What is Sustainability?


In 1983 the Bruntland Commission formally defined sustainable development as, "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Many hard-core environmentalists and deep ecologists reject this definition because it presupposes development as the foundation for sustainability. However, many free-market capitalists think this definition goes too far and encourages unnecessary government oversight of global markets. Given the opposing viewpoints sustainable development can be considered a compromise between environmentalism and capitalism.

Many readers might balk at the notion that sustainable development is a compromise position. I know I certainly did when it was presented to me that way. However, I have come to realize that between heaven and earth few things are what they seem. The world is full of contradictions and surprises, and I like it that way. Sustainable development is an idea that balances human needs within the context of limited material resources. It rejects the atavism of hard-core environmentalism and the pantheism of deep ecology, while subduing the avarice of free-market capitalism.

Judaism's approach to sustainability is strikingly similar. We are told to take what we need from the world, but not to waste it (Ba'al Tashchit). As Jews we are entitled to use the earth's resources to meet our needs until the byproducts of that work begins to harm our neighbors. Plants and animals are given respect and protection under Jewish law, but are not elevated to the status of gods or human beings (Sa'ar Balechaim +).

For me, these definitions of sustainability work. They acknowledge contradiction while simultaneously setting guidelines for sensible action. More importantly, both positions remain open for debate and discussion. Neither one claims to have all the answers, but nonetheless engage in asking difficult questions about humanity's relationship with the world. It has and continues to be a pleasure to be a part of a Jewish community and an environmental community that has the courage to ask hard questions and the honesty to search for meaningful answers.

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