The dimensions of sustainability

The concept of sustainability is based on the recognition of the limits and potentials of nature, as well as environmental complexity, inspiring a new understanding of the world to face the challenges of humanity in the third millennium.

The concept of sustainability promotes a new nature-culture alliance by founding a new economy, reorienting the potentials of science and technology, and building a new political culture based on an ethic of sustainability – in values, beliefs, feelings and knowledge – that They renew existential meanings, life worlds and ways of inhabiting planet Earth.

Sustainability in a temporal key

The appearance and dissemination of the term sustainable or sustainable development has accompanied the process of environmental awareness in global society.

Initially this concept was related -even with contradictions- to economic growth, since the objectives of maintaining the natural bases of the environment and the processes of deterioration of natural resources at different geographical scales were not considered in depth.

It was only towards the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies that the planetary environmental crisis began to be considered in both governmental and non-governmental world forums.

The environment – ​​development debate, raised at that time, revealed that environmental problems manifest themselves differently depending on whether they are developed or developing countries. Broadly speaking, it is possible to point out that the former overuse natural resources, while the latter underuse them; Although in the current era of globalization, developed countries also overuse the resources of the rest of the countries through the opening of international trade and the deterioration of the terms of trade and the weight imposed by external debts. In short, developed countries have been the original sources of environmental problems that were “exported” to areas of urban-industrial concentration in developing countries.

The modern notion of sustainable development has its origins in the debate that began in 1972 in Stockholm(2) and was consolidated twenty years later in Rio de Janeiro.

El sustainable development term It appears with the World Conservation Strategy(3) of 1980, which was the best-known contribution to the problem of the interrelationships between nature and society. Despite the variety of interpretations in political discourse and academic debates, the definition suggested by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by the then Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Brundtland in 1987, was adopted internationally.

The most repeated and widespread definition of the concept is that sustainable development is that which “is capable of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the possibilities of future generations to satisfy their own needs” (CMMAD, 1992).

This definition of sustainability includes two key ideas:

- The “need” to consider present and future generations in such conceptualization, and
- the “limitation” imposed on the environment by the state of technology and social organization in each historical-geographical context.

In reality, the discourse on sustainability was a response to the limits to growth school, which since the 1970s had been postulating the inexorable pressure of economic growth on nature.
Faced with this catastrophic vision, the sustainability approach is more flexible, pointing out that ecological damage occurs daily, gradually and at variable rates or environmental limits.
An important institutional outcome of UNCED was the creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in December 1992 to ensure effective monitoring of UNCED and to monitor and report on the implementation of the Earth Summit agreements at scale. local, national, regional and international.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002 marks the closing of this cycle by focusing on multilateralism as a key strategy for the fulfillment and implementation of sustainable development. This is how these summits served as a platform to incorporate the idea of ​​sustainable development in local, regional and global action plans(4).

The concept of sustainability

In this section we will adopt a conceptualization of operational sustainability for a better understanding of its complexity and in view of the need to overcome certain notions related to economic growth based on neoliberalism.

The concept of sustainability is based on the recognition of the limits and potentials of nature, as well as environmental complexity, inspiring a new understanding of the world to face the challenges of humanity in the third millennium. The concept of sustainability promotes a new nature-culture alliance by founding a new economy, reorienting the potentials of science and technology, and building a new political culture based on an ethic of sustainability – in values, beliefs, feelings and knowledge – that They renew the existential meanings, the worlds of life and the ways of inhabiting planet Earth.(5)

Sustainability presents various dimensions given its complexity

To fully define sustainability, it is necessary to consider all its dimensions in an articulated manner, since otherwise we fall into inconclusive reductionisms.

In this sense, in this module we will account, among other dimensions, for:
• Ecological or environmental sustainability that requires that development be compatible with the maintenance of ecological processes, biological diversity and the natural resource base.
• Social sustainability that requires development to aspire to strengthen the identity of communities and achieve demographic balance and the eradication of poverty.
• Economic sustainability that demands economically efficient and equitable development within and between present and future generations.
• Geographic sustainability that requires valuing the territorial dimension of different environments. This is a new perspective or dimension since although there is consensus, in international forums, about the importance and dimensions of this concept; The reality is that its application at different geographic scales, especially at the national, regional and local scales, is still very incipient. Furthermore, there is an undervaluation of the territorial dimension that can have negative consequences in sustainable development planning.

