EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

1.1 Sustainability Definitions

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Sustainability as a Term

The term sustainability has a multidisciplinary use and meaning. In dictionaries, sustainability is typically described by many sources as a capability of a system to endure and maintain itself. Various disciplines may apply this term differently.

In history of humankind, the concept of sustainability was connected to human-dominated ecological systems from the earliest civilizations to the present. A particular society might experience a local growth and developmental success, which may be followed by crises that were either resolved, resulting in sustainability, or not resolved, leading to decline.

In ecology, the word sustainability characterizes the ability of biological systems to remain healthy, diverse, and productive over time. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems.

Since the 1980s, sustainability as a term has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this leads us to the concept of sustainable development which is defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations (March 20, 1987) as follows: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The following video will further elaborate on this definition and will give a few examples on its meaning.

Video: What is Sustainability (9:43)

Credit: Christian Weisser "What is Sustainability." YouTube. December 20, 2014.
Click here for a transcript of the What is Sustainability video.

So what is Sustainability? You’ve probably heard the term sustainability in some context or another. Maybe you’ve used some product or service that was labeled as sustainable, or maybe you're aware of some campus or civic organization that focuses on sustainability. You may recognize that sustainability has to do with preserving or maintaining resources. We often associate sustainability with things like recycling, using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, and preserving natural spaces like rainforests and coral reefs. However, unless you have an inherent interest in sustainability, you probably haven’t thought much about what the term actually means. This video provides a basic definition of sustainability. Simply put, sustainability is the capacity to endure or continue. If a product or activity is sustainable, it can be reused, recycled, or repeated in some way because it has not exhausted all of the resources or energy required to create it. Sustainability can be broadly defined as the ability of something to maintain itself. Biological systems such as wetlands or forests are good examples of sustainability, since they remain diverse and productive over long periods of time. Seen in this way, sustainability has to do with preserving resources and energy over the long term rather than exhausting them quickly to meet short-term needs or goals. The term sustainability first appeared in forestry studies in Germany in the 1800s, when forest overseers began to manage timber harvesting for continued use as a resource. In 1804, German forestry researcher Georg Hartig described sustainability as “utilizing forests to the greatest possible extent, but still in a way that future generations will have as much benefit as the living generation." So while our current definitions are quite different and much expanded from Hartig’s, sustainability still accounts for the need to preserve natural spaces, to use resources wisely, and to maintain them in an equitable manner for all human beings, both now and in the future. Sustainability seeks new ways of addressing the relationship between societal growth and environmental degradation, which would allow human societies and economies to grow without destroying or over-exploiting the environment or the ecosystems in which those societies exist. The most widely quoted definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987, which defined sustainability as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As a quick example of sustainability, think about aluminum soda cans. In the past, many soda cans were used and thrown away without a whole lot of thought.The practice of throwing them away was unsustainable, since ready sources of aluminum are limited and landfills and trash dumps were filling quickly with wasted cans. Consequently, governments and private corporations began to recycle aluminum soda cans, and today more than 100,000 soda cans are recycled each minute in the United States. A billion dollar recycling industry has emerged, creating jobs and profits for the workers and businesses employed in that enterprise, while at the same time using limited resources more thoughtfully and reducing the impact on the environment. The process has become cyclical rather than linear, resulting in the continued use of materials. But sustainability is about more than just the economic benefits of recycling materials and resources. While the economic factors are important, sustainability also accounts for the social and environmental consequences of human activity. This concept is referred to as the “three pillars of sustainability,” which asserts that true sustainability depends upon three interlocking factors: environmental preservation, social equity, and economic viability. First, sustainable human activities must protect the earth’s environment. Second, people and communities must be treated fairly and equally—particularly in regard to eradicating global poverty and the environmental exploitation of poor countries and communities. And third, sustainability must be economically feasible—human development depends upon the long-term production, use, and management of resources as part of a global economy. Only when all three of these pillars are incorporated can an activity or enterprise be described as sustainable. Some describe this three-part model as: Planet, People and Profit. Our current definitions of sustainability—particularly in the United States—are deeply influenced by our historical and cultural relationship with nature. Many American thinkers, writers, and philosophers have focused on the value of natural spaces, and those ideas contributed to the environmentalist movement that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. Grassroots environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club advocate for the protection and restoration of nature, and they lobby for changes in public policy and individual behavior to preserve the natural world. Seen in this way, Environmentalism and sustainability have a lot in common. In fact, some people think that our current conversations about sustainability are the next development or evolution of environmentalism. However, earlier environmental debates often pitted the environment against the economy—nature vs. jobs—and this dichotomy created a rift between those supporting one side of the debate against the other. Many of the current discussions involving sustainability hope to bridge the gap by looking for possibilities that balance a full range of perspectives and interests. Sustainability encourages and provides incentives for change rather than mandating change, and the three pillars of sustainability emphasize this incorporation. Essentially though, sustainability looks for coordinated innovation to create a future that merges environmental, economic, and social interests rather than setting them in opposition. In some ways, sustainability is the most important conversation taking place in our society today. The earth is our home, and it provides all of the things we need for our survival and nourishment. However, that home has limited resources, and our collective future will depend upon the successful management and use of those resources. We are living in a critical time, where global supply of natural resources and ecosystem services is declining dramatically, while demand for these resources is escalating. From pollution, to resource depletion, to loss of biodiversity, to climate change, a growing human footprint is evident. This is not sustainable. We need to act differently if the world and its human and non-human inhabitants are to thrive in the future. Sustainability is about how we can preserve the earth and ensure the continued survival and nourishment of future generations. You and everyone you know will be affected in some way by the choices our society makes in the future regarding the earth and its resources. In fact, your very life may well depend upon those choices.

