EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture



Learning Objectives Self-Check

Read through the following statements/questions. You should be able to answer all of these after reading through the content on this page. After going through the content, check the boxes next to the questions/statements that you feel at least somewhat confident answering. I suggest writing or typing out your answers, but if nothing else, say them out loud to yourself. This is to help you reflect on important content, and will help you prepare for this week's quiz. It will also help lay the foundation for future course content.

Hopefully, you now have a reasonably good grasp of what energy is, how it is used, where we get it from, whether or not it is renewable, as well as some good resources for finding energy information. I do not expect you to be energy experts, but it is important that you possess a good baseline knowledge of energy basics if you are going to critically analyze material that has energy information in it. There are many free information sources available, some of which I listed in the previous pages. If you have suggestions for other sources, feel free to share them on one of the course discussion boards.

Sustainability and Sustainable Development

Okay, time to shift gears and address sustainability. Unlike energy, sustainability (and “sustainable”) does not have a universally accepted definition. The phrase “sustainable development” is usually used to describe the goal of sustainability planning, and is often used interchangeably with the term “sustainability.” For the purposes of this course, the terms are effectively the same. Before we start really digging into the term, it’s good to start with the root word “sustain.” Dictonary.com's most relevant definition of “sustain” is:

“to keep up or keep going, as an action or process”

This lies at the core of the term, and is a good place to start. If something is being done that cannot continue to be done for the foreseeable future, then it is not sustainable. The devil is in the details, though, as we will see.

Suggested Reading

The reading in this box is not required. I summarize the key points below. But it will help you understand the content in more depth.

There is almost an unfathomable number of books, articles, and websites that address sustainability. I just Googled "sustainability" and got 437,000,000 results in 0.65 seconds! There is no shortage of information out there, nor is there any shortage of definitions of sustainability. Robert Engelman, President of the Worldwatch Institute, does a very good job of cutting through some of the "sustainable" and provides some cogent thoughts on the state of sustainability and how it can be framed in the book Is Sustainability Still Possible, by the Worldwatch Institute. You are welcome (but not required) to read his entire "Beyond Sustainababble" chapter. I have provided key excerpts below, which I suggest you read before moving on. I have emphasized some key text in bold lettering:

We could spend weeks analyzing the content of Engelman's chapter, but I would like to focus on a few key points.

1. The Overuse of the Term "Sustainability" and "Green"

First of all, what it means to be sustainable (and it's even fuzzier substitute "green") is open to interpretation at best, and misuse at worst. (Greenwashing is an example of such misuse, and will be addressed in more detail later in the course.) Since there is no single definition of sustainability, anyone is free to use the term to describe whatever they want, regardless of whether or not it is truly sustainable. Sustainable travel, sustainable consumption, sustainable underwear, sustainable food, green growth, green cars, greenhouses, green energy - as Engelman puts it, "frequent and inappropriate use lulls us into dreamy belief that all of us - and everything we do, everything we buy, everything we are - are now able to go on forever, world without end, amen" (p. 4).

How often do people stop and think about what it really means to be sustainable or green? Engelman points out, and I must say I agree, that too often it means "better than the alternative." But simply doing "better" is almost certainly not going to be enough to achieve a sustainable world. Hopefully, the content in this course will help you find out why!

2. The Brundtland Commission and Intergenerational Equity

Engelman also mentions the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development:

Sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Source: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, p. 3. Original source: Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development. Full text available here.)

This is the most commonly cited definition of sustainability/sustainable development, in part because it appeared in a book - Our Common Future, published in 1987 - that was the first organized international attempt (in this case, by the United Nations) to address what was widely seen as a global problem. Namely, the commission was tasked with analyzing and proposing solutions for the unsustainable course on which the world's societies were on. But it is also a good, concise way to sum up some primary goals of sustainability. Perhaps most importantly, it acknowledges the need to focus on the world that we leave to future generations. As Engelman puts it, we need to ask ourselves "whether or not civilization can continue on its current path without undermining prospects for future well-being" (p. 4). It is important to point out that not only does society need to simply "last" or "continue" for sustainability to happen, but that we need to consider the quality of life of people living in future societies. This concern is often referred to as intergenerational equity. We will investigate the quality of life in more depth in future lessons.

On paper, the goals indicated by this definition may seem pretty straightforward:

  1. allow the current generations to continue to thrive,
  2. improve the lots of those that are currently suffering, and
  3. make sure future generations are able to meet their "needs."

But what is a "need," exactly? Is it meeting the bare essentials of survival, e.g., food, shelter, and clothing? Do I need to have a car? Do you need to have 3+ solid meals a day? Does your neighbor's family need that guest bedroom for when family visits? Do working Germans need to have four weeks of paid vacation each year? Does the mother or father in rural Kenya need a cell phone if there are no landlines? Does India need to update its outdated electricity infrastructure? It's hard to argue that any of these things are true needs, but if you asked each person in this situation, they would all probably say that they are, or at least that they are an important aspect of their lives.

