EME 504
Foundations in Sustainability Systems

10.1 Reevaluating the Sustainability Triad

In Module 8, we discussed the challenges that come from applying a detailed analysis of the three pillars of sustainability to large systems, such as the ones utilized by supply chains. One of the key observations is that as systems grow, the number of feedback loops relating different parts of these systems become particularly hard to parse out. This is one of the criticisms raised by Gidding et al. (2002).

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Figure 10.1. Two representations of the relationships among the three pillars of sustainability.
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This figure shows two diagrams: a Venn diagram at left and a concentric circles diagram at right. Venn Diagram The Venn diagram has three sets: Environment, Society, and Economy. The Intersection of the Environment and Society sets contains: Bearable and Sustainable. The Intersection of the Society and Economy sets contains: Equitable and Sustainable. The Intersection of the Economy and Environment sets contains: Viable and Sustainable. Therefore, the Intersection of the three sets contains one element: Sustainable. Concentric Circles The concentric circles' diagram has the Economy circle at the center. The Economy circle is entirely surrounded by the Society circle. The Society circle is entirely surrounded by the Environment circle.
In the traditional representation of these pillars as a Venn diagram, as shown in the first diagram in Figure 10.1, certain conditions are attained where pillars overlap. For example, if a system is optimized for sustainable societal and economic growth, equitable conditions are attained. If the conditions are optimized for the three pillars, sustainability is achieved. Gidding et al. (2002) argued that in the material reality, economic needs are nested within societal needs, which in turn must be nested within the needs of the environment, of which humans are only one component. This nested representation is shown in the second diagram in Figure 10.1. Using this representation, we can easily surmise that the locus of decision-making rests in the innermost circle, the economy. Moving outwards, the capacity for decision-making drastically decreases. In contrast, the effect of those decisions is most evident in the outermost circle and decreases inwards. The imbalance between the distribution of consequences clearly raises many ethical questions. Perrings et al. (2011) discuss some of the capabilities that scientific/technological oversight organizations must have in the context of biodiversity and ecosystems. However, these characteristics extend to other areas where human activity and environmental concerns collide. Addressing the imbalance in the decision-consequence allocation requires a very close nexus between natural and social science and policy-making. In other words, managing the environmental commons required for scientific organizations capable of:
  1. Meta-analytical research: To be useful for policy-makers, original research needs to be assessed and synthesized. Quality of research needs to be assessed.
  2. Coordinate international research: Areas of global interest need to be identified and funded. If biases in research selection exist at the national/local scales, they need to be addressed. Communication among different disciplines needs to be established.
  3. Establish a balance between natural and social sciences: Priorities ought to be identified and optimization needs to occur at this level.