is a complex term. In some ways, it is too broad and general to
be meaningful. In other ways, it is an umbrella for many important
but otherwise disparate concepts, which, put together, will determine
the future of life on the planet.
means different things to different people. I think "sustainability"
in the 21st century is like "computers" in the 1970's.
It is still an intellectual concept, mostly talked about by professors
and geeks, but there are more and more people trying to implement
it in their garages, and eventually it will govern or be an aspect
in most business practices, and how people do things everyday. Sustainability
describes a new way of doing things, but most people will only be
able to relate to it through its specific applications (food, products,
activities as opposed to public policy or organizational structures).
In the last 5 years, sustainability is being taken up by business
people and beginning to be more mainstream, and could (should?)
be the basis for the next industrial revolution.
are some approaches to sustainability:
the bad things
the planet from being destroyed- Avoid Jared Diamond's "Collapse"
use up all the Earth's resources in the next 50 years
future generations the same opportunities that we've had
acting like humans are the only species that matter
greenhouse gas emissions
renewable energy, sustainable transportation options, and low-carbon
polluting our air, water, land, etc.
clean technologies, products, industries
exploiting the Third World, help the poorest people, reduce
justice and social equity
are several steps I've noticed in the learning curve of sustainability:
there is a problem. Just like in a 12-step program, this is the
to reconcile the new information with the old worldview. This leads
to the triple-bottom line: social, environmental, and economic values.
It also leads to the Venn diagram, where there are three circles,
representing those values, and the "sweet spot" is where
all three overlap. I think this is a useful but simplistic approach
to sustainability. Some people (especially people whose livelihoods
are entrenched in the status quo) only get this far, decide they
now understand sustainability, and continue with business as usual.
Ecological Footprint. This is a wake up call for people in the United
States. If you extrapolate the lifestyle of most Americans to the
entire world, we would need 4 planets to provide the resources we
use. For some Americans, their Ecological Footprint is 20 planets.
Whoa. Houston, we have a problem.
around this time, the old Venn diagram gets replaced by a bulls-eye
target. The center is the economy, and the outer ring is the environment.
This is a more accurate concept for sustainability. It requires
a little more intellectual freedom, because it calls into question
some economic assumptions (that the environment is an externality,
when in fact, the economy is wholly dependent on the environment).
The Ultimate Sustainability Indicator. I believe CO2 is an even
better indicator, because it is not a metaphor. It is the actual,
measureable emissions generated from fossil fuels that you and I
are creating due to an energy infrastructure that is unsustainable.
CO2 pinpoints the problems, and gives us an idea of how to fix it.
So, the problem isn't the driving to your grandmother's house on
Sunday. The problem is the fuel you put in your car to get there.
If you can ride your bike there, you'd addressed the problem.
often comes loaded with baggage. Is the world headed for imminent
disaster? If so, your timeframe for long term sustainability may
be measured in decades or years, as opposed to centuries or millennia.
Has the world seen situations like this before and survived? Is
so, then sustainability may be a luxury good, to be purchased only
after you have achieved your other goals (such as economic growth).
What is a tolerable amount of "unsustainability"? Using
any oil or petroleum whatsoever? Using just under the threshhold
for permanent damage to the Earth's climate? Using the minimum amount
of fossil fuels to allow for Less Developed Countries to "catch
up"? Do you like science? Do you prefer social science? What
is your general political frame, according to George Lakoff: strict
father, or nuturant parent? These considerations and more will give
you a definition of sustainability, which may be as unique as your
so, the term is a powerful description of the changes we need to
make, and the goal we need to pursue in our economy and culture.
Key Leverage Points in the System:
often form around a specific threat to their community. When that
threat is connected to a larger, systemic problem, the community
may be drawn toward systemic solutions. Identifying true leverage
points becomes the key to solving the problem, and to changing the
are a few tips, borrowed from Donnella Meadows and others:
is the public ready to hear? Where
is the current suffering or need, and how does your solution fit
that are achievable. Bring about meaningful change one step at a
time. Raising awareness is not enough.
credible sources of information and documentation. Never assume
anything. Never deceive the media or the public. Maintain credibility,
don't exaggerate or hype the issue.
divide the world into saints and sinners.
dialogue and attempt to work together to solve problems. Position
issues as problems with solutions. This is best done by presenting
realistic alternatives. Don't foist a single, inflexible solution
on people. Give them a choice and they'll be more inclined to select
one and work with you.
for confrontation if your target remains unresponsive. If accepted
channels don't work, prepare an escalating public awareness campaign
to place your adversary on the defensive.
lobbying, or legal action is only one tactic. There are others too.
to Intervene in the System:
the Measurements & Formulas
the Inventories and Flow Rates of Resources
Negative Impacts and Vicious Cycles
the Rules, or Who Makes and Enforces Them
a New System That Makes the Old One Obsolete