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Blue Marble composite images generated by NASA in 2001 (left) and 2002 (right).

Sustainability, in a broad sense is the ability to maintain a certain process or state. It is now most frequently used in connection with biological and human systems. In an ecological context, sustainability can be defined as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological processes, functions, biodiversity and productivity into the future.[1]

Sustainability has become a complex term that can be applied to almost every facet of life on Earth, particularly the many different levels of biological organization, such as; wetlands, prairies and forests[2] and is expressed in human organization concepts, such as; eco-municipalities, sustainable cities, and human activities and disciplines, such as; sustainable agriculture, sustainable architecture and renewable energy.[citation needed] Many sustainable practices are being identified as "green" initiatives.

For humans to live sustainably, the Earth's resources must be used at a rate at which they can be replenished. However, there is now clear scientific evidence that humanity is living unsustainably, and that an unprecedented collective effort is needed to return human use of natural resources to within sustainable limits.[3][4]

Since the 1980s, the idea of human sustainability has become increasingly associated with the integration of economic, social and environmental spheres. In 1989, the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) articulated what has now become a widely accepted definition of sustainability: "[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[5]


[edit] Definition

Scheme of interaction of the three "pillars" of sustainable development[6]

Although the definition of sustainable development (above), given by the Brundtland Commission, is frequently quoted,[7] it is not universally accepted and has undergone various interpretations.[8] Definitions of sustainability may be expressed as statements of fact, intent, or value with sustainability treated as either a "journey" or "destination."[9] Where we are now, where we need to be going, and how we are to get there are all open to interpretation.[10]

This difficult mix has been described as a dialogue of values that defies consensual definition.[11] Sustainability has been regarded as both an important but unfocused concept like "liberty" or "justice"[12][13] and as a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance.[14][15][16] The idea of sustainable development is sometimes viewed as an oxymoron because development inevitably depletes and degrades the environment.[17] Consequently some definitions either avoid the word development and use the term sustainability exclusively, or emphasise the environmental component, as in "environmentally sustainable development."[18]

Another representation showing economy and society bounded by the environment.[19]

The dimensions of sustainability are often taken to be: environmental, social and economic, known as the "three pillars"[20] These can be depicted as three overlapping circles (or ellipses), to show that they are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually reinforcing.[21]

While this model initially improved the standing of environmental concerns,[22] it has since been criticised for not adequately showing that societies and economies are fundamentally reliant on the natural world. According to English environmentalist and author Jonathon Porritt, "The economy is, in the first instance, a subsystem of human society ... which is itself, in the second instance, a subsystem of the totality of life on Earth (the biosphere). And no subsystem can expand beyond the capacity of the total system of which it is a part." [23]

For this reason a second diagram shows economy as a component of society, both bounded by, and dependent upon, the environment. As the American ecological economist Herman Daly famously asked, "what use is a sawmill without a forest?"[24]

The concept of living within environmental constraints underpins the IUCN, UNEP and WWF definition of sustainability: "improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems."[25]

The Earth Charter goes beyond defining what sustainability is, and seeks to establish the values and direction needed to achieve it: "We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations."[26]

The evolution of thinking about sustainability has paralleled historical events that have had a direct impact on human global sustainability.

[edit] History

[edit] Early civilizations

In early human history the energy and resource demands of nomadic hunter-gatherers was small. The use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural composition of plant and animal communities. Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, agriculture emerged in various regions of the world.[27] Agrarian communities depended largely on their environment and the creation of a "structure of permanence."[28] Societies outgrowing their local food supply or depleting critical resources either moved on or faced collapse.

Sumerian harvester's sickle, 3000 BC, made from baked clay.