With human decision-making involved, sustainability attains a significant ethical aspect and transforms social paradigm on success, growth, profit, standards of living. This reevaluation requires broader and more synergistic overview of many components of anthropological ecosystems, including technology.

The topic of sustainable development gained enough importance in the last few decades of the 20th century to become a central discussion point at the 1987 General Assembly of United Nations (UN). Concerned by the quick deterioration of the human environment, uneven development, poverty, population growth, extreme pressure on planet's land, water, forest, and other natural resources, UN issued an urgent call to the World Commission on Environment and Development to formulate a "global agenda for change" [UN, 1987]. The result of this action was the report "Our Common Future", which further served as the global guideline for world's nations in formulating their political and economic agenda. This document is almost 40 years old now and was followed up by a long array of actions and movements in subsequent years. But let us go back for a little bit and see how it all started.

The original 1987 Report prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development is a big document (over 300 pages), so I do not advise you to read it all right away. The following reading (about 16 pages) is Chapter 2 of the report, which talks specifically about the concept of sustainable development. So, some of the terms, definitions, and perspectives outlined there will be especially useful for our further work and discussions in this course. So, here is your first reading assignment:

Reading Assignment:

UN Document: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development. Geneva, Switzerland, 3/20/1987.

This document summarizes a consensus on sustainable development and outlines the strategies that should enable reaching sustainability goals. Adopted in 1987, it formed the background for many future attempts to formulate the sustainability principles in very diverse areas: science, industry, economics. Reading through this chapter will provide you with the important background on how the sustainability movement began and what issues were the drivers of sustainable thinking four decades ago.

While reading, take a note of the concept of growth, how it is interpreted, and what positive and negative implications are associated with it. This context will be helpful further in this lesson as we go on to analyze and discuss the question of growth on the forum.