Further, as Engelman brings up, to what degree do we sacrifice the needs and wants of the current generation in order to maximize the chances of future generations to live a good quality of life? Are you willing to impact your quality of life by buying fewer things, not traveling by airplane, not eating meat, living in a smaller house, not owning a car, and growing your own food, just so people in the future can live a better life? I would argue that some of these things actually improve the quality of life for you right now, but who has the right to decide what quality of life means? And how can we guarantee that any of this will work? None of these questions have easy, obvious, or even objectively correct answers, but they are all important to ask if we are to address sustainability.

3. Environmental Concern

There is something explicitly missing from the Brundtland Commission's definition (though it is implied) and from any part of the discussion so far, though it is mentioned in the book chapter. What about the natural environment? There are a few ways to approach this question - nature-centric (ecocentric) and human-centric (anthropocentric) - but for now, let's focus on the anthropocentric approach.

The anthropocentric sustainability implications of human concern for nature are concisely summarized by the US EPA when they note that "everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment" (Source: US EPA). We will investigate this further through ecosystem services in a future lesson, but the logic is impossible to argue against: If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. At the very least, the oxygen we breathe is generated by plants and other organisms like phytoplankton, and the food we eat is reliant upon soil and water, though there are many more things we currently depend on nature for. Many would argue that nature has value in and of itself (this is generally referred to as deep ecology or ecocentrism), but that goes beyond the scope of this course.

4. The Importance of Metrics

As Engelman stresses throughout his chapter, if we are to know whether or not we are living sustainably, we must measure it. In his words, sustainability "must be tied to clear and rigorous definitions, metrics, and mileage markers." If we do not define and measure it, how can we know whether or not we are closer or farther away from achieving it? These are often called metrics or indicators, and there are many of them, including levels of biodiversity, pollution levels, quality of life metrics, economic indicators, percentage access to clean water and energy, and more. Engelman mentions concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which the best science indicates is very likely the major cause of global warming trends, as a very important metric. This will be addressed in more detail later in the course, but suffice to say the trend is pointing in the wrong direction, and possibly already at dangerous levels. There are many other indicators that are at a varying level of (non-)concern, some of which will be addressed later. Unfortunately, Engelman is mostly right when he writes that "the basic trends themselves remain clearly, measurably unsustainable." 

Graph of global temperature trends since 1880, it shows a rather steady increase
Figure 1.12: Global average temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations since 1880. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is one of the most prominent sustainability metrics we have available to us, with most climate scientists agreeing that we are at or approaching dangerous levels. (This chart will be addressed in more detail in a future lesson.)
Credit: NOAA

5. Economics and Systems Thinking

Finally, Engelman addresses the fraught relationship between economic prosperity and sustainability, and the difficulty in satisfying both present and future needs. Ridding the world of abject poverty is at the forefront of sustainability goals, and is addressed in future lessons. But unfortunately economic growth and sustainability - particularly environmental sustainability - are often at odds. For example, increasing access to fossil fuels generally helps facilitate improving economic conditions, but causes unsustainable emissions. Even current and future sustainability can be at odds, e.g., when Engelman notes that: "Safe water may be reaching more people, but potentially at the expense of maintaining stable supplies of renewable freshwater in rivers or underground aquifers for future generations."

This all indicates the importance of systems thinking. There is a lot of literature about systems thinking, and it does not have a single definition. (If only the world of sustainability were so simple!) It can be thought of as analyzing the world around us as a collection of interrelated systems, and considering phenomena as related to other phenomena. In other words, systems thinking requires consideration of connections. There is an old saying that "the biggest cause of problems is solutions," which is important to keep in mind when analyzing sustainability issues. Examples of unintended (sustainability) consequences abound. For example:

  • The so-called Green Revolution instituted in Pakistan and India in the 1960's and 1970's probably saved millions, or even hundreds of millions of lives, but has also contributed to soil loss, debt, and farmer suicides due to the unsustainable farming practices it uses.
  • Forest fire prevention and suppression in the U.S. has led to more severe forest fires (an example of a Penn State led study can be found on Penn State News, December 17, 2019).) As it turns out, low-grade forest fires naturally reduce understory fuel sources (shrubs, fallen branches, etc.), which help prevent more intense fires from occurring.
  • Many invasive species were purposefully introduced by humans, only to inflict lasting damage on native plant and/or animal populations. Kudzu is a vining plant that has proved to be a major menace wherever it grows in the U.S., yet was promoted first as an ornamental plant, then a tool for preventing soil erosion. Cane toads were released into Australia in the 1930's in an effort to control the beetle population. Not only have they not controlled beetles, but they are now major nuisances to humans and native species and habitats. 

From a sustainability perspective, systems thinking means that you should at least always a) consider the short- and long-term impacts of actions, both in space and time, and b) consider the possible causes of issues. It is unwise to address a problem or situation without thinking about the possible causes and consequences. More on this below.