Archeological evidence suggests that the first civilizations were Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Egypt, both dating from around 3000 BCE. By 1000 BCE, civilizations became established in India, China, Mexico, Peru and in parts of Europe.[29][30]

Sumer illustrates issues central to the sustainability of human civilization.[31] Sumarian cities practiced intensive, year-round agriculture from ca. 5300 BCE. The surplus of storable food created by this economy allowed the population to settle in one place instead of migrating after wild foods and grazing land. It also allowed for a much greater population density. The development of agriculture in Mesopotamia required significant labour resources to build and maintain an irrigation system. This, in turn, led to political hierarchy, bureaucracy, and religious sanction, along with standing armies to protect the emergent civilization. Intensified agriculture allowed for population increase, but also led to deforestation in upstream areas, which increased flooding, and over-irrigation, which raised soil salinity. While there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, yields continually declined. Decreasing agricultural production and other factors led to the decline of the civilization. During the period from 2100 BC to 1700 BC, it is estimated that the population declined by nearly sixty percent.[31][32]

Civilisations similarly thought to have eventually fallen because of poor management of resources include the Mayans, Anasazi and Easter Islanders.[33][34] In contrast to this, cultures of shifting cultivators and horticulturists have existed in New Guinea and South America and larger agrarian communities in China, India and elsewhere have farmed in the same localities for centuries. Polynesian cultures have maintained stable communities for between 1,000 and 3,000 years on small islands with minimal resources, and still practice management systems including rahui[35] and kaitiakitanga[36] to control human pressure on these resources.

[edit] Emergence of industrial societies

A Watt steam engine, the steam engine fuelled primarily by coal that propelled the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the world

Technological advances over several millennia gave humans increasing control over the environment. But it was the Western industrial revolution of the 17th to 19th centuries that tapped into the vast growth potential of the energy in fossil fuels. Coal was used to power ever more efficient engines and later to generate electricity. Modern sanitation systems and advances in medicine protected large populations from disease.[37] Such conditions led to a human population explosion and unprecedented industrial, technological and scientific growth that has continued to this day, marking the commencement of a period of global human influence known as the Anthropocene. From 1650 to 1850 the global population doubled from around 500 million to 1 billion people.[38]

Concerns about the environmental and social impacts of industry were expressed by some Enlightenment political economists and in the Romantic movement of the 1800s. Overpopulation was discussed in an essay by Thomas Malthus (see Malthusian catastrophe), while John Stuart Mill foresaw the desirability of a "stationary state" economy, thus anticipating concerns of the modern discipline of ecological economics.[39][40][41] In the late 19th century Eugenius Warming was the first botanist to study physiological relations between plants and their environment, heralding the scientific discipline of ecology.[42]

[edit] Early 20th century

By the 20th century, the industrial revolution had led to an exponential increase in the human consumption of resources. The increase in health, wealth and population was perceived as a simple path of progress.[43] However, in the 1930s economists began developing models of non-renewable resource management (see Hotelling's rule)[44] and the sustainability of welfare in an economy that uses non-renewable resources (Hartwick's rule).[45]

Ecology had now gained general acceptance as a scientific discipline, and many concepts vital to sustainability were being explored. These included: the interconnectedness of all living systems in a single living planetary system, the biosphere; the importance of natural cycles (of water, nutrients and other chemicals, materials, waste); and the passage of energy through trophic levels of living systems.[46]

[edit] Mid 20th century: environmentalism

Following the deprivations of the great depression and World War II the developed world entered a new period of escalating growth, a post-1950s "great acceleration ... a surge in the human enterprise that has emphatically stamped humanity as a global geophysical force."[47] A gathering environmental movement pointed out that there were environmental costs associated with the many material benefits that were now being enjoyed. Innovations in technology (including plastics, synthetic chemicals, nuclear energy) and the increasing use of fossil fuels, were transforming society. Modern industrial agriculture—the "Green Revolution" — was based on the development of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides which had devastating consequences for rural wildlife, as documented by American marine biologist, naturalist and environmentalist Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962).

In 1956, American geoscientist M. King Hubbert's peak oil theory predicted an inevitable peak of oil production, first in the United States (between 1965 and 1970), then in successive regions of the world - with a global peak expected thereafter.[48] In the 1970s environmentalism's concern with pollution, the population explosion, consumerism and the depletion of finite resources found expression in Small Is Beautiful, by British economist E. F. Schumacher in 1973, and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in 1975.

