We measure the sustainability of development with various indicators that do not mean much to a regular citizen working outside the field. Environmental sustainability can be measured in carbon emissions; social sustainability can be measured with a GINI coefficient; economic sustainability can be measured in growth or size of deficits.
However, a person doesn’t feel these indicators when they maneuver through life on a daily basis. I do not feel the change in the GINI coefficient from one year to the other. I have no idea what the level of carbon emissions in New York City is.
But this does not mean that we are unable to feel sustainability. We can, but in order to explain how, we need to redefine the term. The idea of sustainable development originated from the Brundtland Comission, a 1983 United Nations commission that was organized to respond to the marked degradation of the earth and human society. This commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
This is a good start, but it does not help us identify the immediate feeling of sustainability. The definition complicates this link by adding a dimension of time to the concept. It is hard to feel experiences in the future or in the past. We are much better at feeling things as we experience them. So what if we change the definition of sustainable development to one that does not cross time: development that meets the needs of the individual without compromising the ability of others to meet their own needs.
Furthermore, to incorporate the ecological aspect of sustainable development we can take a step further and offer: development that meets the needs of one being without compromising the ability of other beings to meet their own needs. Through this definition we encompass the needs of other species as well.
Now we can apply this to our daily lives. Normally we experience happiness or gratification relative to other moments or other people. I can say I am happy now because I am not as angry as I was two days ago when I broke my cellphone. Or, I am happy because I am not as sad as I expect the man sleeping on the street to be. We don’t exclusively think this way, and we each do it in different ways and to different degrees. However, this is a pervasive aspect of the human mind as it is today.
Most striking about this way of feeling is that it is naturally unsustainable. If my happiness depends on the way I perceive the happiness of another person, then my happiness detracts from the way another should experience happiness. If I perceive a person to be very happy, then it is harder for me to perceive myself as happy. This applies to a single individual too. If I remember the happiness I had when my mother surprised me with my first puppy, and I compare it to this current moment, it makes it much harder for me to feel that I am experiencing great happiness right now. In essence, my perception of the happiness of an earlier “me” or a current “other” can be violent to the experiences of my current self.
Sustainable development is not a political issue, it is a personal issue. We can only create a sustainable world if we change how we consider ourselves. If we can stop measuring ourselves in relation to others, or even to previous versions of our own selves we can transform our values. We can transform the way we interact, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about others, about the Earth.
Ordinary citizens are the most directly affected by sustainable development. The individual is constantly interacting with other people while working towards meeting his own needs. Yet he is limited by his propensity to measure his achievement in relative terms. In a sustainable world, well-being is infinite and measureless; it is an experience, not a comparison. The happiness of an “other” is exactly the same happiness felt by the observer. The pain of the Earth is everyone’s pain.
The sustainable citizen doesn’t benefit from the pain of another. His action is founded in the idea that the other’s well-being is just as important as his own. Coming to this realization makes the regular citizen far more capable of experiencing happiness, and sustaining it. His growth through this state is sustainable development.