Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • What Sustainable Development and the Green Economy Still Get Wrong About Curbing Climate Change


    Contributors: Bernal Herrera-Fernández, Liette Vasseur

    International treaties, such as the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, have taken on the daunting task of mobilizing the world against the civilization-threatening challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

    Two core concepts underpin these efforts: sustainable development and the green economy. In 1987, the United Nations formally recognized sustainable development as essential in seeking equilibrium between environmental, social, and economic development. Alternatively, the green economy attempts to integrate environment and economy. What these two efforts share, however, is an assumption that the economy can grow without limit and that the Earth’s resources are infinite and inexhaustible. We can always develop suitable technologies and new materials so humanity can continue its current trajectory driven by uninhibited growth— but what is wrong with that picture?

    In the 1972 book Limits to Growth, author Donella Meadows and her collaborators used a computer model of the world, known as World3, to show that the unlimited growth paradigm is not possible under certain conditions of population growth and natural resource use. The Club of Rome, a think tank comprised of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, modelled different scenarios for the future of planet Earth in the book, taking into account varying scenarios of human population growth, agricultural productivity, natural resource extraction, industrial production, and pollution. The authors applied various assumptions and policy options across 12 different scenarios, most of which pointed to eventual global economic collapse. Beyond the Limits, the 1992 sequel to that book, subsequently presented evidence that civilization had already surpassed Earth’s limits and that humanity was heading down an unsustainable development path. 

    Although both books were initially criticized post-publication, research has increasingly pointed to the alignment of the author’s forecasts to the Earth’s current trajectory. 

    So, what is the solution? Can these international treaties help change the forecasted path of this planet—or is it too late?

    These treaties, although they seek social, financial, and economic transformations to achieve sustainability, use a reductionist approach for solutions. Although this approach can make a large and complex problem seem less intimidating (by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces) this approach often loses sight of the interconnectedness of the overall situation. For example, the green economy argues predominantly in favour of green energies as the great solution to addressing climate change, especially focusing on the decarbonization of national economies. That solution centres on technological change without considering the multitude of factors associated with this necessary global transformation: such as the governance of natural resource management, or the impact of the materials required to build that technology (e.g., scarce chemical and nonrenewable mineral resources).

    Based on assumptions of unlimited growth and reductionism, are we not then headed toward a new form of extractivism? This acceptance of wide-scale removal and subsequent processing of natural resources stands in complete contradiction with sustainable development. 

    The answers are not simple, but the current international political architecture requires approaches to climate change and biodiversity loss that are systemic and holistic to achieve successful outcomes. They must consider all the components and interrelationships involved in true transformation. Then, and only then, can we work to avoid the collapse scenarios of which science warns.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • A Better Kind of Urban Development

    Two contrasting views of Front Street in downtown Thorold: before the revitalization project (on left) and afterwards (right). Photo of Front Street before the revitalization project taken by Paul Forsyth, provided courtesy of NiagaraThisWeek.com; after photo by Christine Daigle.

    New urban development sites have proliferated in recent years.

    The housing market in Canada is feverish, with many claiming that more housing needs to be built in order to satisfy the increasing demand. This will mean increased urban expansion and the conversion of land into brand-new neighbourhoods filled with cookie-cutter houses. Young trees will be planted here-and-there to grow through sidewalks. Conversely, sidewalks may sometimes be nonexistent in certain neighbourhoods that are poorly serviced by public transit. These areas will be designed with the assumption that residents will use cars to commute, with little thought given to the walkability of the neighbourhood.

    Urban developers who design these neighbourhoods may also plan for a green space or playground, especially when the area is meant to be family-oriented. Yards will be covered with roll-out grass to create instant lawns, with empty spaces left for the first dwellers to garden as they wish—or not. Plants that were naturally growing in these areas (in harmonious relation with the animals and bugs of the surrounding ecosystem), will become seen as “weeds” that need to be controlled and eliminated.

    What was once a natural habitat, with a variety of animal and plant species that all shared an ecosystem, will be destroyed. In its place will be a space designed by humans, and for humans, with the goal of eliminating as many “natural annoyances” as possible.

    Land clearing makes space for humans — while simultaneously eliminating entire ecosystems in the process. Furthermore, it brings humans and wildlife closer together, often with negative implications. Increased urban sprawl in Thorold has generated a surge of coyote encounters and even attacks. Closer proximity between animals and humans can also increase incidences of zoonotic diseases, such as bird flu or rabies.

