8 June 1996

What is sustainability? It’s like asking what is truth? Is it an objective standard that applies at all times to all circumstances? Is it relative? If so, relative to what? And when? And how?

And when all the principal parts are in transition — ecosystems, economies, societies, people, communities, companies, governments — and all are always interacting, will a definition today work tomorrow?

The mere thought of venturing into this labyrinth of question marks brings a laugh from the three men in the meeting room at the Richmond Hill offices of ESSA Technologies Ltd.

And yet ESSA deals in sustainability every day. Around the world.

Seventeen years ago, before the word sustainability was part of the vocabulary, ESSA began life as Environmental and Social Systems Analysts Ltd., and in its name alone it was ahead of its time because it linked the welfare of the environment to the welfare of society.

Now it proclaims much more explicitly that for human activity to become sustainable it must do so « economically, environmentally, and socially,’’ and the three are interdependent. The welfare of one cannot cannot be achieved without ensuring the welfare of the others.

But there is a lingering unease about what « socially’’ really means. In practice, however, the staff of 50 professionals find social concerns woven into the issues they deal with every day.

They act as a facilitators, often between competing interests, they train and educate, and even produce school materials, they carry out environmental impact assessments. They help establish management systems, produce state of the environment reports, develop software for simulating how natural systems work so that the impact of human interventions can be assessed before decisions are made, and they have an interactive computer game on sustainability in the works.

The company has headquarters in Vancouver, where most of its staff is located, and major offices in Richmond Hill and in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. It is active across North America and the Far East, and in parts of central Africa. Its revenues are more than $4-million a year.

Among projects that are especially intriguing are developing analytical computer tools to help figure out the dynamics between Canadian forests and global warming; training trainers in China to teach the techniques of environmental impact assessments; advising Mongolia on how to structure its government so that it can implement the goals and objectives of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero; and working with a broad range of people to set objectives that will rehabilitate conditions for fish in Lake Ontario.

As the three men speak of their experiences — Lorne Grieg, director of ESSA’s operations in eastern Canada, Chris Wedeles, manager of the Richmond Hill office, and Erik Davies, an environmental planner who worked on the Mongolia project — it’s striking how often they focus on human values as a starting point in addressing a problem. And in the search for solutions, how essential they think it is to engage all corners of society in which people will be affected, even when the task is as technical as designing a computer simulation model.

What I found particularly interesting were three general conclusions Erik Davies has reached about governments:
•           departments and agencies are usually organized according to sectors, which makes it difficult to deal with problems in an integrated way;
•           decisions on sustainability are sometimes made by levels of government that, because they are tied to a competing interest, are not capable of making a decision for the common good (an example would be a municipality eager for property revenues deciding on wetland development);
•           line agencies, such as environmental departments, are marginalized by not having the power to provide guidance across the spectrum of government activities.

No one agency should have responsibility for the environment, he says. Instead, a set of common principles aimed at promoting sustainability should be adopted and applied to all departments and agencies. And there should be much greater co-ordination among all levels of government.

When you look at the governments in Ottawa and Queen’s Park, it’s the finance departments that do the integrating, that set the common principles, that insist on the coordinating — and as far as promoting economic agendas are concerned, they’re very successful.

It’s too bad the ruling parties don’t feel as strongly about sustainability.

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