An Interview with Robert Engelman

by Katerina Batzaki

In the latest edition of Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World series: State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? scientists, policy experts, and thought leaders tackle questions such as what sustainability really means, and how and if we can measure it to see how far away we are from being sustainable as a society. Since a range of products and activities—from “green” cleaning supplies to carbon offsets—have been labelled as “sustainable,” the authors of the book are concerned that the term has lost its meaning and become essentially sustainababble, at best indicating a practice or product slightly less damaging than the conventional alternative. Co-author of the book and President of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington D.C., Robert Engelman tells us all the reasons why he thinks it is important we all agree on what sustainability actually means.

What is sustainability to you?

I wouldn’t like to think what sustainability is to me. I would like to think of what it actually is. I think part of the problem is that so many people define it in their own way. What’s important is to agree on what it actually means otherwise we are just all using a word that has no meaning. The concept behind sustainable development was that it improved well-being but not in a way that undermined future well-being. This is the core meaning of sustainability. Sustainability is really the ability of human-beings to engage any activities that do not lower the chances for future generations to be able to enjoy the same activities.

What’s with the babble then?

Sustainababble. I don’t know if that translates well into other languages, but babble comes of course from the tower of Babel and the Bible where everybody was speaking different languages, to refer to the fact that sustainability means so many different things to many different people. And then babble in English is what a baby does - is meaningless talk. We thought it was a kind of humorous term that conveyed a serious topic; that the word sustainable is being used so often in the environmental movement, in corporate marketing by governments and by the UN in so many ways that it really lost its meaning. We are losing sight of what we need to do as human civilisation which is to become truly, authentically sustainable, which is a very difficult challenge. And in part, we avoid facing that challenge because it is so much more pleasant to talk about products or cities or particular policies or even lifestyles as being sustainable when they’re really not.

If you were to invent another word for sustainability, what would that be?

I think sustainability is a good word. I believe in it. It has a few syllables but I think it really does mean what we want it to mean and we should use the word sustainable. Some synonyms for sustainable in English is durable which is the same as in French. I also use the word enduring or lasting to show that sustainable lifestyle would be a lifestyle that can last. All of these words convey that something can go on continuously without being diminished or deteriorated from the causes of the tone of that activity. Sustainable is the orbit of the earth around the sun that can go on indefinitely and sustains life on earth fundamentally without in any sense undermining its own activity. And human beings had a lifestyle along these lines.

Sustainable is the orbit of the earth around the sun that can go on indefinitely and sustains life on earth fundamentally without in any sense undermining its own activity - Robert Engelman

For one hundred and ninety thousand years, we were clearly behaving sustainably, because we continued to survive even though we didn’t have a sophisticated civilisation those years. The problem of unsustainability is really an emerging problem that was born since the industrial revolution began or maybe even in the last century or so. It has gradually grown to the point that it really threatens the future of humanity and life on earth right now.

Why would large companies be motivated to become sustainable? Is there a carrot there for companies with good practices like Asia Pulp and Paper for example?

There are two time scales: the short-term sustainability (and by short-term I mean the next few decades) and then there is the longer-term sustainability where in that case we are looking to the future of our civilisation. If a company is wise, they will ask themselves if they are engaging in business practices that make it likely that their profits will not be able to be sustained in the coming years. Companies like Asia Pulp and Paper for example needed to think of two things; one was how would their customers view them. Secondly, where would they get the raw natural resources to make their products, because if they were going to continue to deforest primary rainforest, their pulp and paper would eventually disappear. The other example is Dupont chemical company in the United States. Once Dupont found their chemicals made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that depleted the ozone layer, Dupont hired scientists who came back and said that the chemical Dupont makes, is behind this crisis and they would be foolish to keep on making these chemicals and not develop other less harmful ones. Dupont became an advocate of getting rid of chlorofluorocarbons worldwide which initially seemed to go against their interests, but their long-term interest was that they wanted to be a chemical company that would survive in the 21st century.

How will 'sustainable development' regain its status to reach again the top of the list of politicians?

That is a very difficult question. We are currently considering taking on as the theme of our next edition of State of the World 2014 the issue of governments and how governments can help bring us to authentic sustainability. We would need some major changes both in governments and in public opinion. A very important part of Worldwatch's mission is to bring a fair and sustainable economic development together. We need really good ideas to try to close the gap between high incomes and low incomes around the world while at the same time doing so on the basis of really targeting and trying to achieve environmental sustainability. Right now there isn't very much pressure for politicians to do that. We need citizens' movements. One of the reasons Worldwatch exists is that we're trying to inform citizenry worldwide, that has the value of economic fairness and environmental sustainability and we'd like to see those two values move together in tandem to make a better world for all that actually lasts.

What is the motivation behind the creation of the book State of the World 2013?

At Worldwatch Institute, we've been having a number of discussions with our board and staff about the importance of being very clear about our mission which is to use information, research, and outreach to affect the most rapid transition possible to an environmental society that meets human needs. That led to a discussion on whether we could devote an entire issue of the State of the World 2013 to what sustainability really means and how and if we can measure it to see how far away we are from being sustainable as a society, and what we need to do. So, part one would look at what sustainability is and how is measured. Part two would look at ways on how to move towards authentic sustainability, and part three would deal with the question of how we adjust if we don't reach a sustainable society sometime soon in the next few decades or in the next century. We felt that in writing the book would help us know what kind of projects to take on or not, but would help us hone our mission and would know exactly what to do in the future. So far the book has been helpful for us to think about our own work.

What will the conference on the 29th April in Copenhagen aim to achieve?

We hope to raise awareness in Copenhagen and in Europe generally to engage European governments and civil society in the conversation we hope we will help inspire about what sustainability really is. I think Europeans, like Americans, use the term too loosely. Particularly in Denmark, there are a number of trends that one can point to, in which they are doing much better than in the United States or in other parts of Europe and the world in achieving a good quality of life for most people while at the same time working to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and their use of natural resources.

We can't say something is sustainable, if it can't be duplicated by any human being on the planet, because after all, we are all human beings Robert Engelman

It would be good to engage the Danish civil society and the Danish government in a friendly competition with other countries. I would love to see countries and governments and civil organisations within countries grading themselves and comparing themselves to other countries in how closely they are approaching sustainability indicators. These are the real indicators of sustainability. And with indicators, an important issue is equity. It's not enough just to say that Denmark is very small and we don't have enough of a large impact on the world. Denmark needs to look at itself in terms of its population and the number of people it has and then ask itself whether each Danish person's per capita could be duplicated by everyone in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, or Latin America. And if it's not, then even Denmark's per capita behaviour is not sustainable. We can't say something is sustainable, if it can't be duplicated by any human being on the planet, because after all, we are all human beings.