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Theorteical and Practical Views on Sustainability

By July 20, 2016October 19th, 2018Opinion, Sustainability

artboard-3-copyasdhe concept of sustainable development has been around for decades, but issues with its theoretical definition and actual practice in the modern world are more prominent than ever. Defined as “a systemic concept, relating to the continuity of economic, social, institutional and environmental aspects of human society,” (“Sustainability”) sustainability is now fervently debated amongst many scholars, including anthropologists, economists and ecologists. Unni Wikan, Herman Daly, and William McDonough have provided different approaches to the concept of sustainability, differing both in functionality and potency. While Wikan and Daly complicate developmental theories, McDonough decides to engage in praxis, simplifying such theories and setting them into motion.

Unni Wikan’s research[1] on the applicability of sustainable development was based on a study he conducted in the city of Cairo. His main argument stems from the observation that although this mega-city has undergone the same pattern of decline (low wages, “rampant” inflation, etc.) “the social environment [has] not show[n] a corresponding decline” (Wikan 1995:636). Wikan’s analysis calls for a re-structuring of our concept of ‘basic’ needs[2], proposing that a certain “human component [is required] for sustainability,” primarily the values of social responsibility[3] (pp. 636, 642). Indeed, Wikan’s highly enticing study seems completely plausible and convincing, specifically when he notes that the transmission of these human values in Cairo have maintained a workable social environment, even for the struggling poor, which he sees as a determined and self-sufficient class. He finishes by re-noticing a collapsing nation, but supporting his theory by observing that “the back streets are virtually free of robbery and rape; one can move about in safety even in the middle of the night…a miracle” (p. 647). Undeniably it is a miracle, but also a warning for nations to develop “cultural competence” if they ever desire to achieve sustainability. Wikan (1995:648) rejects Western ideology, which hinders the understanding of the role of culture for sustainable development. His sustainable city is one in which “people use culture” in a way that “differentially allocates the competences… of the deprived [allowing them] to rise.”

However, Wikan’s weakness stems from validating his theory from one observable source. Yes, perhaps culture should be used differently, and, as we might extract from Cairo, maybe it is required for sustainability, but cultural values are enmeshed in the idiosyncrasies of populations and are extremely hard to change. Also, cultural values might be one of the foundations necessary for sustainability, but maybe cultural competence is overrated in his study. He also appears to confuse the definition of sustainability, citing the WCED[4]’s definition—and agreeing with it—but later affirming that although the city “fails on most conventional tests of standard of living there are.”

Unlike Wikan’s cultural approach, Herman Daly’s work analytically deals with the concepts of utility[5] and throughput—mainly financial maintenance and ecological maintenance, respectively—and their importance in sustainable growth. Daly dooms the utilitarian perspective as “a basic concept in standard economics,” and unnecessary for development, arguing that it is “non-measurable [since it] is an experience, not a thing” (Daly 2002:89, 90, italics mine). Daly operationalizes sustainability by the definition of throughput, emphasizing the importance of ecological maintenance as the key to development. Indeed, the “infinite” growth of GDP and the misuse of nature’s “never-ending” resources have led to what Daly calls “un-economic growth,” creating ilth and making us “poorer” by “[encroaching] upon the finite ecosystem” (p. 91, italics mine). Daly’s view is one which I find most approachable and as he says, “measurable.” Yet, his solution to un-economic growth does not seem entirely viable. He proposes Georgism as a taxation system “[for] the resources and services of nature [to] finance public goods” (p. 97) but such a method, as I argued in my last commentary[6], cannot neces­sarily finance public goods[7] themselves. I believe this money should instead be used to develop ways to create sustainable design, much like William McDonough’s ecologically sustainable constructions.

McDonough has carried the sustainability theory directly to practice through architecture and chemistry, emphasizing the importance of sustainable material design as opposed to engaging in socio-cultural theory (Wikan) or economic theory (Daly). He views “design itself as an example of human intentions,” seeing non-sustainable design as an exemplifier of human selfishness for financial growth (Krieger 1996). His cradle-to-cradle theory of sustainability though the recycling of “waste”—which he deems inexistent, for “waste equals food”—has been remarkably efficient in at least starting the practice of sustainable development. His proposal of a “New Industrial Revolution” is clearly taking sure footing, and many companies (such as Ford, Nike, and others) are making his vision a reality, by engaging in projects that actually produce visible sustainability. Although McDonough’s approach yields him tremendous wealth—Daly would argue that McDonough ignores throughput in practice—and that the projects undertaken by multinationals might just be a selfish marketing tool, he needs to be accredited for the implementation of such a successful and practical plan that has real consequences.

[1] Which adds to and questions the definition of sustainable growth; it does not impoverish it.

[2] He says that “adequate food, shelter, etc., constitute basic needs [but] [p]eople will disagree not only on what ‘adequacy’ means but also on the more basic question as to what to count as a need (italics mine)” (Wikan 1995:636)

[3] For social responsibility Wikan (1995) notes on page 642 “[a] heritage of responsibility, compassion, and competence.”

[4] In this essay WDCE stands for: World Commission on Environment and Development.

[5] As in the “average per capita utility of members of a generation” (Daly 2002:89). It refers to the financial aspect of future generations and the happiness that they would assess monetarily.

[6] Commentary #5, April 15, 2006.

[7] I’m assuming that by “public goods” he refers to non-excludable goods, such as nature’s resources. Wikipedia defines, under “common examples of public goods,” “clean air and other environmental goods.”


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