Ask The Expert
Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, Director of the Community Leadership Program
Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI
I grew up in the Chicago, Illinois in the 1980s, when the Chicago Bears were a good football team and Crocodile Dundee was a popular movie series. During this time, the banking industry was consolidating, which meant my father lost his job at a local bank. It was the first time I realized that there were larger social forces structuring, shaping, and determining our life chances. My father’s experience illustrates how businesses and governments sometimes make decisions that are unsustainable for families, communities, and the larger society, let alone the natural environment. Sociology is a discipline that offers explanation, analysis, and critique of how and why these unpredictable decisions, like the downsizing of my father, occur. Sociological perspectives and research offer the foundations for working towards the public good in ways that may prevent or soften the harsh arbitrariness of these social processes that lead to unemployment, homelessness, pollution, and disorder.
The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (The Brundtland Commission) report, Our Common Future (1987: 43), defined sustainability as the ability to “create development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Environment, economy, and equity is one way the U.N. and other formal definitions of sustainability have been abbreviated. Another popular shorthand for this complex concept is people, planet, and profit.
Scholars and activists have critiqued these definitions of sustainability because they overemphasize the economic and business aspects of change making and undervalue the need for considering how change disproportionately impacts the least powerful and the non-human. The environmental justice movement and the concept of just sustainability attempt to fix this issue. Agyeman et al. (2003: 2) define environmental justice oriented sustainability as “The need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the means of supporting ecosystems.”
I use the concept of sustainability in my own research to inform how development is encouraged in mostly urban settings. I am interested in understanding how upgrading infrastructure, or creating an environmentally concerned business or non-profit, is not always sustainable in terms of which communities actually benefit from these social phenomena. The next time you travel your neighborhood, imagine who manufactured it all, where it came from, and how long it might last. Most importantly, who benefits from sustainable development and who is left out?