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Celebrating 30 years (1987-2017): is it too late to learn sustainability?

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 For the first time in history, multi-scalar (re)application of sustainable development (SD) and sustainability science to test personal, family, household, community, national, network, continental and global development changes; and across disciplines, institutions, services, faith as well as cultures is collapsing and enlivening trillions of scholarly theories and inspiring the momentum to improve human lives every minute.

Ever since the novel concept of Sustainable Development (SD) was first coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission and, subsequently, published by the Oxford University Press, it continued to gain widest pre-eminence in policy, practice and academics. The number of academic courses being initiated at world-class universities and associate higher learning institutions to propagate SD knowledge, service, and its auxiliary disciplines such as Sustainability Science[1][2][3][4], Sustainability Intelligence and Sustainability Leadership is sharply rising and attracting students, governors, leaders and professionals worldwide. Why? The reasons are countless and traceable. The obvious fact is that SD presents “a new concept for the world economy” and uniquely transverses beyond seeking income (Sachs, 2013[5]). Out of the SD’s auxiliary disciplines, sustainability science is increasingly a predominating field of study and scientific research[6].

From the onset, several international organisations, government departments and ministries, civil societies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have all responded to the relevance of SD. Accordingly, a number of commissions, divisions, panels, units and independent state committees to expand SD agendas, goals,  actions and interventions have been created. This is consistent with the view that ‘network of diverse actors have been formed, alliances have been built, institutions and organisations have been constituted, projects have been formulated, and money – in increasingly large amounts – has been spent in the name of sustainability.’[7] As this author notes, ‘there is nothing, it seems, that cannot be … hyphenated or paired with it’. So, one could have musical sustainability, sustainable musicology, sustainable organotivars or geosustainability. Global narratives involving industrialisation, HIV/AIDS, GMOs, urbanisation, migration and food all ignited the enlargement of sustainability messages. In front of many authors, sustainability is a popular concept[8] that ‘has the ring of universal desirability about it, no one is prepared to fundamentally challenge its precepts, no matter how vague these are, simply because there is an almost holistic human wish for a viable future for this unique planet and its inhabitants’[9]. Its spread has been electrified by international endorsement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Paris Agreement and the recent constructive talks of Anthropocence and global change[10]. Global change is basically understood to encompass ‘not only environmental change (such as biodiversity loss and climate change) but economic, social and cultural change as well[11]’. Another means by which sustainability practically overflows development boundaries is the varied methods of delivering and evaluating SDGs on the ground and real-life situations. For this, I can mention the BallagioSTAMP.[12]  The ultimate proposition is that the emergence of the SDGs to tackle global challenges has confirmed the assertion that sustainability is a ‘moral ideal, a universally acknowledged goal to strive for, a shared basis for diverting the creative and restorative energies that constitute life on Earth, and is notably resplendent in human conditions’. Since September 2015, more cultures, societies, groups and clubs have been reached with undiluted messages, interventions or broadcast of news about the sustainability benefits the global community is likely to derive if the SDGs are implemented all-inclusively and cooperatively.

Globally, SD has been defined differently in the context of time, location, resource, power and ‘loosely faith’ with the common denominator being ‘needs and lives’. Every institution defines, interprets, and approaches SD in diverse ways – from learning to policy action. The United Nations, World Bank and International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) all have raised valid questions to aid explicit understanding, discussion and redefinition of SD. The theoretical dichotomy of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ sustainability is brilliantly elaborated[13].  Yet, the definition put forward by the Brundtland Commission still predominates as a global working definition: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”[14]. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, ‘sustainability is not just a word to define – it’s a word that defines’[15] the university. It is not enough to study, formulate policy, criticize or understand the concept of SD without putting its principles into practice. Many global leaders have realised this. Thus, practising the elements of SD is crucial for creating sustainable living conditions. In respect to the “UN and Sustainability”, the Immediate Past UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon[16], remarked: “I would like to see our renovated Headquarters complex eventually become a globally acclaimed model of efficient use of energy and resources. Beyond New York, the initiative should include the other United headquarters and offices around the globe.”

