What is Sustainability? A bit of history

By Geneva Griswold posted 14 days ago

  

Sustainability Committee guest post by Estelle De Bruyn.

Our century faces two major challenges: diminishing oil reserves signal the end of our society's most common and inexpensive energy source (1), while climate change represents a serious danger for natural (2) and cultural ecosystems (3). As safe-keeper of our heritage in its broadest sense, it is also our duty and of cultural institutions to set an example. Could it be an opportunity to re-examine conservation standards and practices that were introduced in a world where the cost and availability of energy were very different from our own?

“Sustainability” is a controversial concept; it is often confused with the notion of “Sustainable Development”. I will begin by presenting the notions of “Sustainable Development” and “Political Ecology”, two concepts carried by sociopolitical movements, which still coexist today in the political landscape. “Sustainable Development” and “Political Ecology” pursue different – and contradictory – objectives. They have their own limits and their preferred orientations. “Sustainability” tries to go beyond these conflicts to achieve systematic thinking (4).

THE ANCESTORS OF SUSTAINABILITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND POLITICAL ECOLOGY 

In the late ‘60s, concerns for the environment which was before carried by isolated groups turned into a more comprehensive approach to environmental problems. Political and economic actors started to question the ability of the planet to meet the needs of the growing population. In 1972 in the report entitled The Limits to Growth (5), the Club of Rome (6) rang the alarm bell. This report highlighted the finite nature of the planet's resources – then considered limitless – in the context of human population increase and the risk of overpopulation (7).

At that time, political ecology was born in several Western European countries and was carried by very active groups, which actions were generally expressed through the organization of social movements (8). Advocates of political ecology question the lifestyles of their contemporaries and advocate zero growth. They rise up against capitalism (9). In Western Europe for example, diverse national ecology parties are born during that period. Parallel to this movement and in contradiction with it, the concept of sustainable development is born. Its objective is to adjust lifestyles and production, by introducing an environmental dimension in the economy/society relationship, while safeguarding the productivist system. In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development focused on protecting the Earth's ecosystem. The term “sustainable development” is also defined for the first time in its report:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.” (10)

The fundamental idea of ​​this definition is that we must think globally and act locally. It introduces the notion that natural resources are limited and that our growth affects their availability, but also their quality (biodiversity, air quality, etc).

Images of Sustainable Development (Chaharbaghi and Willis, 1999).

 

Political ecology and sustainable development are therefore two trends that seek to respond to concerns born in the late ‘60s. Political ecology advocates a reconsideration of our lifestyles, greater autonomy, citizen’s initiative. The goal is to change the world, or rather to change productivist capitalism. Whereas sustainable development invites us to correct the economy: it seeks to preserve the already existing system (thus including the industrial system) and to make it sustainable over the long term, by adjusting our lifestyles and the way we produce goods. These two movements coexisted. If today, sustainable development seems more widespread, it is because it is less radical and it is compatible with a reformist politic – its goal is not to change the world –  and it is the subject of an international institutional consensus (11). But also because, without ever disappearing completely from social and political scene, the movement of political ecology has somewhat lost strength between 1980 and 2000 (12).

THE THEORY OF SUSTAINABILITY

The opposition between “sustainable development” and “political ecology” shows that there is a specific issue, beyond politics, which has to be thought. This is not a unique and closed theory, and it is difficult to summarize in a few lines the complexity of the sources and the problematics that constitute it. The “theory of sustainability” defines economy in a broader sense as a profit-producing human activity and as a regulator of exchanges between society and the planet (13).

Schematically, sustainability can be represented as a compass. The “profit” (Prosperity) placed on the pivoting head, can actuate either the “cultural” arm (People) or the “natural” arm (Planet). In doing so, it necessarily leans on the other arm, which remains motionless (14). The three lines of thought envisaged are thus articulated between them, and no movement is possible without the meeting of the three. Whether relying on natural resources to create cultural or cultural resources to preserve the natural, in all cases the activity is a source of profit in the present, and in the future via the preservation of ecosystem equilibrium.

