What is Sustainability?
The word “sustainability” is used a great deal these days, without any clear or complete definition. In fact, the meaning is rather ambiguous, at best.
Probably the most recognized definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 report Our Common Future—better known as the Brundtland Report—which states that development is sustainable when it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Steve Johnson, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stated that ” We have a responsibility to sustain – if not enhance – our natural environment and our nation’s economy for future generations.”
It is interesting to note that neither statement favors environmental protectionism over commerce or vice versa. Rather it states that the two must work together for the common good. It recognizes the needs of the current population must be met in a way that does not adversely affect the environment.
Though there is no clear method to measure sustainability, climate neutrality is considered the highest of sustainability goals by many governments, NGOs, businesses and other institutions. Most charters that deal with sustainability encourage the integration of environmental, economic and social goals in policies and in activities—both on a global and local level.
The EPA’s Sustainability Research Strategy examined several interrelated and complex factors—such as growing human populations, increases in waste production, growing energy demands, and land development—in the hopes of better understanding their effects on the earth’s natural systems.
How does sustainability take into account the growing human overpopulation combined with current lifestyle patterns? It should be no surprise that there are studies that support both sides of the equation—both that the current world population is too large to support sustainability, and others that argue that it is sustainable. What can be agreed upon is that the “ecological footprint” of some countries is greater than others. For example, the ecological pressure of a US resident is believed to be approximately 12 times that of a resident of India and 24 times that of a Somali resident. Even in the Unites States, certain states have a stronger “ecological footprint” than others. For example, nearly one-third of the U.S. population resides in the 17 Western states, which include seven of the nation’s 10 fastest growing states. As these states continue to see a continued growth expansion it will continue to affect the allocation and use of resources.
As the population grows and shifts, it is interesting to note that natural resources have an interrelated effect on one another. According to the EPA’s Sustainability Research Strategy report, “since 1971 each 1 percent increase in worldwide GDP has resulted in a 0.64 percent increase in energy use. Most of the energy has been produced from fossil fuels, so the increased energy use has led to greater emissions of air pollutants from the combustion of these fuels. Nearly half of U.S. water withdrawals are used for cooling power plants and water is also used to scrub air pollutants from flue gas; so rising energy use increases both demand for and pollution of water. Extraction of fossil fuels from the earth requires use of more materials, changes the surrounding land, and produces more wastes (i.e. unwanted materials). Finally, increased energy use impacts ecosystems through such factors as silt runoff from energy extraction activities and the decline in water quality caused by runoff from mining facilities. Interactions like these demonstrate forcefully that a systems approach offers the best strategy for understanding environmental impacts and for designing cost-effective and sustainable policy responses.
In regards to land development, the Sustainability Research Strategy report notes the correlation to impervious surfaces , such as roads and rooftops, and the degradation of water quality due to increased” runoff volume, stream sedimentation and water acidity”. According to the report, a single “one-acre parking lot produces a runoff volume almost 16 times as great as would an undeveloped meadow of the same size.” Therefore, the importance of green building and green design is crucial as the population expands, both for new development and replacement construction.
For generations, the importance and seriousness of sustainability have been understood, so why has there been so much resistance to it? The precautionary principle states that “if there is a risk that an action could cause harm, and there is a lack of scientific consensus on the matter, the burden of proof is on those who would support taking the action.”
Therefore, as long as there are pundits on both sides of the sustainability equation, change will continue to be gradual. However, as global warming continues to heat up the planet, many developing nations are beginning to implement policies in support of sustainable development. Coupled with corporate social responsibility, greater public awareness and a better understanding of carbon footprints, the goal of sustainability can become a reality.
Here’s hoping for a clear and legitimate definition for sustainability, so we can help work towards a solution.