EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Sustainability

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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.

 What are some of the risks of overuse of the word "sustainability" in society?
 How does the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development relate to intergenerational equity?
 In what way might there be trade-offs between the quality of life of present and future generations?
 Why is environmental sustainability important from an anthropocentric (human-centered) perspective?
 Why are metrics such as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels important means for addressing sustainability?
 What is systems thinking, and how can it be applied to sustainability? 
 Name and define the "three E's" of sustainability.

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

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 "sustainababble" 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:

Click for select introductory paragraphs (pp. 3- 5).

We live today in an age of sustainababble, a cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything from environmentally better to cool. The original adjective—meaning capable of being maintained in existence without interruption or diminution—goes back to the ancient Romans. Its use in the environmental field exploded with the 1987 release of Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Sustainable development, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and the other commissioners declared, “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

For many years after the release of the Brundtland Commission’s report, environmental analysts debated the value of such complex terms as sustainable, sustainability, and sustainable development. By the turn of the millennium, however, the terms gained a life of their own—with no assurance that this was based on the Commission’s definition. Through increasingly frequent vernacular use, it seemed, the word sustainable became a synonym for the equally vague and unquantifiable adjective green, suggesting some undefined environmental value, as in green growth or green jobs.

Today the term sustainable more typically lends itself to the corporate behavior often called greenwashing. Phrases like sustainable design, sustainable cars, even sustainable underwear litter the media. One airline assures passengers that “the cardboard we use is taken from a sustainable source,” while another informs them that its new in-flight “sustainability effort” saved enough aluminum in 2011 “to build three new airplanes.” Neither use sheds any light on whether the airlines’ overall operations—or commercial aviation itself—can long be sustained on today’s scale...

...By some metrics this might be considered success. To find sustainable in such common use indicates that a key environmental concept now enjoys general currency in popular culture. But sustainababble has a high cost. Through overuse, the words sustainable and sustainability lose meaning and impact. Worse, frequent and inappropriate use lulls us into dreamy belief that all of us—and everything we do, everything we buy, everything we use—are now able to go on forever, world without end, amen. This is hardly the case.

The question of whether civilization can continue on its current path without undermining prospects for future well-being is at the core of the world’s current environmental predicament. In the wake of failed international environmental and climate summits, when national governments take no actions commensurate with the risk of catastrophic environmental change, are there ways humanity might still alter current behaviors to make them sustainable? Is sustainability still possible? If humanity fails to achieve sustainability, when—and how—will unsustainable trends end? And how will we live through and beyond such endings? Whatever words we use, we need to ask these tough questions. If we fail to do so, we risk self-destruction...

...In order to alter these trends, vastly larger changes are needed than we have seen so far. It is essential that we take stock, soberly and in scientifically measurable ways, of where we are headed. We desperately need—and are running out of time—to learn how to shift direction toward safety for ourselves, our descendants, and the other species that are our only known companions in the universe. And while we take on these hard tasks, we also need to prepare the social sphere for a future that may well offer hardships and challenges unlike any that human beings have previously experienced. While it is a subset of the biosphere, the social sphere is shaped as well by human capacities with few known limits. We can take at least some hope in that.

Click for select paragraphs about the birth of the concept of sustainability (pp. 5 - 8).

...Two important points emerge from the definition of sustainable development found in Our Common Future, which is still the most commonly cited reference for sustainability and sustainable development. The first is that any environmental trend line can at least in theory be analyzed quantitatively through the lens of its likely impact on the ability of future generations to meet their needs. While we cannot predict the precise impacts of trends and the responses of future humans, this definition offers the basis for metrics of sustainability that can improve with time as knowledge and experience accumulate. The two key questions are, What’s going on? And can it keep going on in this way, on this scale, at this pace, without reducing the likelihood that future generations will live as prosperously and comfortably as ours has? For sustainability to have any meaning, it must be tied to clear and rigorous definitions, metrics, and mileage markers.

The second point is the imperative of development itself. Environmental sustainability and economic development, however, are quite different objectives that need to be understood separately before they are linked. In the Chairman’s Foreword to Our Common Future, Gro Harlem Brundtland defined development as “what we all do in attempting to improve our lot.” It is no slight to either low- or high-income people to note that as 7.1 billion people “do what we all do . . . to improve our lot,” we push more dangerously into environmentally unsustainable territory. We might imagine optimistically that through reforming the global economy we will find ways to “grow green” enough to meet everyone’s needs without threatening the future. But we will be better served by thinking rigorously about biophysical boundaries, how to keep within them, and how—under these unforgiving realities—we can best ensure that all human beings have fair and equitable access to nourishing food, energy, and other prerequisites of a decent life. It will almost certainly take more cooperation and more sharing than we can imagine in a world currently driven by competition and individual accumulation of wealth.

