EME 504
Foundations in Sustainability Systems

1.2 Sustainable Development

The beginning of a new millennium finds the planet Earth poised between two conflicting trends. A wasteful and invasive consumer society, coupled with continued population growth, is threatening to destroy the resources on which human life is based. At the same time, society is linked in a struggle against time to reverse these trends and introduce sustainable practices that ensure the welfare of future generations.


Only after disposal became a difficult problem to manage, extraction and use of resources ceased to be seen as signs of progress and development. Particularly since the second half of the 20th century, ever-increasing population growth, pollution, environmental degradation, and resource depletion have put into question the notion that all development leads to prosperity.

A new concept, the concept of Sustainable Development, was born from concerns about population growth beyond the carrying capacity of the planet and the environmental impact of rapidly growing populations.

Environmental Impact is a result of three factors: Extraction, use, and disposal of natural resources.

Consequently, sustainable development emphasizes reduction of the environmental impact because, such reduction:

  1. slows depletion of resources;
  2. reduces pollution by slowing the flow of energy and matter in the environment;
  3. saves money.

Because of concerns of growing environmental degradation in the 1960s, the United States government has charged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with overseeing that all federal agencies consider the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. This federal mandate is known as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and it was signed into law in 1970. A detailed description of NEPA is found in the EPA website.

A key part of NEPA is the Environmental Impact Statement. EPA reviews and comments on EISs prepared by other federal agencies, maintains a national filing system for all EISs, and assures that its own actions comply with NEPA. The EIS has become a basic tool to protect the environment on federal lands.

The EIS requires that anyone proposing action on public lands documents:

  1. the need for the project;
  2. reasonable alternatives to it;
  3. overview of the natural environment affected;
  4. environmental consequences of the project.