be transformed into true opportunities for multiple stakeholders requires a certain reorientation of the concept of Sustainable Development itself, the ecosystem supporting it and the business models emanating from it. Such a reorientation is neither dramatic nor does it require institutions or decision makers to make any fundamental changes to either the discourse or to basic principles of sustainability. There are three aspects to this reorientation: the first being an overarching one and remaining two separate but yet interconnected to each other.
Sustainable Development at the moment, in all fairness, is just a motley collection of clean technologies, experimental business models and disparate efforts to mesh development and ecological sensitivity.
The first aspect of reorientation is to anchor the most well developed thought architecture of sustainable development – one of a series of closed loop circular economies networked to each other-- to something that is concrete, tangible and manageable. Today the concept and practice of Sustainable Development often suffers by an inappropriate positioning within contexts that are intertwined with business models and ways of life that are deeply predicated on industrial definitions of scale, size and standardisation. A typical example would be mining towns. The ways of life, local economies and the business models are so tightly coupled with extractive resources, and often one mineral ore, that the concept and practice of Sustainable Development can never truly fulfil its true potential, often getting confined to a series of incremental technological solutions. It is here that one needs to reorient our positioning of the concept and practice of Sustainable Development to a more appropriate context.
The urban context is the most appropriate due to several parameters, but four of them are more relevant than others. First,
the world is increasingly becoming urban and that urban turn is being led by China and India in particular. It is both necessary and desirable to locate Sustainable Development within this larger movement towards urbanisation. Second
, an urban context provides immense diversity of micro contexts supporting different ways of life. Everything from mobility, work and leisure to governance, technology and shelter provide fertile grounds for concept and the practices of Sustainable Development to take roots and evolve and then interconnect with each other for integrated circular economy solutions. Third
, an urban context by its very density provides for models of scale and size that is by default efficient and effective and allows for different price points for affordable accessibility for multiple stakeholders. Fourth
, an urban context is also denser in terms of both soft and hard infrastructure ranging from governance and financial systems to technological systems in comparison to other contexts. This allows the emerging practices and technologies of Sustainable Development to get the head start that they often desperately need.
The world is increasingly becoming urban and that urban turn is being led by China and India in particular. It is both necessary and desirable to locate Sustainable Development within this larger movement towards urbanisation.
The second and third aspects of this reorientation are interconnected. True sustainability in the form of a series of tightly integrated yet networked circular economies requires ways of life, business models, social structures, governance systems and economies to be focused on local, hyperlocal and microlocal contexts. What this means that everything that we identify with a typical urban life – the way we work, move from point A to point B, what and how we eat, how and where we holiday, how we look at housing and shelter – needs to be anchored to an alternative value system apart from being anchored to the current system of money, financial systems and monetary value. Every aspect of urban life, whether it is travel, work or leisure, is a transaction. All transactions expend energy. The second aspect is to evolve an energy index for all urban activities that allows the monetary value of products, services and transactions to be juxtaposed against their energy values. Such an energy-indexed value system brings to the fore business models that put ecological impact and environmental sensitivity at the core of their operations.
True sustainability in the form of a series of tightly integrated yet networked circular economies requires ways of life, business models, social structures, governance systems and economies to be focused on local, hyper-local and micro-local contexts.
Directly connected to this second aspect is the third aspect of food. It is not generally that well known, but commercial and industrial scale agriculture -- as in the overall process of growing food, including poultry and meat – and the logistics associated with it – cold storage, preservation and most importantly shipping and transporting it to urban areas – is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. It is within this lesser known reality that the relationship between food and cities needs to be rewritten. Over the years an unwritten code, a sort of a rule, has been charted about urbanity. Urban areas cannot grow food and by default agriculture and growing of food has been consigned to rurality: villages, peripheries and farms. But there are emerging business models that are not only questioning this unwritten rule, but are creating sustainable, viable, efficient and ecologically friendly businesses. Singapore, for instance, already has several successful businesses that are growing food either in vertical farms or by using flexible urban spaces like parking areas and rooftops. Food is something that can be grown locally in urban spaces and with the involvement of communities and groups.
Sustainable Development and true sustainability can either be treated as the Holy Grail that can never be achieved or as a set of clear and concrete steps that needs to be taken within an appropriate context. Contrary to popular perception, rapid urbanisation, especially of India and China, is not a problem that needs to be addressed for sustainability. Rather it is the ideal platform for Sustainable Development and true sustainability to take deep roots and evolve into its full potential.
Swaminathan Ramanathan is Senior Research Fellow at Uppsala University. He heads Future Urbanisms, a long term multidisciplinary research programme focused on issues of sustainability and resilience in cities in India and Asia.
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