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September-October 2010
Vol. 35, No. 5


Sustainability: A blueprint for wisdom

As the United Nations has evolved during the past six decades it has responded to an ever increasing string of international needs by continuously creating new areas of expertise. Decade by decade, departments, divisions, councils, agencies, commissions and subsidiary bodies have been established in response to global needs, each with its own mandate. Three examples are the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, established in 1996; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established in 1988; and the World Food Program, established in 1961. Each of these bodies was formed as a response to a new historical situation of international proportions, beyond the capacity of individual governments to address with sufficient depth and scope.

While each UN entity fulfills an important function, the present period calls for cohesion; for the articulation of an idea that binds everything together; for defining the integrating force underpinning all of the UN aspirations and endeavors. Sustainability seems to be the concept that is emerging as corresponding to this charge. Sustainability is the capacity for maintaining life as it is currently known in its great diversity and productivity, in its potential for long-term maintenance of well being. Sustainability applies to the world of human proceedings and to the natural world on which all life depends.

The nemesis of sustainability is the dominant global economic system that tends to overexploit resources and does not account for resource depletion, ultimately diminishing well being for future generations of humanity, unjustly plunging more and more people into poverty, and contributing to the extinction of various species of life. In contrast, sustainability is about bringing justice and balance into human projects for economic and social welfare so that resources are not exploited beyond their capacity for restoring themselves, and hope in and for the future is not betrayed. Environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken describes it succinctly: “Sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth’s two most complex systems—human culture and the living world.” (Blessed Unrest, Viking, 2007)

In line with this thinking, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently created a High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability to address sustainability in a manner that embraces and integrates a wide range of interrelated issues. Following are the words of the Secretary General:
“The members of the panel include some of the world’s leading thinkers and policy makers from government, business and civil society. The panel will address the question of how to lift people out of poverty while respecting and preserving the climate and natural systems that sustain us. … The time for narrow agendas and narrow thinking is over. We need to promote low carbon growth and strengthen our resilience to the impacts of climate change. We need to address the interlinked global challenges of poverty, hunger, water, energy security and sanitation. In short, we need a blueprint for a more livable, prosperous, and sustainable future for all.

“I expect the panel not only to think big, but also to come up with practical answers that address the institutional and financial arrangements that will be needed to put such a new blueprint into practice.

“The Panel will report by the end of 2011, next year, in time to feed into key intergovernmental processes, including the UN Conference on Sustainable Development that will take place in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 and the annual conferences of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

In the 2009 Orbis book The Tao of Liberation, authors Mark Hathaway and Leonardo Boff demonstrate a profound understanding of sustainability as an integrative and transformative force. In the book’s prologue they lure the reader into their monumental work with the following paragraph: “We search for wisdom in the hope of finding insights that will enable humanity to move away from perceptions, ideas, habits, and systems that perpetuate injustice and destroy our planet’s capacity to sustain life. We do so in the hope of finding new ways of living that will allow the needs of all people to be equitably met in harmony with the needs and well being of the greater Earth community, and indeed the cosmos itself.”

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