For the “theory of sustainability”, the surplus generated by the activity (transformations, resources, waste) is expressed in the form of a benefit that is not specifically financial, but can be of the order of architecture, museology, education, etc., in other words, a form of added value for the social and environmental poles (15). Through his activity, everyone has a hold on the planet and another on society. Sustainability has a lot to do with common sense. The opposite of sustainability would be the confinement of each sphere to itself (to make money for money, to make art for art, ecology for ecology, etc.), or produce unprofitable elements (more pollution than the planet can absorb for example) (16).

SUSTAINABILITY APPLIED TO CONSERVATION 

The collaboration of two working groups of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) (the Sustainability Committee of AIC and the Care Network Collection) defined in 2014 the concept of sustainability as follows:

“Sustainability derives from a commitment to policies and practices that ensure social, economic, and environmental endurance. Applied together, the principles of collection care, preventive conservation, and sustainability enable the preservation of both our world and its cultural heritage.” (17)

This definition links sustainability and heritage conservation in an intrinsic way, by linking the areas of cultural and natural heritage. It is not trivial that the cultural and natural foundations are at the center of the reflection of sustainability (society and environment, People and Planet), but also of sustainability applied to conservation: as common goods of the humanity, there are strong analogies between environment and culture. According to UNESCO, cultural diversity is just as necessary as biodiversity in the realm of life (18). From a legislative point of view, legislation is becoming more and more restrictive regarding the construction and renovation of buildings. In Europe, all works requiring planning permission are subjected today to strict ecological standards. This is particularly the case for public buildings which, as of 2019, will have to achieve the “Nearly Zero Energy” performance levels (19, 20).

In view of this evolution, cultural institutions have to anticipate these requirements as soon as possible. This implies aiming for zero or even negative energy consumption (producing more than the energy consumed). Moreover, green installations help reducing the risks of an energy crisis (fluctuating costs and availability of resources) and thus ensure long-term preservation (21). The exemplarity of the institution has a positive impact both on its community and on the museum world. This is the profit (Prosperity) that was mentioned above in the image of the compass. Finally, it is the duty of public institutions, and in particular cultural ones (22), to assume their responsibilities and to set an example in a world where commitment and concrete actions to tackle energy challenges are becoming more and more urgent.

CONCLUSION

The concepts of sustainable development and sustainability are sometimes the subject of disagreements and multiple definitions. The evolution of ideas and customs (the notion of ecology is relatively recent) and the application of these concepts to practical cases will probably keep them for a long time at the center of debate.

More than a responsibility, sustainability is now an essential issue for museums: their survival also depends on their capacity for adaptation and autonomy. This is especially noticeable in EU when we study the legislation that will soon concern public buildings, which will compel institutions to integrate these sustainability requirements. In the current context where we can no longer escape our responsibilities towards the environment, cultural institutions must set an example. This is why the concept of sustainable museums and laboratories must be thought of, not just as a “bonus”, but as a real necessity.
At first glance, sustainability can seem very compelling. That’s normal: it is a question of know-how based on organizational, social and architectural skills, which are not common in our professional field. This complexity is reminiscent of preservation practices, whose management depends directly on the institution's preventive conservation policies. Integrating the eco-responsible approach into the life of the museum can not be done without integrating sustainability at the level of museum management (23).