[edit] Late 20th century

Peak oil
Mitigation of peak oil
Predicting the timing of peak oil
Hubbert peak theory
Related articles

Increasingly environmental problems were viewed as global in scale.[49][50][51][52] The 1973 and 1979 energy crises demonstrated the extent to which the global community had become dependent on a nonrenewable resource; President Carter in his State of the Union Address called on Americans to "Conserve energy. Eliminate waste. Make 1980 indeed a year of energy conservation."[53]

While the developed world was considering the problems of unchecked development the developing countries, faced with continued poverty and deprivation, regarded development as essential to raise the living standards of their peoples.[54] In 1980 the International Union for Conservation of Nature had published its influential World Conservation Strategy,[25] followed in 1982 by its World Charter for Nature,[55] which drew attention to the decline of the world’s ecosystems.

The United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) made suggestions in regard to the conflict between the environment and development. The Commission suggested that development was acceptable, but must be sustainable development that would meet the needs of the poor, but not worsen environmental problems. Humanity’s demand on the planet has more than doubled over the past 45 years as a result of population growth and increasing individual consumption. In 1961, almost all countries in the world had more than enough capacity to meet their own demand; by 2005, the situation had changed radically, with many countries able to meet their needs only by importing resources from other nations.[50]

A direction toward sustainable living by increasing public awareness and adoption of recycling, and renewable energies begins to occur. The development of renewable sources of energy in the 1970's and 80's, primarily in wind turbines and photovoltaics, and increased use of hydroelectricity, presented some of the first sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear energy generation. These developments led to construction of many of the first large-scale solar and wind power plants during the 1980's and 90's.[56][57] The 1990's saw the small-scale reintroduction of the electric car. These factors, further raised public awareness of issues of sustainability, and many local and state governments in developed countries began to implement small-scale sustainability policies.[58]

[edit] 21st century: global awareness

Renewable energy
Wind Turbine
Hydro power
Solar power
Tidal power
Wave power
Wind power

More specific and detailed studies have led to an understanding and awareness of the importance of sustainability. There is increasing global awareness of the threat posed by the human-induced enhanced greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest clearing and the burning of fossil fuels.[59][60] In March 2009 the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international team of leading climate scientists, issued a strongly worded statement:

"The climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts."[61]

An ecological economics perspective has emerged to provide an inclusive and ethical economic model for society. Ecological economics seeks to bridge the gap between ecology and traditional neoclassical economics.[62][63] Emerging concepts include: the Car-free movement, Smart Growth (more sustainable urban environments), Life Cycle Assessment (the Cradle to Cradle analysis of resource use and environmental impact over the life cycle of a product or process), Ecological Footprint Analysis, green building, dematerialization (increased recycling of materials), and decarbonisation (removing dependence on fossil fuels).[citation needed]

The work of Bina Agarwal and Vandana Shiva amongst many others, has brought some of the cultural wisdom of traditional, sustainable agrarian societies into the academic discourse on sustainability, and also blended that with modern scientific principles.[64]

Rapidly advancing technologies mean it is now technically possible to achieve a transition of economies, energy generation, water and waste management, and food production towards sustainable practices using methods of systems ecology and industrial ecology.[65][66]

[edit] Principles and concepts

[edit] Scale and context

Sustainability is studied and managed over many scales (levels or frames of reference) of time and space and in many contexts of environmental, social and economic organization. The focus ranges from the total carrying capacity (sustainability) of planet Earth to the sustainability of economic sectors, countries, municipalities, neighbourhoods, home gardens, individual lives, individual goods and services, occupations, lifestyles, behaviour patterns and so on. In short, it can entail the full compass of biological and human activity or any part of it.[citation needed]

As Daniel Botkin, author and environmentalist, has stated: "We see a landscape that is always in flux, changing over many scales of time and space."[67]