Also, the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, spearheaded the implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and several other initiatives toward the achievement of a just and sustainable global society. In 2014, he delivered speech to eminent audience at the 14th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit and called for a fundamental shift to a more sustainable development pathway…”[17]. The Microsoft Giant, Bill Gates, has mounted cluster of projects in and outside his home country through Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve health, income and food security because of desiring to witness a sustainable society in which all humans are happy, safe and secure.

The News Centre of the UNEP (UN Environment)[18] eulogized the then global peace icon, Nelson Mandela, as “… champion of sustainable development…” because of his immeasurable influence in resolving explosive political tensions and civil conflicts to create freedom, dignity and liberty. I have been a fan of Mother Teresa whose work led to finding solutions for the inverse ingredients of sustainability – corruption, poverty, death penalty, human insecurity and war[19]. The soft-solutions such as love, smile, and joy, which she cultivated, cannot be left out. Her contributions to society remain inspiration for some SD practitioners and social entrepreneurs. One of the lessons I learned from her is that sustainability is built over time and sustain over time. It will not just happen. People would have to lead change to bring about sustainability for which critical ‘skills set’ are needed, including ‘system intelligence’[20].

Some development organisations that contributed or are contributing to the seeding of global sustainability in the lives of people, institutions and countries are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, the World Bank, South Africa’s Department for Environmental Affairs, IISD, and The Commonwealth. There are several NGOs and other organisations making difference at considerable scale, though. For the past 30 years, thousands of future leaders, researchers, scientists, policy-makers and writers have been trained in SD-related disciplines at higher learning institutions. The universities which I have evidence to support are the University of Oxford (UK), United Nations University (Japan), Harvard University (USA), University of Cambridge (UK), Royal Holloway University of London (UK), Stockholm University (Sweden), Columbia University (USA), Central European University (Hungary) and University of Tokyo (Japan).

In the field of academics and research, peer-review journals are among the best channels through which people, industry and governments are reached with thematic issues pertaining to sustainability. Some scholarly journals that have been devoted to propagating sustainability are Global Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Sustainability Science, and Environment, Development and Sustainability.

Despite the rise of interest in sustainability, there is absolute shortage of trained sustainability scientists in the global South. Scientists are important players in development progress. Will global sustainability be achieved without sustainability scientists? The demand for the training of more such experts is economically effective. I learned that in developed countries such as Finland, it was only last year when the first ‘Professor in Sustainability Science’ was appointed. When I returned from studies in the United Kingdom a decade ago, my enthusiasm was watered by questions and arguments to explain the title of “my degree” and justify that it was not a “plot”. The resilience, adaptation and system thinking which SD training offers has been extremely beneficial and indescribable. So, I posted on my twitter account ‘A happy Day’ – I saw the then President of the Republic of Ghana, H.E John D. Mahama, appointed as a Co-Chair of the UN High Panel on the SDGs Advocacy. Now, the new President, H.E. Nana Addo D. Akufo-Addo has replaced the former president in the SDGs advocacy matters. What should I say? More than excited!!!

Yes, some good and measurable progresses have happened over the 30 years due to active participation of the public and global leaders in sustainability actions. From such actions, a picture is explicitly demonstrated that SD virally infests all aspects of life and the way people think, relate, act, lead and are governed. Thus, sustainability benefits cannot be colonnaded because they are mostly intertwined socially, environmentally and economically. The all-inclusive practising of SD gives hope to nations, organisations and persons. Sustainability is a soft word of the hearts and minds around which fellow feelings overshadow hate, envy and greed in homes, politics, governments, schools, markets and factories. It has helped to deflate territorial tensions, disputes and conflicts, which otherwise would have painfully caused destruction of human lives. The knowledge of sustainability does not only give power but also build up a person’s attributes of honesty, openness and fairness in dealing with issues of concern for sustainable human well-being. In all these, one of the things sustainability has done is to change public attitude to caring for nature – giving attention to carbon issues. The biggest challenge is how to appropriately communicate SD and sustainability science to the understanding of global non-sustainability scientist audience, including children. As much as ‘higher learning institutions’ remain key players in disseminating SD concepts and strategies, ‘especially in addressing emerging issues (climate change, disaster mitigation, post conflict countries, etc.) as well as creating new leaders’[21], the endogenous institutions such as hunter associations, artisanal e-waste collectors, association of earthworm economists, farmer-based groups (FBGs) and pastoralist networks are equally becoming significant actors in actualizing SD in practice.