Picture of kudzu-covered trees in a Mississippi forest.
Figure 1.13: A kudzu-covered forest in Mississippi, U.S.A. Kudzu is notoriously difficult to get rid of and has spread across much of the Southern and Eastern U.S., yet its deliberate planting was encouraged by the government as recently as the 1940s.

The Three E's of Sustainability

The EPA offers a definition of sustainability that encompasses a lot of the concepts described above: "To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations" (source: US EPA). Note that this definition changed slightly in early 2017. It used to be: "Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations." Read into that change what you will. This is a more thorough definition than the Brundtland Commission's and provides a more actionable list of goals. (Though it should be noted that there is still a lot of room for debate on how to achieve them or what they really mean.) It also brings to mind what is commonly referred to as the "three E's of sustainability."

Optional Reading

Box 2.1 on pp. 7 - 8 of the document below provides a helpful primer to the three E's (3 E's). This is a chapter from The Post Carbon Reader, an edited volume by Post Carbon Institute. You are welcome to read the rest of the chapter as well.

"What is Sustainability," p. 7 - 8 by Dillard, Dujon, and King.

Sustainability and sustainable development are often thought of as having three core components: environment, economy, and equity. These are commonly referred to as the "3 E's" of sustainability. The 3 E's are a useful way to provide an analytical framework for sustainability. This 3E framework is useful because it provides questions that can be asked when investigating whether or not something is sustainable. While even these terms can be defined in various ways, we will use the following definitions from the reading when analyzing the sustainability implications of something:

  • Is it "environmentally sustainable, or viable over the very long term"? (environment)
  • Is it "economically sustainable, maintaining [and/or improving] living standards over the long term"? (economy)
  • Is it "socially sustainable [and just], now and in the future"? I would add "Are the benefits and burdens shared be everyone equally?" (social equity)

As Dillard and Dujan note, if a business is attempting to address these criteria, it is often called the triple bottom line. If it meets all three criteria, and will likely continue to do so into the foreseeable future, then that is a pretty strong case for sustainability.

Venn diagram with three circles named environment, economy, and equity. The overlap is sustainability.
Figure 1.14: Sustainability can be visualized as the intersection of all 3 E's.
Credit: D. Kasper

The details of how to maintain environmental sustainability are not without controversy, but at some point, we will have to maintain a steady-state of natural resources if we are to survive (this will be addressed later). As Engelman and others say, this may come at the expense of quality of life for some/many people now. No one said it will be easy.

But through my own personal experience and the experience of others, it is clear that social equity is the most confusing of these concepts. Dillard, Dujon, and King do a good job of outlining what it means. Contrary to what some believe, equity does not mean equal distribution of resources. There will always be inequality, whether we want it or not. What it does refer to is the fairness of opportunity and access to resources like education, health care, a clean environment, political participation, social standing, food, shelter, and others. In a socially equitable society, everyone has reasonable access to things that provide a good quality of life. Social equity is about equality of opportunity. Whether or not they take advantage of this opportunity is another story. There is an important difference between being uneducated because of laziness and because of a lack of access to good schools. Making this happen is easier said than done, but the distinction is important to make.

One reason that addressing equity can be controversial is illustrated in the image below. What do you think it is?

Image showing three people of different heights trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. A box must be taken from the tallest person and given to the shortest in order to enable the shortest to see the game over the fence.
Figure 1.15: Equality requires everyone to have the same resources, while equity often requires providing additional resources to those in need of them.

As indicated in the caption, equity often requires providing more resources to those that are at some disadvantage. Why they are disadvantaged, who decides they deserve help, the amount of help they are given, and more aspects can be controversial. Which is understandable, given that individual and group circumstances are rarely black and white and oftentimes public resources such as tax dollars are involved. Generally, those that advocate for equity err on the side of "too much" equity rather than "too little."

Economy can also be a point of confusion. It is very important to keep in mind that "economy" from a 3E perspective does not refer to just having and/or making money. It refers both to engaging in actions that are economically sustainable (if businesses do not make enough money to continue, they will not be in business for long) and having enough money to provide and maintain& a reasonably high quality of life over the long term. Yes, money is often an important - if not the most important - factor in achieving a high quality of life, particularly at lower income levels. But please keep in mind as we move forward that, from a sustainability perspective, the true "economic" goal is quality of life, not high income. Money often does contribute to a high(er) quality of life, but not always, as we will see later. Money is a means to an end. For sustainability purposes, that economic "end" is providing adequate living standards for people now and in the future. (After all, if you are incredibly happy, healthy, safe, and have everything you need, does it matter if you do not have a lot of money? More on this later.)

Food for Thought

Engelman's chapter brings up some very tough questions that (probably) need to be answered if we are going to achieve a sustainable world. I would like you to think about these moving forward this semester:

  • Is there any way to know how much sacrifice is needed now to allow for future generations' quality of life?
  • How can considerations for future generations be successfully integrated into today's actions?
  • Is there a way to account for this economically? If so, what kind of controversies would it cause?

Optional (But Strongly Suggested)

Now that you have completed the content, I suggest going through the Learning Objectives Self-Check list at the top of the page.