[edit] Global goals

At the global level a number of key goals have been isolated:

Consumption & sustainability
  • Intergenerational equity - providing future generations with the same environmental potential as presently exists
  • Decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation - managing economic growth to be less resource intensive and less polluting
  • Integration of all pillars - integrating environmental, social and economic sectors when developing sustainability policies
  • Ensuring environmental adaptability and resilience - maintaining and enhancing the adaptive capacity of the environmental system
  • Preventing irreversible long-term damage to ecosystems and human health
  • Ensuring distributional equity - avoiding unfair or high environmental costs on vulnerable populations
  • Accepting global responsibility assuming responsibility for environmental effects that occur outside areas of jurisdiction
  • Education and grassroots involvement - people and communities investigating problems and developing new solutions[68]

[edit] Consumption, population, technology, resources

The driver of human impact on Earth systems is the consumption of biophysical resources. Human consumption can be divided into three key components: population numbers, levels of consumption (affluence), and impact per unit of resource use (which depends on the technology used). This has been expressed through an equation:

I = P × A × T
Where: I = Environmental impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology[69]

Sustainability resists the usual tendency to meet resource demand by increasing supply. Instead it applies demand management of all goods and servicesby promoting reduced consumption, using renewable resources where possible, and encouraging practices that minimise resource intensity while maximising resource productivity. Resource management is recommended for all phases in the life cycles of goods and services but it can also be applied at many scales. It can, for example, be used at the level of economic sectors like agriculture, manufacturing and industry as well as individual goods and services through to the human lifestyles, wants and needs that drive the whole process.[70][71]

[edit] Population

Human population from 10,000 BCAD 2000.

According to the 2008 Revision of the official United Nations population estimates and projections, the world population is projected to reach 7 billion early in 2012, up from the current 6.8 billion, and surpass 9 billion people by 2050. Most of the additional 2.3 billion people will enlarge the population of developing countries, which is projected to rise from 5.6 billion in 2009 to 7.9 billion in 2050, and will be distributed among the population aged 15–59 (1.2 billion) and 60 or over (1.1 billion) because the number of children under age 15 in developing countries will decrease. In contrast, the population of the more developed regions is expected to change minimally, passing from 1.23 billion to 1.28 billion, and would have declined to 1.15 billion were it not for the projected net migration from developing to developed countries, which is projected to average 2.4 million persons annually from 2009 to 2050.[72] Long-term estimates of global population suggest a peak at around 2070 of nine to ten billion people, and then a slow decrease to 8.4 billion by 2100.[73][74]

Emerging economies like those of China and India aspire to the living standards of the Western world as does the non-industrialized world in general. It is the combination of population increase in the developing world and unsustainable consumption levels in the developed world that present a stark challenge to sustainability.[75]

[edit] Direct and indirect environmental impacts

At a fundamental level, human impact on the Earth is demonstrated through detrimental changes in the global biogeochemical cycles of chemicals that are critical to life, most notably those of water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.[76]

Sustainability management is necessary at all phases of impact from the direct human impacts on land, waterbodies and atmosphere to the indirect drivers of consumption that initiate these direct impacts.

[edit] Measurement

Sustainability measurement

By establishing quantitative measures for sustainability it is possible to set goals and measure progress. To survive on planet Earth humans must live within its measurable biophysical constraints.[77] The Natural Step (TNS) framework developed by Karl-Henrik Robèrt examines sustainability and resource use from its thermodynamic foundations to determine how humans use and apportion natural capital in a way that is sustainable and just. The TNS framework's system conditions of sustainability suggest a means for the scientifically-based measurement of sustainability.[78]

Natural capital includes resources from the earth's crust (i.e., minerals, oil), those produced by humans (synthetic substances), and those of the biosphere. Equitable access to natural capital is also a component of sustainability.[78] The energy generated in use of resources—referred to as exergy[79]—can be measured as the embodied energy of a product or service over its life cycle. Its analysis, using methods such as Life Cycle Analysis or Ecological Footprint analysis provide basic indicators of sustainability on various scales.[80]