    While there has been lot of work done in relation to sustainable urban development, it often focuses on mitigating the impact of climate change by planning for human movement that is not car-dependent, through the development of more efficient public transit, cycling and walking paths. But more should also be done to work with established ecosystems — instead of clearing and destroying them. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, “Integrating the Environment in Urban Planning and Management. Key Principles and Approaches for Cities in the 21st Century,” for example, proposes a series of planning principles for integrated and sustainable urban development. This includes committing to an environmental ethic and the regeneration of natural systems in order to make cities green.

    Those principles, along with care for existing ecosystems, are unfortunately not always applied in real-world scenarios. A recent example of this can be seen in the Niagara region with the revitalization of Thorold’s downtown core. In recent years, a great deal of effort has gone into giving Thorold’s Front Street a facelift to attract new visitors, diners, and shoppers. Façades of buildings on the downtown street were redone and, as part of its recent push for revitalization in 2020, the city re-did the sidewalks, added parking spaces, and integrated benches, new light standards, and other streetscaping elements. Instead of implementing a design that kept the mature, established trees that adorned the street intact, the City opted to cut those trees down in order to facilitate new sidewalks. New, very young, trees were planted in their stead. While the change in landscape is indeed shocking, there is more than mere aesthetic enjoyment at stake here.

    Comparing the old to the new, the pre-revitalization to the revitalized downtown core, one might notice that nature has been almost completely evacuated. The little, new trees that were recently planted have been given only a small space in the ground to expand their trunks. This will lead to the “necessity” of eventually cutting them down in the future—a necessity created entirely by humans’ lack of planning for the tree’s needs. Beyond the drastic change in canopy, one needs to also think of how the changes impact the many creatures that were living in, or relied on, the mature trees for survival. Cutting mature trees down to satisfy the human desire for revitalization destroyed the habitat of creatures that were forced to relocate. Revitalizing the downtown core was not done with a view of the ecosystem that it was and in fact amounted to a devitalization: where mature tree dwellers, such as birds, squirrels and bugs had to leave the downtown core, making it less lively. If planners had considered the impact on nature and ecosystems, they would—and could—have done things differently.

    Making cities “green” and environmentally friendly by planning urban development with sustainability and respect for the integrity of ecosystems in mind is possible. It can — and it should— be at the forefront of our thinking as we continue building more space for human use.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Is reconnecting to nature the key to sustainability?

    Contributor: Christine Daigle

    According to the United Nations, more than 50% of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, with a projected increase to almost 70% by 2050. While urban living may differ significantly between a megalopolis like Tokyo or Mumbai and a small size city like St. Catharines, it remains that for urban dwellers, keeping in touch with nature can be challenging.

    In the Niagara region, we are fortunate to always be somewhat close to the countryside with easy access to trails in Short Hills Provincial Park, as well as other fields, orchards and vineyards, and lakes Ontario and Erie. It is, perhaps, debatable how “natural” these sites are given that there is a lot of human management of land that goes into their upkeep, however. Even Short Hills, which appears to be the most natural of all the sites listed, has seen some human intervention in creating and maintaining the trails, through use or management.

    In smaller cities, those who own or rent a house sometimes have access to a yard that they can use to engage in vegetable gardening. Other small city dwellers, however, may not have this kind of access and their contact with nature may be limited to the plants and flowers they keep in balcony planters, or to the city parks they visit in order to enjoy some grass, trees, and birds. Inhabitants of large cities and megalopolises may not have access to any natural spaces at all other than city parks. Some individuals never go out of their cities—whether for lack of interest, lack of financial means, or both—and their only experience with nature is through manicured city-managed areas such as parks. To remedy this, “regreening” has become an urban strategy of restoring degraded or barren landscapes to a more naturalized state using trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. However, and despite many cities’ efforts to “regreen” themselves, not everyone considers green spaces to be important for their citizens, thereby limiting access to nature for a great number of city dwellers. For those, the only access might be through the scruffy trees growing through sidewalk cement. They may also have a mediated access to nature in the form of nature shows they watch on television (in which nature is presented as pristine and distant) or newscasts that speak of nature mainly when some catastrophic event is unfolding—such as a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, or floods—thereby portraying nature as dangerous and threatening.

