Reflections on the Notion of Sustainability

Since its inception in 2005, the Fort Collins Sustainability Group (FCSG) has focused on local climate policy. More specifically, we have advocated for City initiatives that would both reduce our community’s greenhouse gas emissions and help our community adapt to climate change. For a detailed history of the work in which we have been engaged, see the article “The FCSG Story”

We subscribe to a notion of sustainability aligned with that set forth in the 1987 Brundtland Report, which states that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” There are numerous examples of past societies that have functioned on a sustainable basis, including many of those in the Americas prior to European contact. However, we recognize that present generations are currently close to crossing at least eight planetary boundaries in addition to catastrophic climate change that would endanger future generations (1). Those other boundaries are:

1. Ocean acidification (which is closely related to climate change);

2. Conversion of too much land to agricultural and other human uses;

3. Chemical pollution and the release of novel compounds into the environment;

4. Biodiversity loss (often referred to as “the Sixth Extinction”);

5. Nitrogen and phosphorous run-off into and pollution of rivers and oceans;

6. Freshwater availability;

7. Aerosol loading of the atmosphere; and

8. Ozone depletion (which fortunately now appears to be largely under control).

The FCSG’s focus on the problem of climate change should not be interpreted to mean that we minimize the threats to future generations that would ensue if any of these other planetary boundaries were to be transgressed. Rather, our focus reflects our historical roots and the interests and “bandwidth” of our members over the years.

The FCSG also recognizes that “sustainability” is not presently an attribute of any society based primarily on European colonialism or lightly regulated capitalism. We believe that the transition to sustainability in the United States as a whole will entail:

1. Learning and accepting leadership from indigenous peoples, who are heirs to cultures that achieved a far greater level of balance with the natural environment than has the dominant European-based culture; and

2. Regulation or transcendence of capitalism in order to avoid crossing the planetary boundaries enumerated in the second paragraph and to promote a significantly greater degree of social equity than currently obtains.

If the FCSG can help move our society toward the overarching goal of sustainability through our work on local climate policy, we will consider our efforts to have been worthwhile.

(1) Stockholm Resilience Centre, The nine planetary boundaries,…


Author: Kevin Cross