For the rest, cultural, political sustainability and the educational dimension are also considered to complete the complex nature that this concept encompasses.

The ecological or environmental dimension

The ecological dimension of sustainability promotes the protection of natural resources necessary for food and energy security and, at the same time, understands the requirement for the expansion of production to satisfy populations in demographic growth. In this way, an attempt is made to overcome the environment-development dichotomy, which is not a simple aspect judging by the environmental impacts of the neoliberal economic models in force in the contemporary world.

The ecological dimension of sustainability is conditioned by the provision of natural resources and environmental services in a geographical space. It is possible to note that although the abundance of natural resources does not guarantee the endogenous nature of sustainable development, as demonstrated by the circumstance of so many underdeveloped countries that have a significant endowment of water, mineral or energy resources; There is no doubt that it constitutes the basic potential of territorial development.

It is essential to incorporate the ecological dimension in political decision-making and, likewise, it is necessary to examine the environmental consequences of the appropriation of natural resources that each society promotes in different historical stages.

Ecological sustainability refers to the relationship with the carrying capacity of ecosystems, that is, the magnitude of nature to absorb and recompose itself from anthropogenic influences.

The carrying capacity is the maximum number of people that can be supported by the resources of a territory and is normally defined in relation to the maximum sustainable population, to the minimum standard of living essential for survival. The concept of carrying capacity allows us to evaluate the maximum limits of population growth according to various technological levels(6).

Load capacity can also have several meanings. When it comes to renewable resources (groundwater reserves, various trees and vegetables, fish and other animals) this concept refers to the maximum yield that can be obtained indefinitely without endangering the future capital of each resource. In the case of pollution (liquid and gaseous discharges in rivers, lakes, oceans and in the atmosphere) the carrying capacity refers to the quantities of polluting products that these receptors can absorb before being irremediably altered.(7)

In the case of renewable natural resources, the utilization rate should be equivalent to the recomposition rate of the resource. For non-renewable natural resources, the utilization rate must be equivalent to the rate of replacement of the resource in the production process, for the period of time expected for its depletion (measured by current reserves and by the utilization rate). If we take into account that its very “non-renewable” nature prevents indefinitely sustainable use, the rate of use of the resource must be limited to the estimated period for the appearance of new substitutes. This requires, among other aspects, that the investments made for the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, in order to be sustainable, must be proportional to the investments allocated for the search for substitutes, particularly investments in science and technology(8). .

The social dimension

It is known that the origin of environmental problems is closely related to the development styles of developed and underdeveloped societies. While in the former, overconsumption causes unsustainability, in the latter, poverty is the primary cause of the underuse of natural resources and situations of lack of coverage of basic needs that give rise to problems such as deforestation, pollution or erosion. of the soils.

In relation to social sustainability, we must take into account that it implies promoting a new style of development that favors the access and use of natural resources and the preservation of biodiversity and that is “socially sustainable in the reduction of poverty and social inequalities and promote justice and equity; that is culturally sustainable in the conservation of the system of values, practices and symbols of identity that, despite its evolution and permanent updating, determine national integration over time; and that it is politically sustainable by deepening democracy and guaranteeing access and participation of all in public decision-making. This new style of development is guided by a new ethic of development, an ethic in which the economic objectives of progress are subordinated to the laws of functioning of natural systems and to the criteria of respect for human dignity and improvement of quality. of people's lives”(9). In relation to these assessments by Guimarães, the aforementioned dimension is also closely related to the cultural and political aspects of societies.

But not only must sustainability promote qualitative changes in the well-being of societies and strengthen planetary environmental balance, but it must also consider the social dimension in its deepest sense.

This is understood if it is expressed that it is natural that a human being in a situation of extreme poverty, exclusion or marginality cannot have a close commitment to sustainability. For example, those who do not have firewood to heat their homes cannot be asked not to excessively cut down the trees near their homes or overconsume species and overgraze the soil with their livestock. On the contrary, in situations of wealth, populations tend to overconsume and, therefore, will not commit to sustainability either, a fact that is notorious in large cities, where the culture of shopping, junk food, spending exaggerated energy and water is commonplace.