    If the connection to nature is very tenuous or inexistent for many urban dwellers, how are the calls for the need to care for nature and adopt more sustainable ways expected to be heard? An expression coined by Latin poet Sextus Propertius captures this well: “Loin des yeux, loin du coeur” (literally: far from sight, far from heart). It is difficult to care for beings one has no contact with. Calls for saving the oceans and their inhabitants will not be heard by the person whose only contact with them are via the can of tuna they consume or the goldfish they once had as a child. Likewise, environmentalists’ pleas to save remote or even unknown species from extinction due to hunting, overharvesting, urban expansion, pollution, or the introduction of invasive species in some areas are unlikely to be heard by those with little or no contact with nature.

    If our goal is to co-exist on the planet with other species while not driving them to extinction, leaving behind a world that future generations can enjoy—the standard definition of sustainability—then we need to better understand why this is such a pressing issue. Reconnecting with nature, experiencing it directly and exposing ourselves to its beauty, its generosity, as well as its annoyances—such as the bugs that may want to feed from us as we enjoy a stroll in a provincial park—is key to understanding the need to change our exploitative approach to nature. To do so, we need to individually and collectively make efforts to reconnect to nature so that we may develop a better understanding of it, its innerworkings, our place in it, and how to care for it.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Beyond sustainability – radical transformation: What does that mean and how do we do it?

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur and Jocelyn Baker

    Since the World Commission on Environment and Development released Our Common Future in 1987, all nations have been talking, at various degrees, about sustainable development.

    In 2000, for instance, the United Nations launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), directed towards developing countries only. These focused on three areas: human capitalinfrastructure, and human rights (social, economic and political) with the intent of increasing the standard of living for people around the world. These goals, however, made little progress to solve inequalities between developed countries and developing countries. It quickly became clear that much remained to be done. So, in 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The major difference from the Millennium Development goals was that these were designed to apply to all countries evenly, not just developing countries.

    But is this enough?

    The impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the global economy suggests that, like the MDGs that came before, many of the SGDs will also not be achieved. This is especially true, once again, for developing countries. The pandemic has also underlined the strong dependence and focus that all countries place on the economy. The two other pillars of sustainable development – society and environment – are generally left out. This demonstrates that despite the efforts made to convince the world’s nations of the importance of integrating the three pillars, we still base all decisions on the economy.

    We do not link the pandemic, environmental crises, and societal challenges to this lack of integration — and this is now endangering human society. It may be time to think beyond sustainability because the way countries, corporations, and even individuals, operate and make decisions is unsustainable. The fixation on consumption is pushing the world to the limit — and resources are depleting faster than they can recover.

    These current patterns of production and consumption must be changed, for our own well-being and that of future generations. Despite the fact that human health and the environment are intrinsically linked, we carry on as business-as-usual, guided by unrealistic notions of infinite economic development and growth that ignores the reality that we live on a planet with finite resources1.

    We need a new path forward that goes beyond the traditional sustainability discourse. Defining sustainability as three separate pillars (economic, society, environment) has meant that the environment rarely receives equal weight or treatment. It is often seen as something to consider if there is time and money left over from dealing with issues pertaining to the other pillars.

    A radical change in the way societies function is required in order to avoid grave future predictions, such as those seen in the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCCs) recent report. This will require all 200+ countries, and thousands of corporations, around the world to work together and create the deep transformations necessary to avoid greater disasters. To create a safe operating space for all of humanity, we need to change direction in a radical way.

    Going beyond sustainability calls for radical transformation of the current system and its underlying defective worldview. There is growing awareness that the current worldview of capitalism and consumerism is one which supports resource overexploitation, the accumulation of profit and infinite economic growth, and viewing humans as dominant over nature and other living creatures. This human-driven exploitation of the environment is the root cause of our current planetary crisis.

    Transformation is understood as a profound change which requires a fundamental shift in mindset2. Radical transformation, on the other hand, looks at the root cause of problems and gets to the core of the issue. This usually requires a shift away from the type of thinking that created the problem(s) in the first place. Changing mindsets, although challenging, is possible. The status quo cannot effectively address the environmental challenges we face. What is required is a radical transformation of how we envision ourselves and the world in which we live.

