Active and Temporally Introspective Sustainability


What do you get when you mix social justice, sustainability and equity? Unfortunately, (or fortunately) it depends on whom you are asking. Like many liberal buzzwords, the definitions of these words are slippery and standardized, meaningful interpretations are near impossible. The widely defined principles of social justice and equity are multidimensional as they attempt to cover the range of –isms that marginalized communities experience on a daily basis. Deciding which parts of these dimensions to include/fold into sustainability is dangerous because bad decisions have a nasty way of coming back to haunt us. SocialJusticePicture .jpg

Rather than grappling with definitions, I would rather focus on the characteristics of social justice and equity I would like to see in sustainability. Reading Haughton’s principles of equity for sustainable development, I was most intrigued by “procedural equity” because of all the principles it was most likely, in theory, to be practiced (pp 236). This is not to say that the other principles are not worthy of our attention but that there is so much lip service paid to what social justice principles should look like in sustainability yet so often are not observable.

To me, a sustainability framework that embeds principles of social justice and equity must be active. Even the usually meek United Nations states “social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies” and though we may query the level of implementation, there is an understanding that social justice can and must be a verb. Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” but we must also remember that it is does not bend on its own. But this ‘bending’ is difficult to do and if we agree with the UN then just the word “redistributive” will make our work an uphill battle.

A just and sustainable society needs to be actively built and rebuilt as its history continues to evolve. Ageyman et al. argue that a “truly sustainable society is one where wider questions of social needs and welfare, and economic opportunity, are integrally related to environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems“ (pp. 78). Yet I still find this definition to be slightly passive and missing an integral piece. There is an inherent assumption that sustainable communities are constantly and only looking to the present and future. However, during class, we discussed the importance of a community’s institutional history in addressing equity issues. Our vision of a sustainable community as we journey to address inequity is not complete without its history.

Cape Town, a city with a long history of institutionalized racism has suffered through spatial apartheid that is still painfully apparent to this day. However, the city’s development plan and organizations such as Future Cape Town have gone to great lengths to advocate for an equitable and inclusive Cape Town by not just tracing its past but by actively using the institutional history to imagine, develop and build a sustainable Cape Town. Cape Town is a good example of the use of institutional history but given its recent and horrific past, it is no surprise that it is integral to their sustainability framework. In addition, it is worth noting who the ‘winners’ were in this case. However, what happens when the history we need to address is almost intangible and written over by the those who benefit from maintaining the status quo? Being introspective and inquisitive about a space’s history is not something every community is allowed.

After some thought, embedding social justice and equity into my framework has brought me to ‘active and temporally introspective sustainability’. Yikes! The complexity of this kind of sustainability may be more painful to find than what I have decided to name it. One has to wonder what this would look like in practice. As an International Development Design Summit organizer, it would be amiss for me not to give honorable mention to organizations like IDEO and IDIN. Their work is now labelled human-centered design but can be traced to the 1970s participatory development approach. They actively center problem definitions on stakeholder and institutional narratives and produce ‘benders’ or what they call innovators in each of the communities (usually marginalized) they engage with.

Yet as we have discussed in class, sustainable communities do not exist in a vacuum. I worry that community-level active and temporally introspective sustainability does not address national, regional and global drivers of inequity. Therefore, even as we empower one sustainable community at a time, are we doing these communities a disservice by not address sustainability at other levels? In a rapidly globalizing world, organizations like IDIN and even my own definition will have to come to terms with the fact that our versions of sustainability will have to be able to bridge these gaps to build a just and sustainable world.


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

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.

United Nations., & International Forum for Social Development. (2006). Social justice in an open world: The role of the United Nations. New York: United Nations.