By Olajumoke Akiode PhD



Sustainability by its inclusive definition –“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Report, 1987) – becomes an umbrella for diverse interests and concerns. It thereby runs the risk of becoming a mere mantra, or worst still an adjective or an empty shell.

This all–comers atmosphere birthed proliferation of usages and concerns such as ”sustainable income”, “sustainable strategy”, “sustainable design”, “sustainable supply chain”, “sustainability portfolio”. Consequently, they end up merely skimming the surface of issues without real impact on human, social and environmental interactions. They also skewed the concept to mere maintenance of balance between human or corporate usage of resources and its availability. This is devoid of ethical reflections on the overlapping impact of our development quest on both existing and future stakeholders.

However, sustainability’s ability to accommodate all issues that concerns human beings and the environment is not so much the problem. But the latitude it gives practitioners to interpret it without a substantive or contextual impact. As well as the ease it affords them to grandstand on serious issues that require conscientious policy, agenda and actions originating from ethical reflection. This flaw, unfortunately, brands sustainability as a utopian ideal.

There is therefore a need for ontologized sustainability that is, grounding sustainability in its very existence, in its being. Ontology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature or essential characteristics of being and of things that exist. According to phenomenologists like Husserl, Heidegger and Nancy Tuana, humans beings are beings that exist with others, “being-with”, “being-in-the world’, “open beings”. This implies that human existence is an existence in conjunction with the existence of “others” both human and non-human. This existence is only meaningful because of the existence of the “others”. Human beings are dependent on one another and on the environment; we are interconnected, interdependent beings.

Rawls corroborates this view, by arguing that morality entails recognition of our essential dependence upon others. This dependence is not merely practical. It is such that we can normally realize our own conception of the good only through cooperative activities with others. That is, the self is realized in the activities of many selves (Rawls 1971:565). This alludes to the fact that there is need for the nature of existence to influence sustainability. It will ensure a win-win between the present generation and future generation’s quest to meet their needs and explore their potentials.

To ontologize therefore means to convert into ontological entities or express ontologically. Ontologized sustainability is the development approach that is borne out of the understanding of the representation and categorization of reality. That is, the fact that human beings are embedded in the world, that humans and non-humans exist as open, unconcealed, interrelated, interconnected, interdependent beings. This informs concern about the sustainability of existing resources and life as it is as well as the lives of future generation. According to Imafidon and Bewaji in Ontologized ethics (2013), “one’s orientation about being, or idea of what is, (be it as an individual or as a group of persons) does or should determine one’s concept of the good”. Good here means how development goals should be achieved with consideration for present and future generations. I argue that an understanding of the fact of our existence as beings with others (human and non-human) will ignite in us the cognitive fire that propels our lives into ethical reasoning.

Sustainability is a connecting tool that establishes our relationship with the environment. A fundamental connection that binds all beings together and makes specifically the activities of human beings to affect fellow human beings as well as other constituents of the environment.  Ontologized sustainability makes possible the consciousness of, and recognition of the other. As well as an empathic understanding of their needs, interests, desires that are comparable to one’s own. The knowledge that derives from ontologized sustainability informs in us some emotional, behavioural and physical orientations that birth concrete initiatives. As a matter of fact, it includes demand for ethical reflection and calls for empathic actions. This will determine what is permissible or not, right or wrong for the common good. And what constitutes meaningful and sustainable existence of the present and future generations.  Indeed, reflection on the common good, on what is right or wrong lies within the purview of ethics and this is essential to ontologized sustainability.

Sustainability originated from ethical discourses on environmental ethics, inter-generational justice and social justice. It can only retain its vitality and essence if and only if its operative values are embedded in ethics. That is, if it addresses fundamental moral questions, intrinsic in human to human and human to environment relationship, and its short and long term impact. It obligates individuals to reflect upon the impact of their decisions, proclivity, consumption, enterprise on the well-being of others. In other words, the present or existing men, women, the vulnerable and sick, the environment and the future others. Sustainability calls for responsible stewardship of natural resources as well as their preservation and responsible usage by the present generation and humane management of the interaction between all stakeholders.

In actual sense, sustainability extends to mean development that meaningfully and equitably meets the needs of the present generation which comprises of men, women, the vulnerable and the sick. That is birthed by the conscious consideration of the interdependence and overlap of all sectors of society, without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs.

The implication of this for sustainability enthusiasts is that whatever sustainability initiative we align with, it must entail ethical reflection on the issues and context in which it is being applied. And this necessitates consideration for existing generation, the opportunities available for them to fulfill their human potential without a gender blind spot, the society at large, the environment and relevant ecosystem as well as the available opportunities for future generation to fulfill their own potentials too.

In a way of contextualizing sustainability, and adapting it to Nigeria, I recommend that our sustainability policy and programs should emerge from ethical reflection on our values as a people and our vision of the common good. It should also inform the agenda to mainstream empathic understanding and consideration for “others” and evaluation of the impact of development processes and activities on “others”. Policy makers should conscientiously incorporate sustainability imperatives into policies, public and private sector development agenda and activities. The private sector and sustainability enthusiasts should not rave about sustainability. Rather, they should understand its ontological underpinning and engage with it in its ethical habitat. Then, individuals will be able to realize their objectives and help Nigeria attain sustainable development and by extension, the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In conclusion, ontologized sustainability enables everyone to internalize human interconnectedness and interdependence on one another and on the environment. This internalization leads to actionable knowledge which births emotional, behavioural and physical orientation that evolves practical outcomes. Ontologized sustainability demands ethical reflection upon the impact of our policies and activities as individuals, policy makers, corporate citizens, global citizens on one another, on the prospects of future generations and the planet. It ensures that the needs of the present generation are met in a meaningful way, with consideration for the needs of the future generation. It also rescues sustainability from being a mere mantra and adjective.


Heidegger M. (1959) An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans by Manhein R. London:Yale University

Husserl E. (1996) Intersubjektivitat II Quoted in Zahavi D. in Husserl’s Intersubjective Transformation of transcendental Philosophy in the Journal of British Society for Phenomenology, vol 27(3)

Imafidon E. and Bewaji J.A.I. eds. (2013) Ontologized Ethics: New Essays in African Meta-Ethics. Lanham: Lexington Books

Nancy J. L (1991) The inoperative community. Minneapolis MN: University of Minneasota Press

Rawls J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

United Nations (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press