In terms of the relationship between these two extremes of society, there is no doubt that the privileged insertion of some - the rich - in the accumulation process, and therefore in the access and use of nature's resources and services, It allows them to transfer to others – the poor – the social and environmental costs of unsustainability to subordinate or excluded sectors. This implies, especially in peripheral countries, with serious problems of poverty, inequality and exclusion, that the social foundations of sustainability involve postulating distributive justice as basic criteria of public policy, in the case of goods and services, and those of universal coverage, for global education, health, housing and social security policies(10).

Guimarães also contributes the concept of social actors of sustainability when referring to the basic components of sustainability, such as the support of the stock of resources and environmental quality to satisfy the basic needs of the populations. From this point of view, it is necessary to consider current and future generations, which are foreign to the market, since they respond to the optimal allocation of resources in the short term and not in the long term. The same applies, a fortiori, to the specific type of current shortage. If the scarcity of natural resources can, although imperfectly, be faced in the market, elements such as climate balance, the ozone layer, biodiversity or the resilience of the ecosystem transcend market action.

The following graph shows the inclusion of social actors in the context of their interactions with the different components of the State.

The conditions that allow achieving sustainable development require agreements that include social and political actors and the public agenda of the State. (eleven)

It would be very difficult to find a social actor who would be against sustainable development. So it is necessary to ask: what are the social actors that promote sustainable development?

Today we live with two opposing realities. On the one hand, social actors agree that the current style has been exhausted and is decidedly unsustainable, not only from an economic and environmental point of view, but mainly with regard to social justice.(12) On the other hand , the measures required for the transformation of the institutions that supported the current lifestyle are not adopted. The concept of sustainability would imply an environmental restriction to the economic process, without yet addressing the institutional and political processes that regulate the ownership, control, access and use of natural resources and environmental services.

The growing importance given to sustainable consumption and production criteria is an objective that countries will achieve when they begin to recognize that sustainability requires a long-term strategic approach to transform the causes that cause environmental problems. In relation to the issue of consumption patterns, it is possible to point out that they are determined by a network of actors and mechanisms that can be summarized in: the price of goods and services, the characteristics of the infrastructure (housing, energy, transportation), individual and business budgets, the activity profile of individuals and companies and alternatives in lifestyles. The different levels of influences and links of interdependence within these networks highlight conditioning aspects that governments must consider to implement sustainable changes(13).

The economic dimension

The economy - environment debate is one that has raised the most arduous controversies in terms of its relationship with sustainability. It has been rightly pointed out that even economic science does not have a convincing response to the ecological critique. Economics fails to value the global wealth of nations, their natural resources and especially the prices of raw materials. For example, if we refer to the price of exhaustible energy resources, it is evident that their valuation is always lower than the real value in terms of their preservation for future generations. It is also possible to question whether the price that industries have to pay for inserting non-recycled waste into the environment is not rational either. So what will be the appropriate prices. Here the notion of externalities is usually incorporated as environmental aspects that do not have quantitative valuation in accounting or in the production process. Hence the importance of valuing resources at least by their replacement cost and building with them, for example, natural heritage accounts to know what and how much we have, how we could use it in different alternatives and how much we have left in each case.

To develop the topic of the economic dimension of sustainability, the question can be raised: is environmental sustainability possible with the market economy? (14) This question requires a debate in which it is necessary to admit as a sustainable economic model from the environmental point of view to that which adapts to the biogeochemical cycles of matter, and thus allows it to perpetuate itself over time. There are a series of agreements that establish certain environmental goals, in order to influence the forms, products and by-products of economic activities. There are also standards that promote influencing the environmental improvement of a company's activity, but whose acceptance and development are completely voluntary (ISO 14000 standards). On another scale, there are also procedures for evaluating the environmental impacts generated by a project or activity.

