Improvement vs. sustainability

The Daily’s endorsement of the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework misses the mark.

by Roman Kanivetsky

Your unconditional endorsement of Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework in your editorial is based on either misreading the title of this document or rooted in misunderstanding of the concept of sustainability (“Water, water everywhere,” Nov. 29). To be sure, the goal of this document is to develop sustainability framework. Unfortunately, this framework in the document belongs to the category of environmental improvement.

Adherents to environmental improvement take current resource use practices as given and look for marginal improvements. The time frame is short term (25 years) and scale of activities follows the political boundaries. Water quality improvement is the goal; doing better than present conditions, even if “better” is only slowing the rate of degradation.

By contrast, there are those who presume current water practices are unsustainable. Advocates argue for sustainability of water resources. Their orientation is very long term, that is, over many generations of key species, including humans.

For sustainability, the scale is determined by biophysical processes in multi-scale organization. The focus must be on the intersection of human and natural systems and require a drastic overhaul of socio-economic systems, ones that make transformational, not marginal, changes.

To make this transformation, this framework should be rooted on alternative norms âÄî e.g., human security through a new economy that respects natural limits âÄî an economy that is sensitive to overconsumption. The focus must change from producing goods to consumption, not just purchasing, so-called “demand,” but consuming, using up, diminishing regenerative capacity, engendering irreversibilities.

Water sustainability framework indeed requires such focus, but this focus is missing from this document.

To develop genuine sustainability framework will require a new thinking rooted in a new economics model. In new economics, model cooperation and efficiency is not enough. As seemingly all-purpose principles, they have the character of “motherhood and apple pie,” but the pursuit may actually thwart sustainability and restoration of natural capital by helping key actors disguise, displace and postpone true costs.

For sustainability, the new set of principles embodying social restraint as the logic analog to ecological constraint. Such principle is the principle of sufficiency (it is more than the principle of conservation) âÄî restraint, precautionary, polluter pays, zero pollution, reverse onus and principles like those. This class of principles is sensitive to sustainability, inter- and intra-generational risk export and the evasion of responsibility of generating such risks.

The scientific community will serve policymakers and citizens well if it incorporates this new thinking in the framework of water resources sustainability.


Roman Kanivetsky is an adjunct professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosytems Engineering. Please send comments to [email protected]