It's time to explore the social equity dimension of sustainability

P.K. Melethil is technical services manager at the Zero Waste Alliance and interested in developing integrative solutions to challenging problems at the interface of environment, community and health.

P.K. Melethil is technical services manager at the Zero Waste Alliance and interested in developing integrative solutions to challenging problems at the interface of environment, community and health.

Sustainability, as we think of it today, is a term that owes much to the work of the Brundtland Commission, also known as the World Commission on Environment and Development.

The science behind sustainability explores our shared existence — how current practices affect the ability of future generations to enjoy life as we do today. It covers a broad range of issues, ranging from the degradation of the environment — such as measurable impacts to air and water quality by discharges — to the slower but recognizable impacts on ecosystems and the biotic community at large. The consideration of costs to all organisms, including human beings, by habitat loss and by hazardous and persistent pollutants in the soil, water, and air is a consideration of the ecosystem-level cost to "the commons."

Sustainable development is seen as having three interlinked factors or metrics. Some name them "Economy, Environment and Equity," others prefer "People, Planet and Profit."

Connections between industrial, or economic, development and environmental damages were recognized over 60 years ago and lead to sweeping legislation, such as the National Environmental Policy Act. As a result, increased protections of our shared environment — the commons — have been implemented. Partnerships between corporations, governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the public at large have made this possible. Enforcement actions by regulatory agencies, litigation, and market forces have also been used to forge these relationships.

However, impacts along the dimension of social equity have not been fully recognized.

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