Estelle De Bruyn

NOTES

  1. In 2014, oil energy consumption accounted for 39.9% of total global fuel consumption according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). IEA, Key World Energy Statistics”, in Archives, 2016, p. 28, on International Energy Agency (IEA) website (online) (available on: https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2016.pdf, http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2016.pdfconsulted on April 15, 2018).
  2. During the COP 21 (held in Paris in 2015), a consensus was found between 195 signatory states to stabilize global warming due to human activities significantly below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels by 2100. UNITED NATIONS, “Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations, Paris, 2015, article 2, p. 24 (available on: https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf, consulted on April 15, 2018).
    The report adds that efforts should be made to limit global warming to 1.5 °C (estimated safe threshold). However, according to IEA data, this would mean reducing all of our net emissions to zero between 2040 and 2060, which would require drastic and short-term reductions in our CO2 emissions in the energy sector, and an international mobilization. IEA, “World Energy Outlook 2016, Résumé (French Translation), in Archives, 2016, pp. 6 & 7, on International Energy Agency (IEA) website (online) (available on: http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/WEO2016ExecutiveSummary_Frenchversion.pdf, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  3. About 65% of cities with more than 5 million inhabitants are located in low-lying coastal areas and are therefore directly exposed to the risk of natural disasters. WONG (Poh Poh), e. a., Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, p. 372 (available on: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  4. DEPREZ (Bernard), Questions d’architecture durable : architecture contre nature (syllabus), Ulb Horta, Brussels, 2013, 160 p. (not published).
  5. MEADOWS (Donella), e. a., The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Fayard, Paris, 1972.
  6. A think tank founded in 1968 and composed of scientists, economists and national and international actors, whose goal is to propose energy and environmental solutions on a global scale. BARBAULT (Robert), Halte à la croissance !, Club de Rome, s.d., s.p., on the Encyclopædia Universalis website (online) (available on: http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/halte-a-la-croissance/, consulted  on April 14, 2018).
  7. This report is part of the so-called “Thirty Glorious” period, during which developed countries are experiencing unprecedented growth. It was believed that the latter would have no limits. However, the computer models developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the Club of Rome’s report study fourteen possible scenarios, most of which result in the collapse of civilization caused either by a scarcity of resources (limited to a growing population), either by the fall of soil productivity and the excessive pollution. DEPREZ (Bernard), Questions d’architecture durable : architecture contre nature (syllabus), Op. Cit., pp. 22 à 30 (not published).
  8. By the organization of demonstrations against the nuclear energy in particular, including the first national ecological protest against the reprocessing plant of the Hague in 1970, or the demonstration in Creys-Malville in 1977 against the project of Superphénix nuclear power plant. FRÉMION (Villalba), Écologiste, mouvement, s.d., s.p., on the Encyclopædia Universalis website (online) (available on: http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/mouvement-ecologiste/, consulted on April 14, 2018).
  9. FELLI (Romain), Les deux âmes de l’écologie. Une critique du développement durable, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2008, pp. 24 à 25.
  10. This definition was proposed by Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, who chaired the Commission. The report of this Commission, “Our Common Future”, is also called the “Brundtland Report” in honor of its President. This document is available at the following address: WORLD COMMISSION ON ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT, “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, Geneva, 1987, s.p., on the UN Documents: Gathering a Body of Global Agreements website (online) (available on: http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf, consulted on April 10, 2018).
  11. It is the emanation of the UN.
  12. Today, political ecology is expressed via citizens groups, and by some green political parties or socialist parties in Europe. FELLI (Romain), Op. Cit., p. 24.
  13. DEPREZ (Bernard), “Architecture contre durabilité ? Contre… tout contre ! Pas d’architecture au rabais pour un monde durable – pas de planète au rabais pour une architecture de qualité, in Les Cahiers de l’urbanisme, n° 66, 2007, pp. 59 à 60.
  14. This is an interpretation of the so-called Three P” scheme (People - Planet - Prosperity), proposed in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
  15. See also: GUATTARI (Félix), Les trois écologies, Galilée, Paris, 1989, 74 p., MORIN (Edgar), Les sept savoirs nécessaires à l’éducation du futur, UNESCO, Paris, 1999, 72 p. (available on: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001177/117740fo.pdf, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  16. DEPREZ (Bernard), Questions d’architecture durable : architecture contre nature (syllabus), Op. Cit., pp. 150 à 152 (not published).
  17. SUSTAINABILITY COMMITEE OF AIC, COLLECTION CARE NETWORK OF AIC, “What is Sustainability ?”, in Discussion, Introduction to Sustainability, 2014, on the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) website (online) (available on: http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Introduction_to_Sustainability#1.1_What_is_Sustainability.3F, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  18. UNESCO, Déclaration universelle de l’UNESCO sur la diversité culturelle, UNESCO, Paris, 2003, article 1, p. 4.
  19. It is a building whose energy consumption is almost zero. For more details, see the section (in French) Évolution des législations et engagement du secteur culturel. “Exigences PEB du 1er janvier 2021”, in La performance énergétique du bâtiment, on Énergie Wallonie website (online) (available on: http://energie.wallonie.be/fr/exigences-peb-a-partir-du-1er-janvier-2021.html?IDD=114100&IDC=7224, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  20. Directive PEB (2010/31/UE), LUE, 2010, art. 9.
  21. JIGYASU (Rohit), “Cadres institutionnels et politiques pour le changement climatique, la réduction des risques de catastrophe, et la gestion du patrimoine culture”, in Changement climatique : le rôle du patrimoine, Considérations de la 29e assemblée de l’ICCROM, ICCROM, Rome, 2015.
  22. In many European countries, most of the cultural institutions are public.
  23. To learn more about how to implement sustainable practices within a museum, see : BROPHY (Sarah), WYLIE (Elizabeth), The Green museum, a primer on environmental practice, Altamire Press, Danvers, 2008, 226 p. 