    To move beyond sustainability and protect people and the planet, we envision a new conceptualization with the environment at the foundation for sustainability reforms. In contrast to the three pillars of sustainability, we propose a pyramid: the environment is the base with society and then the economy as subsequent levels. The environment needs to be healthy and robust for the next level (society) to flourish, and only when all levels below are thriving and resilient can the top of the pyramid (economy) be strong. It should also be noted that the economy is not only a vessel for profit, as it is right now, in this model. Instead, the economy would be circular and no longer strive for endless profits (beyond what’s needed for sustaining the businesses), or have its objectives developed in order to fulfill human greed.

    Communities are facing significant challenges due to climate and environmental changes caused by human activities. This has resulted in land degradation, water, soil, and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Changing mindsets and increasing awareness, however, can create a new path for humans and the planet. Nobody can change the world on their own, but small groups of people, working together, can contribute positively to the goal of radical transformation. With every small change, the world will be forever altered for the better and, we can hope, bring us closer to a more sustainable world of all.


    1. Robinson, N. A. (2012). Beyond sustainability: Environmental management for the Anthropocene epoch. Journal of Public Affairs, 12(3), 181-194. doi:10.1002/pa.1432
    2. Massarella, K., Nygren, A., Fletcher, R., Büscher, B., Kiwango, W. A., Komi, S., … Percequillo, A. R. (2021). Transformation beyond conservation: How critical social science can contribute to a radical new agenda in biodiversity conservation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 49, 79-87. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2021.03.005
    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Sustainability Versus Sustainable Development: What’s the difference?

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur & Jocelyn Baker

    Sustainability is the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural, social, and cultural resources in ways that allow all living things —not just humans — to thrive long into the future.

    Sustainable development, on the other hand, aims to create growth and progress through the addition of physical, economic, environmental, and social components that can improve quality of life without depleting resources for the future.

    In the previous blog, we saw that sustainability comes from the practice of “nachhaltigkeit”, a German term coined in 1713. Except in technical articles, the word sustainability was rarely used until 1972, when a then-leading magazine published a series of articles entitled Blueprint for Survival. This series, which involved more than 30 scientists, recommended that we should live in small, de-industrialized communities to help prevent a breakdown of society. In this series, the meaning of sustainability was much broader than its original, 18th century usage: suggesting a change in lifestyle, the implementation of population controls. better management of natural resources, and the establishment of “no-growth” economies.

    Sustainable development first appeared in 1987, when the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission included a definition for the term in its Our Common Future publication. The author defined the concept of sustainable development as an approach designed to “meet the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    In 2002, the report from the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development prescribes the need to “promote the integration of the three components of sustainable development—economic development, social development and environmental protection—as interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” (1 p.8)

    So where are we today?

    As part of the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, all UN Member States adopted a 15-year plan to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, for short. The 17 goals and 169 targets form the basis of a critical call to action to “end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.”

    The SDGs have become a set of guiding principles used to ensure that development is environmentally low impact, socially just, and economically efficient and fair, as well as to justify interventions. These principles apply to development of all scales and in all locations, whether it is the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Amazon or a plantation of trees in Africa. Even in these examples (and in many more), the economy still rests at the heart of all development.
    Even with environmental and societal considerations becoming part of the equation, is this model of development really sustainable in the long run? We only have one planet — and if we are to protect it, we must go even further to ensure sustainability for generations to come.


    1. Hens, L., & Nath, B. (2006). The world summit on sustainable development: The Johannesburg conference. Springer Science & Business Media.
    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • What is sustainability?

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur & Jocelyn Baker

    Sustainability is a well-known and frequently used 21st century term.  With how often you likely see or hear the word, have you ever stopped to think about what sustainability really means?

    Sustainability is widely defined as “the ability to have something or an activity maintained at a certain stable rate or level”. This term has been used in various contexts. Corporations, such as the  oil industry for example, are using it to show that they will be profitable and operational for a long period of time.

    Sustainability comes from the practice of “nachhaltigkeit”, a term coined in 1713 by German foresters that is translated to mean “sustained yield” in English1.  Sustained yield refers to the practice of taking only enough trees as will allow forests to naturally regenerate well into the future. The concept of sustained yield eventually moved beyond the forestry discourse to include the conservation of plants, animals, and other food necessities now also. It is still mainly confined to research and science, however.

    Most definitions of sustainability today also include concerns for the environment, social equity, and economic prosperity2. For instance, environmental sustainability aims at reducing the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance. Sustainability, in the context of the environment, looks at the activities required to protect the environment while balancing social, cultural, and economic needs. It is generally accepted that the goals of environmental sustainability are related to the need to conserve our natural world, with a shift away from the current resource-intensive way of living2.