But without a doubt the question brings up, according to the same author, another one: is it possible to make the relationship between the economy and the natural environment sustainable without changing the economic model? The current economic model is based on the search for surplus value. All activity is carried out through this logic, in which private interest prevails over collective interest. The owner of the resources has the right to exploit them in the way that best suits his interests, that is, in the way that obtains the greatest surplus value. Given the panorama, administrations seem to try to do everything possible to ensure that the greatest added value is obtained by carrying out sustainable activities, either through aid for technological improvement or by certifying seals that improve the image of the company. But the path taken in this direction is that only partial improvements have been made and the economic model remains unsustainable.(15)

The cultural dimension

The evolution of society towards sustainable production and consumption styles implies a change in the currently dominant civilization model, particularly with regard to the cultural patterns of the society-nature relationship. “The adequate understanding of the crisis therefore implies the recognition that it refers to the exhaustion of a style of development that is ecologically predatory, socially perverse, politically unjust, culturally alienated and ethically repulsive. What is at stake is overcoming the paradigms of modernity that have been defining the orientation of the development process. In that sense, perhaps the emerging modernity in the Third Millennium is the 'modernity of sustainability', where the human being once again becomes part of nature” (16).

Sustainability should not only promote the productivity of the resource base and the integrity of ecological systems, but also the cultural patterns and cultural diversity of peoples.

Currently, the main cause of unsustainability has a cultural dimension, depending on the worldview or way of seeing the world. From this perspective, contemporary Western culture is unsustainable. Its relationship with the environment is based on the idea of ​​appropriating nature as an inexhaustible source of resources.

Cultural sustainability includes the situation of equity that promotes that members of a community or country have equal access to opportunities for education and learning of values ​​congruent with an increasingly multicultural and multilingual world and a notion of respect and solidarity in terms of their values. ways of life and forms of relationship with nature.

The geographical dimension

The "World Resources Report - 1992", prepared by the UNDP, focuses on sustainable development as a process that requires simultaneous global progress in various dimensions: economic, human, environmental and technological. As can be seen, initially the geographical dimension was ignored in its specifically territorial meaning, since the environmental dimension is naturally explicit.

If the geographical dimension of sustainability is taken into account, it is noted that it will have different interpretations for an African village, a Latin American agglomeration or an industrialized European nation. Perhaps sustainability is more relevant for an industrial state due to the deterioration that is evident, while sustainability is not yet “conscious” for an African village and, needless to say, it has been practiced by pre-Columbian cultures.

The geographical dimension - also called territorial - of sustainability constitutes one of the main challenges of contemporary public policies - of environmental ordering and planning -, which requires territorializing the environmental and social sustainability of development and, at the same time, making development sustainable. of the regions, that is, guarantee that the productive activities of the different regional economies promote the quality of life of the population and protect the natural heritage to safeguard it for future generations(17).

The Natural Resources Report's claim that there are no examples of sustainable development at the national level and that neither industrial countries nor emerging economies, for example in Southeast Asia, offer adequate models, is based on the fact that it has still been little considered. its geographical dimension in terms of territorial planning. The question then arises: what is the viability of sustainable development in Latin American countries, for example, in the face of macroeconomic policies with very high negative environmental and territorial impacts? The way to balance the current model of "unsustainable underdevelopment"(18) is through the insertion of the environmental dimension and the geographical dimension in politics, aspects that are insufficiently relevant in Latin American countries in which an environmental discourse is disseminated but not a true environmental policy.

The geographical dimension of sustainability implies the harmonious progress of the different spatial/environmental systems, mitigating the disparities and dysfunctions of the territory, in addition to promoting its potential and limiting vulnerabilities. The territorial dimension in government action and management constitutes a globalizing vision of development, a horizontal cut in the integration of different sectors and government levels. "The final objective of territorial planning is to achieve a harmonious relationship between the environment and human settlements with the purpose of reducing regional inequalities and achieving socially balanced development, respecting nature"(19). To achieve this objective, it is necessary to think that the man-environment relationship is not defined through macro generalizations but on a scale of immediate relevance, of life. It is the local scale and its integration into the regional scale, a fundamental organizational principle that requires decision-making autonomy.

The defense of indigenous and rural groups against extractive industries, large dams, commercial deforestation or uniform tree plantations, the resistance of genuine non-governmental organizations, is part of the defense of the identity of the people. Now, the structural similarity of many ecological conflicts around the world in very different cultures, also the fact that the concept of environmental justice is used not only in the United States but in Brazil and South Africa, taking into account the geographical dimension of sustainability allows us to affirm that ecological-distributive conflicts should not be seen as expressions of identity politics. On the contrary, ethnic or social identity is one of the languages ​​with which ecological-distributive conflicts are represented, which arise from the increasing use that the economy makes of the natural environment on which we all depend to live, to the detriment of the dimension geography of sustainability (20).

The political dimension

The political foundation of sustainability is closely linked to the processes of democratization and construction of citizenship, and seeks to guarantee the full incorporation of people to the benefits of sustainability.

This is summarized, at a micro level, in the democratization of society, and at a macro level, in the democratization of the State. The first objective involves strengthening the capacity of social and community organizations, access to information for all citizens in environmental terms, and training for decision-making. The second is achieved through citizen control of the State and the incorporation of the concept of political responsibility in public activity. Both processes constitute purely political challenges, which can only be faced through the construction of alliances between different social groups, in order to provide the basis of support and consensus for the change in lifestyle towards sustainability.
It also requires the sincerity of international organizations that have influence in sustainability through their development funds, a highly complex issue.

Corollary: The educational dimension of sustainability

The concept of environmental education is dynamic, that is, it changes along with the environment and also according to the perception of different social subjects and contexts. Traditionally, the natural aspects of the environment were worked on from approaches close to the natural sciences. Subsequently, the need to explicitly include the environment in educational processes was raised, but attention focused on issues such as the conservation of natural resources, the protection of fauna and flora, etc.

It is currently recognized that although natural physical elements constitute the support of the environment; The sociocultural, political and economic dimensions are also fundamental to understand the relationships that humanity establishes with its environment and to better manage natural resources. There has also been awareness of the interdependence between the environment, development and education. It is this awareness that leads to demanding the reorientation of environmental education so that, in addition to concern for the rational use of resources, interest in the distribution of these resources flourishes and the development models that guide their use are modified. .

The educational dimension of sustainability is a lasting response that is considered transversal to all education and that provides a new paradigm that provides a profound turn of cultural innovation.

Environmental education is a process of social awareness and action on environmental problems and their alternative solutions. This definition, socially recognized by the population in general, by those who actively participate in favor of the environment, by professionals, expert scientists and by educators, reveals a notable distance between discourse, that is, what is expressed verbally, and action. , what is done. The praxis - in terms of the educational dimension of sustainability - seems not to coincide with the known slogans because if so the contrast between the promising economic results and the indicators of the threatened Earth consistent with over-consumption and poverty, the root of environmental problems.

Environmental knowledge (21) is interdisciplinary and has brought together a very solid theoretical framework. This knowledge is not a new area of ​​knowledge or a new discipline, but rather a field of knowledge in which the contributions of concepts and methodologies from various sciences that deal with complex environmental systems that function as sets of interactions between the different spheres of society converge. Earth and man.

In summary, the educational dimension of sustainability is key to understanding the relationships between natural and social systems, as well as to achieving a clearer perception of the importance of sociocultural factors in the genesis of environmental problems. Along these lines, it must promote the acquisition of awareness, values ​​and behaviors that favor the effective participation of the population in the decision-making process.

Environmental education understood in this way can and should be a strategic key that affects the established development model to reorient it towards sustainability and equity.

By Lic. Diana Duran


1 Graduate and PhD student in Geography from the University of Salvador.
2 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972)
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5 This concept of sustainability was reflected in the Manifesto for Sustainability that emerged from the Symposium on Ethics and Sustainable Development, held in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 2-4, 2002.
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8 Adapted from GUIMARÃES, Roberto P. (1998) The ethics of sustainability and the formulation of development policies. Environment & Society, No. 2, 1998 first semester, 5-24. Campinas, Brazil.
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10 Adapted from GUIMARÃES, Roberto P. (1998) Óp. Cit.
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12 Adapted from GUIMARÃES, Roberto P. (1998) Óp. Cit.
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15 VALDÉS, Javier. (2006) Op. Cit.
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17 Adapted from GUIMARÃES, Roberto P. (2006) Óp. Cit.
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20 Adapted from MARTÍNEZ-ALIER, Joan. (2006) Ecological-distributive conflicts and sustainability indicators. Polis. Bolivarian University Magazine. Year Vol.5. No. 3. Santiago de Chile.
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