There is now a vast number of sustainability indicators,[81] metrics, benchmarks, indices, reporting procedures, audits and more. They include environmental, social and economic measures separately or together over many scales and contexts from the biosphere as a whole to households, national economies, wetlands and cities. Environmental factors are integrated with economics through ecological economics, resource economics and thermoeconomics, and social factors through metrics like the Happy Planet Index which measures the well-being of people in the nations of the world while taking into account their environmental impact.[82][83] Some of the best known and most widely used sustainability measures are listed in the side bar, they include corporate sustainability reporting, Triple Bottom Line accounting, and estimates of the quality of sustainability governance for individual countries using the Environmental Sustainability Index and Environmental Performance Index.

[edit] Global human sustainability

On a global scale it is critical to know whether humanity is living within the carrying capacity of the planet – are humans living sustainably on planet Earth? The Ecological footprint measures human consumption in terms of the biologically productive land needed to provide the resources, and absorb the wastes of the average global citizen. In 2008 it required 2.7 global hectares per person, 30% more than the natural biological capacity of 2.1 global hectares (assuming no provision for that needed for other organisms).[50]

Per capita demands on the environment, as measured by the Ecological Footprint generally increase with increasing affluence, but many countries achieve high levels of human development with relatively low resource use.

The resulting ecological deficit must be met from unsustainable sources - use of stored resources including fossil fuels, and "mining" natural resources including forests and fisheries at greater than their rate of regeneration. The figure below indicates the sustainability of a range of countries in terms of the Ecological Footprint compared to the UN Human Development Index (a measure of standard of living).

The chart is a graphic presentation showing what is necessary for countries to maintain an acceptable standard of living while also living at a globally sustainable level. At present Cuba is the best example in this category.[84] The general trend is for higher standards of living to become less sustainable. As always population growth has a marked influence on levels of consumption and the efficiency of resource use.[85]

The extra resources needed to maintain this level of consumption are gained in three ways: embedded in the goods and services of world trade; taken from the past (e.g. fossil fuels); or taken from the future as unsustainable resource usage. The sustainability goal is to raise the global standard of living without increasing the use of resources beyond globally sustainable levels; that is, to not exceed "one planet" consumption. A wealth of information generated by reports at the national, regional and city scales confirm the global trend to societies that are becoming less sustainable over time.[86][87]

[edit] Global human impact on biodiversity

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an international synthesis by over 1000 of the world's leading biological scientists that analyses the state of the Earth’s ecosystems. It concludes that human activity is having a significant and escalating impact on the biodiversity of world ecosystems, reducing both their resilience and biocapacity. The report refers to natural systems as humanity's "life-support system", referring to them in instrumental human terms as ecosystem services. The assessment measures 24 ecosystem services concluding that only four have shown improvement over the last 50 years, 15 are in serious decline, and five are in a precarious condition.[88]

[edit] Implementation

Healthy ecosystems provide vital goods and services to humans and other organisms. There are two major ways of reducing negative human impact and enhancing ecosystem services. The first is to deal with direct human impacts on nature through effective:

1. Environmental management. This approach is based largely on information gained from earth science, environmental science and conservation biology.

However, this is management at the end of a long series of causal factors that are initiated by human consumption, so a second approach is through demand management of human resource use:

2. Management of human consumption of resources.

[edit] Environmental management

At the global scale and in the broadest sense environmental management involves the oceans, freshwater systems, land and atmosphere, but environmental management can be applied to any ecosystem from a tropical rainforest to a home garden.[89]

