by Steve Viederman – Fellow, G&A Institute
Introduction by Hank Boerner
In 1995, Stephen Viederman, then President, of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, authored this thoughtful, forward-looking view of key stakeholders’ focus on sustainability and the quest for a more “sustainable world” — a topic of discussion that has grown in importance in recent years..
Steve Viederman is a respected pioneer and thought leader of the sustainable and responsible investment (SRI) movement. We found his 1995 commentary compelling and certainly applicable today to the various public conversations going on about “sustainability.”
At the time of writing this article, Dr. Viederman was President of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in New York City. A historian by training, he has also held senior positions with the Population Council and the UN Population Fund.
Today, Steve is a Fellow of the G&A Institute and a valued advisor to our team.
Steve’s perspective on the importance of sustainability c 1995:
|Knowledge for Sustainable Development: What do we need to know?A chapter from a “Sustainable World” By Stephen ViedermanOn January 17, 1994 a major earthquake rocked Los Angeles. That event, combined with chronic problems of water and air, underline the obvious: that Los Angeles presents a textbook example of technology and science winning out over common sense. This bears directly upon our concerns today: knowledge for sustainability.There are those who see sustainability as a problem of science. Harvard scholar and science statesman Harvey Brooks (1992) has written:“There is a need for a relatively value-neutral definition of sustainability that permits consensus among people with widely differing value perspectives and world views to agree on whether or not the objective criteria for sustainability have been met in any given development strategy or project, but without necessarily endorsing that strategy or project in terms of their value system. In other words, whether or not a given development path is sustainable should, in principle, be a scientific rather than a trans-scientific question . . .”Robert White, President of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, has similarly argued recently that scientists are more capable of creating “rational” public policy than the public-at-large (White 1993).Sustainability is not a technical problem to be solved or an “uncertain characteristic,” as suggested by David Munro in his [article in this volume]. Sustainability is a vision of the future that provides us with a road map and helps to focus our attention on a set of values and ethical and moral principles by which to guide our actions, as individuals, and in relation to the institutional structures with which we have contact—governmental and nongovernmental, work-related, and other.
We must begin by recognizing that many of the problems that we face today, as Barry Commoner observed many years ago, are not the result of incidental failures but of technological and scientific successes. Witness nuclear power and the problems of agriculture. The problems of environmental justice are also products of technological successes, without comparable social and moral development.
The Reversibility Principle
I would like to close with two observations. First, history teaches us that we should expect the unexpected. We should, therefore, study history as part of the knowledge base for sustainability, as a constant reminder of humans’ incapacity to manage the planet.