Centuries ago, the philosophy of ‘Let no one enter here if he be ignorant of geometry’[22] was the hallmark of Plato’s academy. Today, sustainability is triumphing because it accommodates everyone even if you hate learning. There is space for everyone to learn sustainability at every level of life. As Clark indicates, sustainability is ‘a room of its own’. And, if the challenging needs of over 9 billion people are to be met in 2050 and beyond, then actors ought to begin treating sustainability as a human value.

[1] Komiyama, H. and Takeuchi, K., 2006. Sustainability science: building a new discipline. Sustainability Science 1:1-6.
[2]Kauffman, J., 2009. Advancing sustainability science: report on international conference on sustainability science (ICSS) 2009. Sustainability Science 4:233-242.
[3]Kates, R. W.; Clark, W.C.; Corell, R.; Hall, J.M.; Jaeger, C.C.;  Lowe, I.; McCarthy, J.J.; Schellnhuber, H.J.; Bolin, B.; Dickson, N.M.; Faucheux, S.; Gallopin, G.C.; Grübler, A.;  Huntley, B.; Jäger, J.;   Jodha, N.S.; Kasperson, E.R.; Mabogunje, A.; Matson, P.; Mooney, H.; Moore III, B.; O’Riordan, T. and   Svedin, U., 2001. Sustainability science. Science 292 (5517): 641–642.
[4] Kates, R. 2011. What kind of science is sustainability science?  PNAS 108 (49) 19449-19450.
[5] Sachs, D. J., 2013. Cities and sustainable development. http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/Sachs%20Writing/2013/Cities%20and%20Sustainable%20Development.pdf. (Accessed on 28.04.2014).
[6] Clark, C.W., 2007. Sustainability science: a room of its own. PNAS 104 (6) 1737-1738.
[7] Scoones, I., 2007. Sustainability. Development in Practice 17 (4&5) 589-596
[8]Manderson, A. K., 2006. A system based framework to examine the multi-contextual application of sustainability concept. Environment, Development and Sustainability 8: 85-97.
[9]O’Riordan, T. and Voisey, H., 1998. The political economy of the sustainability transition In: O’Riordan, T. and Voisey, H. (eds.) The transition to sustainability: politics of agenda 21 in Europe. Earthscan: London. pp 3-30.
[10] Stockholm Memorandum, 2011. Tipping the scales towards sustainability. 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on ‘global sustainability: transforming the world in an era of global change’. Sweden, 16-19 May 2011.
[11] United Nations University, 2013. 2012 Annual Report, Tokyo, Japan.
[12] Pinter, L., 2013. Measuring progress towards sustainable development goals. IISD Report, Monitoba, Canada.
[13]Davidson, K., 2014. A typology to categorize the ideologies of actors in the sustainable development debate. Sustainable Development 22: 1-14.
[14] Redclift, M., 2002. Sustainable development In: Desai, V. and Potter, R.B. (eds.) The Companion to development studies. Arnold Publishers: London. pp 275-278.
[15] See https://sustain.ubc.ca/courses-teaching/seeds (Accessed on 23.04.2017).
[16] See http://www.un.org/en/sustainability/ (Accessed on 03.04.2014).
[17] See http://kofiannanfoundation.org/newsletter-issue/our-work-january-february-2014-0. (Accessed on 28.04.2014).
[18] See http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2756&ArticleID=10674. (Accessed on 25.04.2014).
[19] González-Balado, J. L., 1996. Mother Teresa, in my own words 1910-1997. Gramercy Books (Random House), New York, pp xii+109.
[20]Shriberg, M., 2012. Sustainable leadership as 21st-century leadership In: Gallagher, D.R. (ed.) Environmental leadership: a reference handbook. Environmental leadership challenges. Sage Publications, Inc.: California.
[21]Irandoust, S., 2009. “Sustainable development in the context of climate change”: a new approach for institutions of higher learning”. Sustainability Science 4: 135-137.
[22] Reader’s Digest Library of Modern Knowledge, 1978. The Human World, No.2. RDA:London.

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