Sustainability for whom?


On Friday, February 5th, 2016, I went to hear Dr. Camara Jones speak at the Berkeley City Club about achieving health equity and addressing racism, the same talk she gave at the University of Washington School of Medicine a year prior in the video above (I suggest starting the talk 14 minutes into the video until 40:48 minutes, for those not interested in the health context). Although Dr. Jones’s talk focused primarily on the health sector’s ability to work towards equity and social change (and more explicitly, to combat racism), the concepts hold true across disciplines and sectors. The concepts of social justice and equity are thrown around a lot in today’s society; however, how these concepts are defined changes significantly depending on the context resulting in little being done to actually create truly equitable societies.

Within sustainable development equity is often discussed in terms of fairness between current and future generations and sometimes, though often less explicitly, within and between nations (Agyeman et al., 2001; Campbell, 1996). Taking a step further than the Brundtland Commission’s definition, Agyeman et al. (2001) define sustainable development as a focus on ensuring “a better quality of life for all…in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems” (p. 78). But what is considered “just” and “equitable”?

For me equity is more than just about fairness – it is more than making sure that all individuals and populations receive equal treatment. Equity moves past equality, recognizing and addressing the historical and current levels of advantage and disadvantages experiences by different groups in society that lead to social, political, economic, and environmental disparities. Graham Haughton (1999) defines this as intra-generational equity, which has a “wider conception of social justice – that is, seeking to address the underlying causes of social injustice, not simply dealing with redistributive measures” (p. 235).

Our current system of inequity is deep-seeded, with deep roots in the foundation of our institutions and social, economic, and political systems – from slavery and colonialism to our  mass incarceration of people of color and the fact that the poorest countries in the world are predominantly African nations. It is not one that can be fixed by just “raising all boats” or providing “equal opportunities for all.” It requires explicit and targeted actions that protect and provide opportunities to populations historically and currently disadvantaged, while at the same time requiring groups historically benefiting from systems of oppression to relinquish their unearned privilege (whether it be due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or class). To me, equity is not just a goal it is a system. Although all forms of equity (e.g. inter-generational, geographical, procedural, intra-generational, and inter-species equity) are interconnected, without explicitly addressing intra-generational equity, we stunt any possibility for true equity. The question we are left with is who are we trying to sustain? All people or just those already benefiting from the current system?

Even within the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development the authors’ state that “a world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises.” Equity and social justice are central to sustainability, and without explicit actions to ensure an equitable system, communities of color, poor nations, and different species, will continue to bear the brunt of the world’s pollution (as demonstrated in the Majora Carter TED talk below) while more affluent populations and nations of the human species continue to live beyond the world’s ecological means.

Majora Carter’s, “Greening the ghetto,” outlines environmental racism within the South Bronx in New York, demonstrating the history of her community that has led to its degradation (and many community of colors across America) that then impacts the health and wellbeing of its residents (providing another clear example of the intersection of different levels of racism discussed in Dr. Jones’s talk mentioned earlier in this post). In her example of integrating equity into sustainability, Carter discusses the importance of environmental justice communities and grassroots movements, demonstrating a human-centered side of sustainable development, along with community-based participatory planning. The strengths of this approach are in its inclusive design: it is both community-centered while also encouraging the participation of universities, the private sector, and government officials. Furthermore it aims to be holistic approach to local level sustainable development – incorporating economic opportunity through green job creation, while preserving the environment through community gardens and environmental restoration projects, and finally ensuring equity through a “people-first agenda” that focused on all people not just the influential few. More than just bringing stakeholders to the table, it recognizes the different power dynamics each stakeholder holds and their impact on sustainable change. It pushes for populations that are historically disadvantaged and neglected to be at the forefront of change initiatives while other stakeholders play a more supportive role. However, as much as this is a strength, it can serve as a weakness: the sustainability of “Greening the Ghetto” requires external support and financing making it reliant on outside donors – a fact that Majora Carter mentions when she ends her talk asking the audience to not waste her, her energy and her experience, and to use their influence to make these issues a priority. Although Carter does push the audience to question their privilege, this approach does not require affluent members of society to relinquish their unearned privilege in the name of social justice. Nonetheless, it begins a discussion that much of America, and the world, continue to shy away from.

Although Carter’s approach focuses on the U.S., it mirrors other bottom-up approaches born in urban poor populations across the globe. Before coming to UC Berkeley, I worked as a program office for an international organization called Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) in Cape Town, South Africa – website: SDI is a network of urban poor community-based organizations, called federations, across 31 countries and hundreds of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, all dedicated to bottom-up approaches to slum upgrading where slum dwellers themselves are central to the planning process from design and implementation to monitoring and evaluation. Similar to the “Greening the Ghetto” initiative, SDI focuses on building the capacity and resources already present in the community in order to ignite social change and sustainable cities, while also acknowledging the need for governmental, private sector, academic, and international organizational assistance and buy-in.

Both “Greening the Ghetto” and SDI draw from grassroots, people-centered approaches that value marginalized communities as much as the environment in which they live. Despite their focus on intra-generational equity, these approaches begin to address issues in geographical and procedural equity, demonstrating the relationship between the different equity principles and the path towards true sustainability. However, their sustainability is also reliant on systematic change within society that adopts these frameworks as crucial elements of sustainable development.

Nevertheless, are these efforts enough to create true equity? Although both call for marginalized communities to stand up for their health, social, and environmental wellbeing, they do not require those already profiting from their oppression to relinquish some of their power and unearned privileges. As one of the countries that signed the International Anti-Racism Treaty created during the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965 (which the U.S. later ratified in 1994), we have an obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination, racial and otherwise. Despite this fact, any formal institutional efforts to rectify the legacy of former oppressions have been few and far between. Instead grassroots organizations and oppressed populations are often forced to take these efforts into their own hands in an attempt to even the playing field between and across populations, through actions such as the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, the Environmental Justice Movement, LGBTQ Rights Movements, and more recently the Black Lives Matter Movement. Unfortunately these efforts have yet to break down our current system of inequity both locally and globally.

Without more radical steps towards change, I fear that we will remain with the inequitable, unsustainable system we see today; leaving us with my original question: under our current definitions of sustainable development, who is sustainability for?

Article references:

Agyeman, J., Bullard, R.D., and Evans, B. (2002). Exploring the nexus: Bringing together sustainability, environmental justice and equity. Space & Polity. 16:1, pp. 77-90.

Haughton, G. (1999). Environmental justice and the sustainable city. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 18:3, pp. 233-243.

Our Common Future: report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development.