    Sustainability in the business world, however, does not always relate to the protection of nature or social justice. It is often associated with efficiency, profitability and even growth. But things are changing. Recent research shows that businesses which embrace environmental and social governance approaches tend to not only reduce their environmental impact and increase diversity, but also reduce costs, as well.

    When we think about sustainability, it is important to remember that the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas on Turtle Island have been practicing this concept from time immemorial. Indigenous Peoples have been long-time practitioners of sustainability, as for them, it relates to being stewards of the land — you only take what you really need and can use. Sustainability for the Indigenous underlines the importance of looking at the past 7 generations to make informed, respectful, and balanced decisions for the next 7 generations to come. Sustainability is a long-term vision and process of continual environmental commitment to improvement.


    References

    1. Grober, U. (2007). Deep roots-a conceptual history of sustainable development (Nachhaltigkeit). Retrieved from: https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/11077/ssoar-2007-grober-deep_roots_-_a_conceptual.pdf?sequence=
    2. Baker, J., Dupont, D., & Vasseur, L. (2021). Exploring Canadian Ramsar Sites Ecosystem Governance and Sustainability. Wetlands, 41(1), 1-11.
    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • I spy, with both my eyes, something that is more sustainable: Two-eyed seeing

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur, Catherine Longboat and Jocelyn Baker.


    How do we see the world? This is a question of enigma and reflection: Do all of us see the world and the knowledge that we acquire in the same way?

    Throughout human civilization, the way to acquire knowledge has changed. For hunter-gatherers, most of their knowledge came from nature, including understanding seasonal changes, the tracks of animals, etc. When humans later became sedentary and started pursuing agriculture, they began to derive knowledge not only from nature, but from their own experience with crops, and gradually, with livestock.

    With this, in the Western world, humans began to take more control over nature, leading to devaluating the value of nature. Humans instead began to see themselves as the predominant force upon the Earth’s ecosystems. This period of human history also led to the development of many religions which viewed humans not as part of nature — but as superior to nature. With the development of new technologies and the transition to the industrialized world came the use of fossil fuels and the era of science. The sciences have brought benefits that were not imagined in times past. With modernization also came an increasing need for more resources, which lead to competition, instead of collaboration, between countries and corporations. Under such a system, trade and the economy have increased. The sciences also became a major focus in academic institutions and research centres and new “discoveries” and technologies have become a must in society, while simple things, such as a having a walk in nature, are becoming increasingly obsolete.

    This nonstop race for new knowledge has led to the belief that only scientists know the answers and can solve problems. This human hierarchy has pushed aside contributions from certain groups of peoples, as their knowledge was felt to be unfit for resolving issues. Indeed, some of their principles, values and beliefs may interfere with market production. This is how Indigenous knowledge became relegated to the margins of colonial living and the Western capitalist system. Indigenous knowledge was therefore not included as Western scientific knowledge.

    With a gradual acknowledgement that technology cannot fix everything, and the increasingly dire situation of the degraded Earth, humans have started to realize that other forms of knowledge may be better suited to solving the problems that humanity faces, such as biodiversity loss, land degradation, and climate change.

    This is where Indigenous knowledge becomes important to acknowledge and respect. Indigenous knowledge is based on a different worldview than modern Western society. In Indigenous cultures, humans have a strong relationship with nature and are thus one among many other species. There is no question that mutual respect and reciprocity is foundational for understanding relationships on Earth and beyond. The Indigenous traditional knowledge is based on the natural world and information that has been transmitted from generation to generation over millennia. What is wonderful is that in recent years, there has been an increased will to embrace these two types of knowledge — scientific and traditional knowledge — into what has now been called “Two-Eyed Seeing,” or Etuaptmumk in Mi’kmaw.

    This concept of Two-Eyed Seeing was introduced by Mi’kmaw First Nation (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia) Elders Albert and Murdena Marshall as a means to bridge Western science and Indigenous knowledge1. Two-eyed seeing promotes using one eye to see the strengths of Indigenous knowledge, the other eye to see the strengths of mainstream knowledge, and both eyes together when fully ‘seeing’ the world around us1. The goal is to create cross-cultural collaboration. Two-eyed seeing is underpinned by the belief that there are many ways of understanding the world, some of which are derived from Western sciences and others by various Indigenous knowledge systems. What is important is that both knowledges are seen as equitable, embracing the idea of having cultural respect for any action and not changing the other without agreement.

