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  • Problematizing Sustainability: Case of Value Judgments

    As a verb the term ‘sustain’ variously mean ‘maintain’, ‘nourish’, ‘suffer’. On the other hand, as an adjective or a noun, it is most commonly used in connection with ecology or environment, or, at best, with reference to in the context of the social or the economic systems. However, it is used also as an objective, as in ‘business sustainability’ or even as a process, such as in ‘sustainable development’.

    For its applications in diverse situations and contexts over multiple scales of time and space, terms like sustain, sustainability or sustainable are often employed as nothing but a ‘feel-good buzzword’ with little substance. Consider the case of agriculture, where terms like 'organic', 'biological', 'ecological', 'low-input', 'regenerative', 'alternative’, etc. are used as synonyms to ‘sustainable’ to describe a particular practice, and each of these qualifiers may mean different things.

    It follows that a few fundamental questions are to be answered before anyone wishes to explore even the very concept of sustainability:

    (a) What to sustain? Why?
    (b) For whom to sustain?
    (c) In which form it is to be sustained?
    (d) How long it is to be sustained?
    (e) Scale at which it is to be sustained?

    The list can be longer. At another level, there can be serious trade-offs between the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability, i.e. ecological, economic and social. For obvious reasons, prioritization among competing ends assumes importance in the quest towards sustainability. And such prioritization necessarily involves use of value judgments by the concerned, be it the researcher, or the policymaker.

    For the sake of transparency and clarity, it is therefore important to qualify any use of the term sustain or any of its variations. To put it differently, no matter howsoever one may try, no definition of sustainability will be able to satisfy everyone at every point in time, and thus it is important to spell it out what your sustainability mean.

    Consider an illustration from the field of agriculture. In particular, imagine a particular practice, which does not use any chemical fertilizer, or pesticides, or even a tractor, and as a result portray to the general public that it is ‘organic’. Let us explore some possibilities that may deem it as unsustainable.

    (1) The practice involves human or animal powered irrigation, yet the rate at which the water is withdrawn from the aquifer is larger than the natural replenishment rate, and hence sooner or later there will not be any water.
    (2) The product in question travels large distance through a mode that uses, and hence depletes, the limited fossil fuel stock.
    (3) The practice, being labour intensive (for not using any other form of energy) makes the work for labourers literally backbreaking, and hence the sustainability of such labour-power may not be sustainable.
    (4) The product may be meant primarily for the international market, and any crash in the prices there will make the production unsustainable.

    One can go on imagining many other such possibilities. The moot point being that what may be perceived to be sustainable while viewing through a particular lens, may not appear so as soon as some other lens is used. And construction of such a lens depends on one’s value judgment, and certainly not objective or value-neutral.

    About the Author:
    Dr. Nandan Nawn, Faculty, Department of Policy Studies, TERI University

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