[edit] Atmosphere

Natural Resource Management

Management of the global atmosphere involves assessment of all aspects of the carbon cycle to identify opportunities to address human-induced climate change. This has become a major focus of scientific research because of the potential for catastrophic effects on both biodiversity and human communities (see Energy below). One obvious human impact on the atmosphere is the air pollution in cities. Air pollutants include toxic chemicals like nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter that produce photochemical smog and acid rain, and the chlorofluorocarbons that degrade the ozone layer. Anthropogenic particulates such as sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere reduce the direct irradiance and reflectance (albedo) of the Earth's surface. Known as global dimming the decrease is estimated at about 4% between 1960 and 1990 although the trend has subsequently reversed. Global dimming may have disturbed the global water cycle by reducing evaporation and rainfall in some areas. It also creates a cooling effect and this may have partially masked the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming.[90][91]

Recently 2,500 climate experts from 80 countries at an emergency summit in Copenhagen (Copenhagen climate change summit 2009) Copenhagen Climate Council, issued a keynote statement that there is now "no excuse" for failing to act on global warming. A part of a statement issued argues that without strong carbon reduction targets at political negotiations this year, "abrupt or irreversible" shifts in climate that "will be very difficult for contemporary societies to cope with" may occur.[92][93]

[edit] Ecosystems


Saltwater fish

Oceans and their circulation patterns have a critical effect on climate, weather and therefore the food supply of both humans and other organisms. Major environmental impacts occur in the more habitable regions of the oceans – the estuaries, coastline and bays. Ten per cent of the world's population - about 600 million people - live in low-lying areas. Because of their vastness oceans act as a convenient dumping ground for human waste.[94] Trends of concern that require management include: ocean warming, coral bleaching and sea level rise due to climate change together with the possibility for a sudden alteration of present-day ocean currents which could drastically alter the climate in some regions of the globe; over-fishing (beyond sustainable levels); and ocean acidification due to dissolved carbon dioxide. Ocean acidification is increasingly known as "the other CO2 problem".[95]

Remedial strategies include: more careful waste management, statutory control of overfishing by adoption of sustainable fishing practices, reduction of fossil fuel emissions, restoration of coastal and other marine habitat and environmentally sensitive and sustainable aquaculture and fish farming.[96]


Biodiversity & sustainability

Water covers 71% of the Earth's surface . Of this, 97.5% is the salty water of the oceans and the majority of the remaining 2.5% freshwater is locked up in the Antarctic ice sheet. The rest is found in lakes, rivers, wetlands, the soil, aquifers and atmosphere. All life depends on the global water cycle of evaporation from oceans and land to form water vapour that later condenses from clouds as rain, which is the renewable part of the freshwater supply on which we all depend. [97]

Awareness of the global importance of preserving water for ecosystem services has only recently emerged as, during the 20th century, more than half the world’s wetlands have been lost along with their valuable environmental services. Biodiversity-rich freshwater ecosystems are currently declining faster than marine or land ecosystems.[98]Freshwater habitats are the world’s most vulnerable of all major biological systems due to the human need for potable water for food irrigation, industry and domestic use. Human freshwater withdrawals make up about 10% of global freshwater runoff. [50] and of this 15-35% is considered unsustainable - a proportion that is likely to increase as climate change worsens, populations increase, aquifers become progressively depleted and other supplies become polluted and unsanitary. Water security, and therefore food security, remain among the most important environmental management issues to address. Increasing urbanization pollutes clean water supplies and much of the world still does not have access to clean, safe water.[99] In the industrial world demand management has slowed absolute usage rates but increasingly water is being transported over vast distances from water-rich natural areas to areas of increasingly dense urbanisation. Energy-hungry desalination is also becoming more widely used. In general terms, apart from improved efficiencies and infrastructure greater emphasis is now placed on improved management of blue (harvestable) and green (soil water available for plant use) water, and this applies at all scales of management. [98]


Land use change is fundamental to the operations of the biosphere because changes in proportions of land dedicated to agriculture, forest, woodland, grassland and pasture have a marked effect on global water, carbon and nitrogen biogeochemical cycles that can impact negatively on both natural and human systems.[100]