    The goal of two-eyed seeing is to bring awareness of alternative ways of knowing (where diverse perspectives can work together) with the aim of creating equity, where no one perspective has domination over the other 2.  Using both eyes together creates alternative ways of addressing solutions as afforded through different ways of seeing, by offering opportunity to look through a different lens and create solutions that may not be perfect or without flaws 2.  An important aspect of two-eyed seeing is the framework for a plural co-existence of worldviews 2. The important consideration, especially for the natural world, is remembering that all systems are interconnected, and human systems are to work in conjunction with the natural world in order to support and complete the whole ecosystem.


    1. Bartlett, C., Marshall, M., & Marshall, A. (2012). Two-eyed seeing and other lessons learned within a Co-learning journey of bringing together Indigenous and mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2(4), 331-340. doi:10.1007/s13412-012-0086-8

    2. Broadhead, L., & Howard, S. (2021). Confronting the contradictions between western and Indigenous science: A critical perspective on two-eyed seeing. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 17(1), 111-119.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • We can’t protect our planet without radically transforming our worldview — is it possible?

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur, Catherine Longboat, and Jocelyn Baker.


    Everyone has a worldview, a conception of what the world is like. Also referred to as a philosophy, a worldview is a collection of beliefs, values, attitudes, interpretations, and stories about the world around you. Worldviews inform your thoughts, behaviour, vision, relationships, knowledge, and actions. It is your picture of reality. Your worldview represents the reality of the world in which you live, your perception and your interconnectedness (on a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level).

    Throughout history, human populations have developed a multitude of diverse ways to view themselves and the world around them. Worldviews have different origins, stemming from various social, cultural, religious, political, and economical systems that have developed over millennia. These different origins can inform and create similar worldview realities shared by different groups of people and societies.

    As humans developed neo-liberal ideas and developed different systems, civilizations, religions, and economic and political structures, humans began to believe they possessed a superiority to all other organisms on the planet. Many of these systems operated with the worldview that all organisms and resources on this planet are to be used and exploited for the benefit of human societies. For example, one of the predominant worldviews in the western world today is neoliberal capitalism, which describes one’s desire for a free market, largely unregulated by governments, based on trade, stock market and infinite economic growth. The current utilitarian mentality is, however, causing the degradation and depletion of most of this planet’s vital resources — including water, mineral resources, and organisms.

    There are many cultural frameworks and worldviews practiced by Indigenous Peoples around the world that differ greatly from this current western worldview, and many of which respect the earth as a Mother upon which all beings are expected to co-exist for their on-going sustainability. They live according to a set of ethics that reflect their obligation toward their relations whether considered animate or inanimate. Thus, protocols and processes for co-existence are about acknowledgment of balance and harmony. Acknowledgment of sacrifices and willingness to support one another are complex and inter-relationships include others than human beings. Unlike the neoliberal capitalism worldview, this worldview is not based on the importance of accumulating wealth and material goods.

    Most Indigenous worldviews involve humans striving to live in co-existence with all other beings. This is rooted in their understandings of various Creation stories that are passed down from generation to generation. While these stories vary, they all explain, from the very outset, that there is an interconnection that exists between all life. Notions such as interdependency, balance, and harmony are prominent, and the duty to care does not hinge on the human as master, but rather, on the two-legged co-existing as an equal being amongst all others, aiming for peaceful coexistence. In North America, the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, for example, addresses 17 aspects of Creation to be recognized, including ‘the people’ as being given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things.1.

    With the increasing urgency to advance reconciliation and find solutions for the survival and sustainability of our planet, accepting and respecting multiple knowledges, worldviews, and ways of knowing are crucial. We can, and should, learn from sources outside the dominant neoliberal-capitalist system. There is an urgency to review how such systems are destroying the environment necessary for human existence.

    There is an urgent need to change the current western worldview, which is unsustainable for the future of human existence. The continuous economic and population growth of human societies should not come at the expense of nature. We need to radically transform our relationships with the natural environment and the focus for that change must include knowledges that perceive nature and humans as inter-connected, inter-related, holistic, balanced, and in harmony.