What right, we might then ask, do present generations have to improve their lot at the cost of making it harder or even impossible for all future generations to do the same? Philosophically, that’s a fair question—especially from the viewpoint of the future generations—but it is not taken seriously. Perhaps if “improving our lot” could somehow be capped at modest levels of resource consumption, a fairer distribution of wealth for all would allow development that would take nothing away from future generations. That may mean doing without a personal car or living in homes that are unimaginably small by today’s standards or being a bit colder inside during the winter and hotter during the summer. With a large enough human population, however, even modest per capita consumption may be environmentally unsustainable...

...While sustainability advocates may work to enfranchise future generations and other species, we have little choice but to give priority to the needs of human beings alive today while trying to preserve conditions that allow future generations to meet their needs. It is worth recognizing, however, that there is no guarantee that this tension is resolvable and the goal achievable...

Click for select paragraphs regarding the relationship between sustainability and sustainable development (pp. 8 - 12).

...On the development side, the world has already met one of the Millennium Development Goals set for 2015 by the world’s governments in 2000: by 2010 the proportion of people lacking access to safe water was cut in half from 1990 levels. And the last decade has witnessed so dramatic a reduction in global poverty, central to a second development goal, that the London-based Overseas Development Institute urged foreign assistance agencies to redirect their aid strategies over the next 13 years to a dwindling number of the lowest-income nations, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. By some measures, it can be argued that economic prosperity is on the rise and basic needs in most parts of the world are increasingly being met...

...It is not clear, however, that any of these development and environmental trends demonstrate that truly sustainable development is occurring. 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. Reducing the proportion of people in poverty is especially encouraging, but what if the instruments of development—intense application of fossil fuels to industrial growth, for example—contribute significantly to increasing proportions of people in poverty in the future?...

...Yet even as economic growth seems to be bumping into its own limiting constraints in much of the world, the most important environmental trends are discouraging and in many cases alarming. Human-caused climate change, in particular, shows no signs of slowing or beginning any soft landing toward sustainability, with global emissions of greenhouse gases continuing to climb in the upper range of past projections. The rise is slowed, on occasion and in some countries, mostly by recession or happenstance shifts in fossil-fuel economics (such as the recent ascendance of shale gas production in the United States) rather than any strategic intention or policy...

...Other signs are positive, however, as noted earlier. The rapid growth of renewable energy, growing acceptance that human activities are warming the world, new efforts among many corporations to improve their environmental behavior and reputations (although sometimes this is more sustainababble than real), the seriousness with which Mexico and China are trying to rein in their greenhouse gas emissions, a recent slowdown in deforestation in Brazil—all these trends signal the possibility of shifts in unsustainable trends in the near future.

But absent far more progress, the basic trends themselves remain clearly, measurably unsustainable: the shrinking of aquifers around the world as farmers are called on to produce more food while competing with other water users, the global declines of fisheries and of all biodiversity, the accelerating emergence of new infectious diseases over the last few decades, and—of course—the relentless march of warmer temperatures, higher oceans, and ever-more-intense downpours and droughts. People who survive in leadership roles at some point develop realistic strategies for likely eventualities. And it now seems pretty obvious that the time has arrived to prepare for the consequences of unsustainability, even while we refuse to give up the effort, however quixotic, to shift to true sustainability on some reasonable schedule

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 its 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, green houses, 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 quality of life in more depth in future lessons.

On paper, the goals indicated by this defintion 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 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 atmopshere, 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 1.10: 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.)
Source: 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 unsustainabile 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 instuted 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 here.) 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 1.11: A kudzu-covered forest in Mississippi, U.S.A. Kudzu is notoriously difficult to get rid of and has spread across much of the Soutthern an 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 [andj/or improving] living standards over the long term"? (economy)
  • Is it "socially sustainable [and just], now and in the future"? (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 1.12: Sustainability can be visualized as the intersection of all 3 E's.
Credit: D. Kasper

The details of how to maintain environmental sustainability is 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 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 are generally considered conducive to a good quality of life. Whether or not they take advantage of them is another story. There is an important difference between being uneducated because of laziness and because of lack of access to good schools. Making this happen is easier said than done, but the distinction is important to make.

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 1.13: Equality requires everyone to have the same resources, while equity often requires providing additional resources to those in need of them.

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.