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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 4, 2006

'Sustainability' insufficient for future needs

By J.W. Huston

With due respect to John Griffin and his article, "Sustainability Needs To Be A Hotter Issue," (July 30) about "The Hawai'i 2050 Sustainability Task Force," the term "sustainability" needs to be replaced with something less timid and more relevant.

Per Mr. Griffin, sustainability centers "on the idea of wisely providing for current needs without damaging those of future generations." This idea assumes future needs are reflected adequately within current needs. While the assumption may be true for basic needs food, shelter clearly it does not suffice for 2050 needs.

Said differently, simply "sustaining" ourselves at a time the world is evolving rapidly penalizes future generations. This is true whether one is focused on our economy, education and jobs, healthcare, technology, transportation, environment, the world situation, or whatever. The only certainty is how the needs of future generations will differ dramatically from today.

If we used the year 1962 44 years in the past as a reference it is clear that little in the year 2050 will resemble today. For example, would the "sustainable needs" in 1962 have sufficed for today's generation? Were those needs sufficient to encompass and respond to today's needs related to globalization, international terrorism, digital and life-science revolutions, population and aging concerns, impact of global outsourcing on jobs and careers, the full impact of urban sprawl and highway congestion, and so on? Hardly.

Mr. Griffin also mentions past efforts similar to the 2050 project and notes the lack of follow-up for the 1970 Conference on the Year 2000 and the long-ignored State Plan of the 1970s and '80s. Yet, the issue of why these efforts came up short of expectations is unaddressed. Two possible explanations come to mind.

First, the Year 2000 effort lacked wide political support while the State Plan was political and bureaucratic in the extreme. Second, both efforts extrapolated the present into the future i.e., sustainability and did not have a vision bold enough to seize popular imagination as a genuine "vision quest."

Like the exploits of early Polynesians in the Pacific, a bold vision quest reaches for a goal beyond its grasp. In contrast, sustainability is akin to treading water to stay in place. It is a simple survival effort dependent on luck and unknown others in hope of rescue that reaches for little more than muddling through. It effectively excludes active participation in the creation and pursuit of a better, more desirable future destination.

Consequently, the real task is identifying bold innovative visions able to maximize the evolvability of our community and provide future 2050 generations with a number of desirable options to choose from as they move toward the 22nd century.

In other words, the goal should be to identify two or three truly bold almost unimaginable alternative visions beyond our reach today that could maximize the options and opportunities of those living in 2050 and beyond. Visions so powerful they are inescapable mentally and socially. Visions that inspire and energize us all here until manifested and are applauded internationally as truly visionary.

Accomplishing this will require two different and distinct kinds of leadership one to nurture and shepherd the creation of these visions, and another one to facilitate and focus the political and economic will needed for realization. Confusing these roles would doom the effort.

The needs of generations in 2050 are beyond today's current needs. The obligation of the 2006 generation is to maximize the desired options and opportunities open to the 2050 generation. To provide them with more than well-meaning intentions, new and innovative approaches to thinking and imagining 2050 is required. Pursuit of sustainability cannot meet this challenge.

J.W. Huston of Honolulu is a college professor. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.