    Transformation of the western worldview calls for rethinking humans as being the most important, superior, and dominant creatures on the planet, and the natural world as subservient to human benefit. Most Indigenous worldviews share commonalities, where humans are not the most important creatures, relationships and community are at the heart of decision making, and all life is seen as sacred and interconnected.2.  Indigenous worldviews are holistic and recognize the interconnections between all peoples and all other beings. They also look back to their ancestors for guidance while simultaneously looking, at a minimum, seven generations forward into the future.2.

    Re-embracing a worldview that genuinely reflects Indigenous ways of knowing may serve to transform our relationship with nature and bring about a more sustainable social-ecological system for all beings on Earth.


    1. Stokes, J., & Kanawahienton Benedict, D. (1993). Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the natural world (english version). Retreived from: https://americanindian.si.edu/environment/pdf/01_02_Thanksgiving_Address.pdf

    2. Marshall, A., Beazley, K. F., Hum, J., Joudry, S., Papadopoulos, A., & Zurba, M. (2021). “Awakening the sleeping giant”: Re-indigenization principles for transforming biodiversity conservation in Canada and beyond. FACETS, 6, 839-869.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Is it time to move beyond sustainability and begin thinking about radical transformation?

    Contributors: Liette Vasseur and Jocelyn Baker

    Access to clean, healthy water is essential for all life on Earth. As the world population continues to rise, natural ecosystems are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the threats of land conversion, invasive species, and the consequences of accelerated climate change. This has resulted in the loss of biological diversity. When an ecosystem functions correctly, it can provide enough food, shelter, water, and other goods and services required for all of the species within it. As soon as an ecosystem is degraded, however, it can lose its integrity, reducing or stopping the provision of services — including clean water.

    The major and enduring impacts of ecosystem destruction can be seen most prominently in the planet’s wetland systems. The livelihoods and overall survival of most cultures on Earth depend on the functions and benefits of wetlands for the purposes of food provision. Rice, for example, is grown in wetland complexes and is the staple diet of nearly half of the people on Earth. Most commercial fish and invertebrates, including crabs, lobster, and shrimp, also depend on wetlands for all or part of their lifecycle. The long-term global loss of all wetland types is estimated to be between 54 to 57 per cent, with the rate of losses four times higher in the last century than in previous centuries 1,2.  Inland wetlands have seen a 35 per cent decline since 1970, with 87 per cent total loss since 1700 3. Despite comprising only 3 per cent of the Earth’s total surface area, wetlands are estimated to contribute more than 40 per cent of all global ecosystem services, providing an estimated US $55 trillion (in 2020) annually to global economies 1,2.

    The sustainability of these ecosystems is therefore of great concern, but what is it that we are trying to sustain? Are we simply aiming to stop further wetland losses, being satisfied with the status quo? Or is it time to move beyond sustainability and begin thinking about radical transformation? The continuous growth of human populations and economies should not come at the expense of nature. At some point, nature will not be able to sustain people and maintain its contributions to all of us. It is critical that we rethink and transform our relationships with one another and the natural world. We need to change the current worldview because our current capitalist-neoliberal way of life is unsustainable. Pursuing infinite economic growth and resource exploitation — when we have a finite planet — is simply not working.

    Societies must also think differently about themselves and their relations with the natural world that supports them. As an example, the Western Humanist (or western human way of thinking) views humans as the most important species on the planet. With this worldview (a set of beliefs and values about one’s reality) comes the idea that humans have dominion over the natural world with the right to exploit all of its resources (including plants and animals) as they wish. Does this make sense? What does adherence to this worldview mean for the generations to come? Any decision we make leads to consequences, and the children of the future will pay for the degradation and overexploitation of today. What will happen when the water stops flowing and all the fish in the oceans are gone?

    Radical transformation is needed in order to rethink the way that humans live within the natural world; we are part of it, not superior to it. Maybe when we embrace this way of thinking, a more sustainable future will be waiting for us.


    References:

    1. Baker, J., Dupont, D., & Vasseur, L. (2021). Exploring Canadian Ramsar Sites Ecosystem Governance and
    Sustainability. Wetlands, 41(1), 1-11.
    2. Davidson, N. C., Van Dam, A. A., Finlayson, C. M., & McInnes, R. J. (2019). Worth of wetlands: Revised global monetary values of coastal and inland wetland ecosystem services. Marine and Freshwater Research, 70(8), 1189.
    3. United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Becoming #GenerationRestoration: Ecosystem restoration for people, nature, and climate. Nairobi.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog