Dimensions of Sustainability

One of the big disappointments of Rio+20 was the evisceration of the Sustainable Development Goals initiative which now looks like it is going nowhere. I hope that some of the ideas underlying that can find some other outlet; I particularly liked Kate Raworth’s notion of the sustainable development doughnut, in which economic activity is constrained by social minima and environmental maxima.

But, as with my previous post, there is no reason to wait for international politics to sort itself out; we can get implementing these ideas in our own efforts right now. When it comes to designing conservation projects I like to use another visual metaphor, what I call the dimensions of sustainability.

Typically a conservation project will start with a problem statement along the lines of habitat A or species B is severely threatened and something must be done. This may be expressed as a target to prevent the area of habitat shrinking below a given carrying capacity or a population declining below the Minimum Viable Population. Thus a red line is drawn. Everything else must fit around that line, and the further away from the line the better, so not only do we start with a massive constraint, but the whole project design is oriented towards pushing the target variable as far as possible from that minimum.

The problem is that this monocular vision of sustainability greatly constrains the range of solutions which might be considered, and can also lead to blinkered project management with negligible attention paid to other variables. Instead I like to start with a general consideration of the ‘sustainability space’. This space has three primary axes of environmental, social and economic sustainability (ref the three chambers of FSC). Each axis, however, may be a composite of various measures (or sub-axes, if you like), e.g. the environmental axis may list habitat protection, biodiversity and carbon as important issues, the social axis may consider issues of equity and cultural propriety, and the economic axis returns on investment and ability to meet the needs of the market (as opposed to the project logframe).

For a project to be truly sustainable we need to keep all of these variables within sustainable bounds. Excessively prioritising one or two over the others will rarely be constructive. Moreover consideration of this wider picture may help one to understand how a little shift in that initial red line might in fact make the whole difference between project feasibility and miserable failure.

Moving the red line can create space to find a workable solution

For the hard-core conservationists out there it is important to note that this is not about compromising on important principles; if a habitat fragments too much it ceases to function as God intended. But many of those red lines we like to draw are based upon questionable data, and may be somewhat precautionary. Neither point invalidates the need for a line, but they do suggest a certain amount of flexibility. This is important when considering the range of practical interventions. It might be that without such flexibility no project is likely to succeed. (Alas such unsolvable equations are too often not sufficient to stop investment in the project.)

Instead my approach of considering the various dimensions of sustainability is intended to define the problem space properly. It is only within that space that we are going to find any solutions.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim any great originality for the insights above so I would be interested to hear if anyone has similar or alternative frameworks. Equally please do let me know if you ever find the above useful in designing a project yourself.


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