Sustainability, in its simplest, involves being able to continue indefinitely. Planet Earth may not last forever, but it will go on for a very long time, regardless of what happens to humanity. People depend on the planet’s biological systems to support us – and for some time now, human beings have been running down the Earth’s ability to regenerate itself – which is what all living beings rely on for their very existence. In this context, sustainability is a human-centred approach to consciousness and action. If humanity is to be able to continue indefinitely, then we must take stock of how the world around us is changing and adapt our behaviour to ensure that we reverse the negative impacts we are having on Earth. Central to this challenge is realizing that human globalization – through the economy, consumption, migration, communication and so on – has created great inequities, with some societies and groups having far more of their ‘fair share’ of what life has to offer than others. It is not surprising that those who have less will aspire to ‘catch up’ to those who have more. Such action will only dig the hole of our UNsustainability deeper. As a result, sustainability must include the achievement of global equity, if the planetary resource limitations are to be respected — both of which are required to enable humanity to achieve their own ability to ‘continue indefinitely’.
Many strategies will be required to achieve these ambitious goals – through new approaches to technology, policy, governance, education, planning, economic systems and more. As a cultural professional, I believe that it is ultimately culture, and the values, attitudes and behaviours that drive our society, that will form the foundation of our attempts to achieve the goal of local/global sustainability.
How can humanity create a ‘culture of sustainability’ within our increasingly pluralist, urban communities? Psychologist Edgar Shein defines culture as the mechanisms by which individuals and collectives adapt to a changing external environment, and integrate those adaptations internally. Humanity is not doing so well at coping with changes to its external environment – hence, we struggle with such phenomena as climate change, pollution and systemic inequity within our pluralist societies.
Currently, cultural organizations, like museums and art galleries, do little to reflect or engage the living cultures of our societies and the environments they inhabit. They have the ability to do so – although it will require a complete reassessment of what these organizations assume are the cultural needs of our communities. New insights into how best to address these needs will also be required – leaving behind the presumption that culture is essentially a specialized commodity for the leisure-time market. New professional competencies and novel approaches to public engagement strategies will have to replace old institutionalized structures and traditional programs if these organizations hope to engage the cultural pulse of our cities.