A Sustainable Society

Sustainability in the broad sense of the word is “the ability to maintain a process or a system over time.” In ecology, a sustainable system is “a biological system whose biodiversity and productivity are maintained over time.” We can explore and manage sustainability in tree main contexts – environmental, social and economic.[1]

In an economic sense sustainable economic development requires a compromise between the needs of the environment, of society and the economy. Historically, there has always been a close connection between economic growth and environmental degradation. Whenever society has developed, the environment has declined. The unsustainable economy has been described as a malignant cancer, because it destroys the plant’s ecosystem services, which are also the systems that habitat it.

In a social sense a sustainable society is “one that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” [1]

According to Cutler J. Cleveland the there are four main principles a society need to follow in order to be a sustainable one[2]:

  1. A sustainable society does not use natural resources or produce wastes faster than they are regenerated or assimilated by the environment.
  2. Decisions that promote sustainability are consistent with the fact that human society is a system that is part of a larger system – the natural environment.
  3. The first two principles must be meshed with the ethical and moral principles that govern fairness among nations, between genders, and among current and future generations.
  4. Social incentives must reward those who act in a sustainable way and punish those who act in a non-sustainable manner.

The idea that society and the environment are an interconnected system is manifested in Sebastião Salgado’s book “Genesis.” Salgado is a Brazilian social documentary photographer who is most known “for putting a human face on economic and political oppression in developing countries”[3] in projects like “Workers” and “Migrations.” In “Genesis,” he pieced together “a visual story about the effects of modern development on the environment.” It is an assembly of beautiful, captivating and compelling photographs of natural subjects that he believes have somehow “escaped or recovered from” the changes of modern development.

sebastiao_salgado_genesis_02
© Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images
sebastiao_salgado_genesis_03
© Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images

In his eight years journey to create this project Salgado discovered that more of half of the plant is as it was in Genesis. He found remarkable landscapes in which indigenous societies live in harmony with nature and not disrupt it.

It is said that this book will become a landmark not only in photography but also in publishing. I believe it’ll also become a landmark in human history! “Genesis” tells the story about the world we live in, and will serve as an eternal testimony to where our plant once was, for better or for worst. Looking at Salgado pictures gives me a lot of hope but also raises many concerns – Will those parts of our plant remain in this remarkable untouched state, or will our selfish modern way of living and our destructive habits ruined it?

I believe the answer is only up to us! The decision is in our hands and today is the turning point. Human society needs to decide – Where do we go from here? What will the future hold for our plant? Will we build more tall buildings and mega cities with “forest areas” that tell us about or past – about how our world used to be (like Alan Sonfist’s Time landscape in NYC), or will we go back to that Gensis world? Will we realize we went to far? We will realize that we are no longer a sustainable society; that we have overexploited our planet’s resources? Would we take a step back to rediscover our Gneiss? Could we?

I want to believe that our generation will recognize this opportunity to restore our relationship with the planet before it becomes too late. I want to believe that we can become a true sustainable society and live in synergy with nature. I want to believe that amazing art works, such as Sebastião Salgado’s photographs, can and will make a change in our world!


[1]Notes and Definitions.” Sustainable Society Index. Web.

[2] Cleveland, Cutler J. “Principles of Sustainability.” Principles of Sustainability. Web.

[3] Finkel, Jori. “Back to Nature, in Pictures and Action.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 May 2009. Web.