Four foundations—four fundamentals—constitute a fourfold "bottom line" for sustainability.
Environment: Nature is a dynamic thing in and of itself, and sometimes convulsively so. Humans are its beneficiaries and, at times, its victims. They are also increasingly agents, interacting in and with natural processes. Over several millennia, the human species has become one of the forces of nature, a critical part of its destiny, and ever more so today and tomorrow. Perhaps even, the human species may be a catalyst in another convulsion in the course of natural history. As nature more and more becomes an object of human artifice, its prospects move to the forefront of human consciousness. "What have we done with nature?" we may well ask ourselves. What have been the forms and effects of our interventions? What are the implications of our newfound species-role as a force of nature, and what are the responsibilities that accompany this role? How can we create a viable home for ourselves alongside the other lifeforms of the planet?
Culture: This is the stuff of our human natures, our subjectivities, our shared meanings, and our memories. Culture is the glue of similarity ("identity," literally) that grounds our sociability. It is also a matter of difference or cultures in the plural, the multilayered combinations of which form persons in the plural: ways of seeing, ways of thinking, ways of meaning, ways of relating to each other, ways of connecting with nature. The challenge of culture is as much to forge a productive diversity for the human species (ethnos, gender, ecosystemics) as it is to nurture the sources of cohesion and commonality.
Economy: Here we consider the dynamics of our material life, where in our social relations and using our tools we mix our energies with the natural world to meet our human needs. The challenge is to create economic systems that are environmentally viable, not destroying or damaging our life sources as natural beings. Such systems also need to be culturally viable, not harming our identities and ultimately what is humane in our natures. And they need to be socially viable, not creating destructive tensions and unsustainable injustices around axes of inequality of access to material and social resources.
Society: To these perspectives we need to add our systems of regulation, governance, and resource distribution. What allows for all our participation as autonomous yet social beings? What makes for good citizenship? How do we create, manage, and propagate knowledge? How do we ensure justice? How do we integrate the four fundamentals of environment, culture, economy, and society so we can address our human futures and live to the full our human potentials?
This Research Network attempts to locate what is experienced here and now in the context of longer, broader, and deeper views of the four fundamentals of sustainability.
How do we understand longer views of sustainability?
On a length dimension, we may wish to question the now-ness of our interests and actions: organizations that measure performance solely in terms financial years, consumers who measure wellbeing in terms of instant gratification, and communities that compromise future generations by satisfying their wants in the present. Of course, we need to live in the here and now but that living is limited if it is purely for the here and the now and so prejudices environment, culture, economy, or society in the longer view.
How do interests and actions shape views of sustainability?
On a breadth dimension, we may need to question the here-ness of our interests and actions: acting locally without thinking globally, living personally without knowing politically, living in our cultures but sensitive to the diversity of others, operating to narrow economic or social goals without taking into account their ecosystemic sources and effects.
Who are the participants?
On a depth dimension, we may question the this-ness of our interests: what we feel in our everyday lifeworlds in relation to deep and less immediately tangible social, economic, and ecological structures; our individual and corporate motivations in relation to human and ecological values; monetary value in relation to human value; the hidden hand of personal self-interest as opposed to the conscious hand of good governance, responsible citizenship, and the values of caring for nature and each other
This Research Network provides a forum for discussion of the connections between environment, culture, economy, and society. The perspectives presented range from big picture analyses that address global and universal concerns, to detailed case studies that speak of localized applications of the principles and practices of sustainability. Conference presentations and publications traverse a broad terrain, sometimes technically and other times socially oriented, sometimes theoretical and other times practical in their perspective, and sometimes reflecting dispassionate analysis while at other times suggesting interested strategies for action.