The conundrum of the sustainable horse-drawn carriage

Sustainable thinking and action have become the default expectation for individuals and organisations. But what exactly does "sustainability" mean? And what are the weaknesses?

Harvest the surplus and retain the substance

The concept of sustainability was adopted in German forestry as early as the 18th century. The new creed was that tree felling should not exceed new growth. Environmental protection was not the main concern for the forestry managers of the day, though. Their primary aim was to preserve a valuable resource which they intended to use over a prolonged period. 

The best-known and probably most influential definition of sustainability dates from 1987: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Thus the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations.

Between eco-romanticism and government policy

The environmental movement in particular embraced this philosophy. "We have only borrowed this world from our children," is their popular interpretation.

In Germany, sustainability has served as an official guideline for government policy since 2002. The National Sustainability Strategy adopted in that year cites generational equity, quality of life, social cohesion and international cooperation as the main areas of activity.

Today, many companies are committed to a sustainability agenda and act accordingly. Environmental protection and efficient use of resources, social justice, good working conditions and fair dealings with business partners in other countries are typical objectives. Companies often provide extensive accounts of their activities in the form of sustainability reports and social responsibility reports.


Sustainability as a sales argument

The investment sector is also very aware of sustainability, and has been for some time. Numerous investment products and services now reflect ecological and ethical concerns. The real estate industry, whose buildings are among the largest consumers of energy and biggest producers of greenhouse gases, sees itself as having a particular responsibility.

The sustainability conundrum: What would the 19th century have recommended us to do?

However, there is also criticism of the concept of sustainability and its equation with acting responsibly. Hubert Markl, former president of the Max Planck Society, laments the vagueness of the term. He believes the lack of clarity surrounding its actual meaning "is what allows business, the scientific community, politicians and the churches to agree on it”. Economist Oliver Marc Hartwich, meanwhile, finds it “presumptuous” to make demands based on the "alleged interests of future generations". For his part, environmental publicist Dirk Maxeiner asks what recommendation a scientist at the end of the 19th century would have given the present generation: "Sustainable horse-drawn carriages? Paraffin lamps? Paddle steamers?"

But aside from the theoretical debate about semantics, the practical value of sustainable action is largely undisputed. Careful use of finite raw materials and commodities, the avoidance of harmful emissions and the creation of a healthy, comfortable living and working environment obviously make sense. Long-term ecological, economic and social benefits are most likely to be achieved when such aims are combined as part of a sustainable strategy.

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