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The Triple Bottom Line of a Sustainable Society: “Planet, Profit and People”

A multidisciplinary approach towards sustainable development is imperative especially when we encompass the duty of creating a just social foundation

The discourse of sustainable development, has been substantially influenced by Johann Rockstrom’s article in 2009 called ‘A safe operating space for humanity’. Rockstrom and his colleagues enlist nine ‘planetary thresholds’ which are nine ecological balances, whose resilience and ‘carrying capacity’ should not be tampered with. The illustration for these boundaries and their current status is as follows-

Addressing the outer planetary thresholds has often been the main focus of environmentalists and advocates of sustainable development. Very often in the discourse of sustainable development, especially since the Brundtland Report of 1987 which catalyzed the use of the word Sustainable Development, the published and online material dealing with the subject often use these words interchangeably with ‘environmental sustainability’ or ‘environmentally sustainable development’. As Agyeman elucidates in ‘Introducing Just Sustainabilities’,“Sustainability cannot be simply a ‘green’, or ‘environmental’ concern, important though ‘environmental’, aspects of sustainability are. A truly sustainable society is one where wider questions of social needs and welfare, and economic opportunity are integrally related to environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems”. 

Therefore using a multidisciplinary approach towards sustainable development becomes important, especially when we encompass the duty of creating a just social foundation, other than staying within the planetary thresholds or environmental limits. In "A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut.", an article authored by Kate Raworth, Raworth tries to amalgamate the twin objectives of poverty eradication and environment sustainability, by incorporating the concepts of planetary boundaries with that of social boundaries. The ‘environmentally safe and socially just’ space she advocates is where inclusive, sustainable development can take place. She illustrates her idea by showcasing the ‘safe and just space for humanity’ between the planetary thresholds and the just social foundation as follows-

It is important to note the interdependence of the social boundaries and the environmental limit, and hence while designing any policy aimed towards sustainable development, one must understand that environmental goals are closely linked to social welfare goals. With the above illustration, we can see the eleven areas which constitute the just social foundation, many of which require a multidisciplinary understanding in order to build any policy towards betterment in those areas. Some of these areas such as income and job have a direct economic outcome on growth and employment, hence require perhaps just a great understanding of economics to be dealt with. Others such as voice and gender equality, the enhancement of which has numerous positive spill-overs in other areas, we require expertise in political science and gender theory for effective solutions. So, hence, noting the current global deprivations in the social foundation, we need to consider Raworth’s argument that for inclusive, just sustainable development, we should not just focus on the planetary boundaries (which usually environmental activists and advocates of sustainable development focus on), but also consider the areas to improve for a just, social foundation. In order to asses India’s situation with respect to the nine planetary boundaries and the eleven areas in a social foundation, we need to incorporate various disciplines and work towards effective multidisciplinary solutions towards sustainable development.

Therefore in order to bring humanity closer to the doughnut, we have established that attempts should be made to stay below Rockstrom’s nine planetary thresholds and show sustained progress in the eleven areas required to establish a just social foundation. It has also been established by Raworth that in order to stay within the doughnut, one must design policies which are environmentally sustainable (move us back from the planetary thresholds) as well as help eradicate poverty and improve social equality (whose positive spill-overs in all eleven domains of the social foundation will move us closer to the safe doughnut). Understanding the complex inter-linkages and delicate balances between the planetary thresholds require a multidisciplinary probing in order to come up with effective solutions aimed towards sustainable development. Despite existence of usual economic models advocating policies which stimulate growth or increase in GDP and income per capita as top priorities, or existence of environmental programs which address environmental protection, there is a lack of policy design which simultaneously helps humanity reach the just social foundation, as well as reduce its impact on the planetary thresholds. 


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