SOURCES

  • BARBAULT (Robert), “Halte à la croissance !, Club de Rome”, s.d., s.p., on the Encyclopædia Universalis website (online) (available on: http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/halte-a-la-croissance/, consulted  on April 14, 2018).
  • BROPHY (Sarah), WYLIE (Elizabeth), The Green museum, a primer on environmental practice, Altamire Press, Danvers, 2008, 226 p. 
  • COMMISSION ON ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT, “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future”, Geneva, 1987, s.p., on the UN Documents: Gathering a Body of Global Agreements website (online) (available on: http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf, consulted on April 10, 2018).
  • DEPREZ (Bernard), “Architecture contre durabilité ? Contre… tout contre ! Pas d’architecture au rabais pour un monde durable – pas de planète au rabais pour une architecture de qualité”, in Les Cahiers de l’urbanisme, n° 66, 2007, pp. 57 to 60.
  • DEPREZ (Bernard), Questions d’architecture durable : architecture contre nature (syllabus), Brussels: Ulb Horta, 2013, 160 p. (not published).
  • FELLI (Romain), Les deux âmes de l’écologie. Une critique du développement durable, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2008, 102 p.
  • FRÉMION (Villalba), “Écologiste, mouvement”, s.d., s.p., sur le site de l’Encyclopædia Universalis (online) (available on: http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/mouvement-ecologiste/, consulted on April 14, 2018).
  • GUATTARI (Félix), Les trois écologies, Galilée, Paris, 1989, 74 p., MORIN (Edgar), Les sept savoirs nécessaires à l’éducation du futur, UNESCO, Paris, 1999, 72 p. (available on: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001177/117740fo.pdf, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  • IEA, Key World Energy Statistics”, in Archives, 2016, 80 p., on International Energy Agency (IEA) website (online) (available on: https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2016.pdf, http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2016.pdfconsulted on April 2, 2018).
  • IEA, “World Energy Outlook 2016, Résumé (French Translation), in Archives, 2016, 16 p., on International Energy Agency (IEA) website (online), (available on: http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/WEO2016ExecutiveSummary_Frenchversion.pdf, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  • JIGYASU (Rohit), “Cadres institutionnels et politiques pour le changement climatique, la réduction des risques de catastrophe, et la gestion du patrimoine culture, in Changement climatique : le rôle du patrimoine, Considérations de la 29e assemblée de l’ICCROM, ICCROM, Rome, 2015.
  • KALFAN (Malik), e. a., A Framework for Managing Sustainability Knowledge, the C-Sand Approach”, in Construction Research Congress, University of Salford, Salford, November 19-21, 2002, pp. 112 to 122.
  • MEADOWS (Donella), e. a., The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Fayard, Paris, 1972.
  • SUSTAINABILITY COMMITTEE OF AIC, COLLECTION CARE NETWORK OF AIC, “What is Sustainability?, in Discussion, Introduction to Sustainability, 2014, on the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) website (online) (available on: http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Introduction_to_Sustainability#1.1_What_is_Sustainability.3F, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  • UNESCO, Déclaration universelle de l’UNESCO sur la diversité culturelle, UNESCO, Paris, 2003, article 1.
  • UNITED NATIONS, “Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations, Paris, 2015, article 2, p. 24 (available on: https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  • WONG (Poh Poh), e. a., Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 361 à 409 (available on: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/, consulted on April 15, 2018).
  • Directive PEB (2010/31/UE), LUE, 2010, art. 9.
  • “Exigences PEB du 1er janvier 2021, in La performance énergétique du bâtiment, on Énergie Wallonie website (online) (available on: http://energie.wallonie.be/fr/exigences-peb-a-partir-du-1er-janvier-2021.html?IDD=114100&IDC=7224, consulted on April 15, 2018).

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