Three Pillars of Sustainability

Sustainable development involves environmental, economic, and social aspects. For a particular process to be sustainable, it should not cause irreversible change to the environment, should be economically viable, and should benefit society. One of the example illustrations of the interplay among these three spheres is provided below in Figure 1.1. Sustainability is represented as the synergy between society, economics, and environment. The environmental aspects include use of natural resources, pollution prevention, biodiversity, and ecological health. The social aspects include standards of living, availability of education and jobs, and equal opportunities for all members of society. The economic factors are drivers for growth, profit, reducing costs, and investments into research and development, etc. There are more factors that will affect sustainability of a social system - these few are listed as examples. Interaction of social and economic spheres result in formulation of combined social-economic aspects. Those are, for instance, business ethics, fair trade, and worker's benefits. At the same time, combination of economic and environmental interests facilitate increasing energy efficiency, development of renewable fuels, green technologies, and also creation of special incentives and subsidies for environmentally sound businesses. Intersection of social and environmental spheres lead to creation of conservation and environmental protection policies, establishment of environmental justice, and global stewardship for sustainable use of natural resources. This framework is in some way a simplification, but it proved to be helpful in identifying key areas of impact and set the basis for objective analysis. Further in this course particular processes and technologies will be often evaluated in terms of social, economic, and environmental impacts, although we should understand that those three pillars are never fully isolated from one another.

See text above for more details
Figure 1.1. Interplay of the environmental, economic, and social aspects of sustainable development.
Credit: Mark Fedkin. Adopted from the University of Michigan Sustainability Assessment [Rodriguez et al., 2002]

Dimensions of Sustainability

The above-mentioned three pillars of sustainability are very common terms in the literature, media, and communications and convey a simple idea to grasp. However, the interconnections between these three pillars are not at all simple and can actually occur in different planes of thinking. Three fundamental meanings or dimensions of sustainability were defined by Christian Becker in his book "Sustainability Ethics and Sustainability Research" as continuance, orientation, and relationships. To understand what those dimensions exactly mean, please refer to the following reading. As discussed in this chapter, the multi-dimensional nature of sustainability is something that often results in confusion and miscommunication between different entities and spheres involved. For example, an environmentalist, economist, and politician can discuss sustainability as a project goal, but actually having three different goals in mind. So, new project developers in the sustainability era should certainly seek to broaden their perspective and at the same time develop sufficient depth in articulation of their sustainability vision. Enjoy the reading:

Reading Assignment:

Book chapter: C.U. Becker, Sustainability Ethics and Sustainability Research, Chapter 2: Meaning of Sustainability, Springer 2012, pages 9-15. (Available through E-Reserves in Canvas.)

When reading, pay special attention to the various dimensions of sustainability and why they need to be recognized. Think – how would you define the term "sustainability" in your own words?

Check Your Understanding - Reflection Point

Now as you have read C. Becker's text, think which of the three meanings of sustainability mentioned is the closest to your mindset. When you hear people talking about sustainable economy, or sustainable society, what comes to your mind first? Also reflect what dimension of sustainability has been lacking from your vision. Do you agree with the author of the chapter that all three dimensions must be equally included in discussion?

Write a few sentences summarizing your thoughts and keep them in your notes. You may need to go back and use your reflection later in the introduction or discussion in your course project.


Note: this is ungraded assignment - you are making this reflection solely for your own reference.

If you completed the short reflection note in the box above - good job! You will find it very beneficial to write down some of your own thoughts while you are still fresh off your reading.

Further in this course, we will occasionally revisit the definitions and interpretations of sustainability. This is one of the concepts that sets context for our main focus in this course - technology role and assessment. In the next section of this lesson, we will start seeing how technology is sometimes considered the cornerstone of the society development and survival. While some theories heavily bet on technology as the universal solution to society's ever-growing needs, others are much more skeptical. So, prepare for some controversy.

Supplemental reading on sustainable development

UN Document: Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August – 4 September 2002.

This document provides a more detailed outline of the goals of the global community for sustainable development. You are not required to read the entire document, but it may be interesting to scan through it and see how it follows up on the initial guidelines adopted in 1987.