What Is Sustainability?

Sustainability is a shift in thinking from the individual to include an awareness of other people and the wider context, over time.  It did not develop as an ideology of constraint, even less as a form of spirituality or nostalgia for nature.  It developed as a rational response to real problems that directly affect people.  Problems like diseases caused by industrial pollution, old people dying of cold in uninsulated homes, mass unemployment, crop failure, floods.  People have quite rightly looked at that and said:  ‘This is rubbish. Is this the best we can do?’

Yes, sustainability is about accepting responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions – one of its foundations is the ‘polluter pays’ principle.  It also asks for constraints on the individual for the benefit of the wider group.  We do need to be extremely vigilant or course, to ensure that any constraint imposed is justified and fair, but this is a basic part of living in society.

Some critics of sustainability tend to frame it in terms of self-doubt, constraining individual freedom, and reducing innovation.  In describing sustainability, I would urge them to look instead for the positive counterpart to all three:

  • to ‘self-doubt’, the heroic belief that we can improve;
  • to ‘constraining freedom’, the new freedoms that a fair and stable society would bring to many people, and which climate change may take away from us and our children;
  • and to ‘stifling innovation’, the extraordinary innovations that sustainability research will deliver.

What we are now exploring, collectively, is whether human beings can work together cooperatively to address problems and create solutions, such as:

Is it possible to forecast and prevent a human catastrophe, on a global scale?

What I find intriguing about sustainability, is that we don’t know if we can do it.  So perhaps the question of ‘should we do it?’ is in fact secondary to ‘can we do it?’

Entire societies have been destroyed due to environmental, economic or social changes.  I am not interested in preserving our society in aspic, far from it.  I don’t think we have ‘the best’ society, but I am kind of attached to it, and I think it’s a nice idea that future generations of people will be able to get on with their lives in peace and dignity, because we didn’t trash the place too much.

The philosophy of sustainability follows from the recognition that we need to create a system in which we can survive, which enables the management of our resources and our environment.  Inherent in sustainability is the heroic belief that we can steer the future.  We do not yet know if we can do it, but we should support the people who have risen to that challenge.

Sustainability introduces a wider set of factors into the design equation; it means raising the bar on design.  It would be wrong to assume a dogma among sustainability advocates – we are all engaged in a debate in which there are few black-and-white answers.  The positive side of sustainability has tremendously innovative consequences.

Pascale Scheurer RIBA is a Chartered Architect specialising in regeneration, sustainability and communities.  She was until recently Head of Sustainability at award-winning Wilkinson Eyre Architects and now runs her own practice, Surface to Air, which enables creative initiatives in architecture through design, event, publications and research.  She has completed research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and offers sustainability consultancy to architects, developers and other built environment professionals.

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