Since the evolution of settled human communities about 10,000 years ago about 47% of the world’s forests have been lost to human use. Present-day forests occupy about a quarter of the world’s ice-free land with about half occurring in the tropics[101] In temperate and boreal regions forest area is gradually increasing (with the exception of Siberia), but deforestation in the tropics is of major concern.[102]

Beech Forest - Grib Skov, Denmark

Forests can moderate the local climate and the global water cycle through their light reflectance (albedo) and evapotranspiration. They also conserve biodiversity, protect water quality, preserve soil and soil quality, provide fuel and pharmaceuticals, and purify the air. These free ecosystem services have no market value and so forest conservation has little appeal when compared with the economic benefits of logging and clearance which, through soil degradation and organic decomposition returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.[103]

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that about 90% of the carbon stored in land vegetation is locked up in trees and that they sequester about 50% more carbon than is present in the atmosphere. Changes in land use currently contribute about 20% of total global carbon emissions (in heavily logged Indonesia and Brazil it is the greatest source of emissions).[104] Climate change can be mitigated by sequestering carbon in reafforestation schemes, new plantations, and timber products. Wood biomass is a renewable carbon-neutral fuel.

The FAO has concluded that, over the period 2005–2050, effective use of tree planting could absorb about 10–20% of man-made emissions – so clearly the condition of the world's forests must be monitored for both reafforestation and deforestation) as they will be part of any coordinated emissions mitigation strategy as well as being part of the global attempt to protect ecosystem services.[105]

Cultivated land

Rice Paddy

Feeding more than six billion human bodies takes a heavy toll on the Earth’s resources. This begins with the human appropriation of about 38% [106] of the Earth’s land surface and about 20% of its net primary productivity.[107] Added to this are the resource-hungry activities of industrial agribusiness – everything from the initial cultivation need for irrigation water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to the resource costs of food packaging, transport (now a major part of global trade) and retail. Food is essential to life. But the list of environmental costs of food production is a long one: topsoil depletion, erosion and conversion to desert from constant tillage of annual crops; overgrazing; salinization; sodification; waterlogging; high levels of fossil fuel use; reliance on inorganic fertilisers and synthetic organic pesticides; reductions in genetic diversity by the mass use of monocultures; water resource depletion; pollution of waterbodies by run-off and groundwater contamination; social problems including the decline of family farms and weakening of rural communities.[108]

All of these environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture and agribusiness are now being addressed through such movements as sustainable agriculture, organic farming and more sustainable business practices.[109]

[edit] Extinctions

The extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)

Although effective conservation demands the protection of species within their natural habitats and ecosystems, at a basic level loss of biodiversity can be monitored simply as loss of species. In line with human migration and population growth, species extinctions have progressively increased to a rate unprecedented since the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event. Known as the Holocene extinction event this current human-induced extinction of species ranks as one of the worlds six mass extinction events. Some scientific estimates indicate that up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100.[110][111]

Loss of biodiversity can be attributed largely to the appropriation of land for agroforestry and the effects of climate change. Current extinction rates are 100 to 1000 times their prehuman levels with more than 10% birds and mammals threatened, about 8% of plants, 5% of fish and more than 20% of freshwater species. [112] The 2008 IUCN Red List warns that long-term droughts and extreme weather puts additional stress on key habitats and, for example, lists 1,226 bird species as threatened with extinction, which is one-in-eight of all bird species.[113][114]

[edit] Biological invasions

Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) infesting trees in Atlanta, Georgia

In many parts of the industrial world land clearing for agriculture has diminished and here the greatest threat to biodiversity, after climate change, has become the destructive effect of invasive species.[115] Increasingly efficient global transport has facilitated the spread of organisms across the planet. The most stark human examples are diseases like HIV AIDS, mad cow disease and bird flu but invasive plants and animals are having a devastating impact on native biodiversity.Non-indigenous organisms often quickly occupy disturbed land but can also devastate natural areas where, in the absence of their natural predators, they are able to thrive.[116]

At the global scale this is being addressed through the Global Invasive Species Information Network but there is improved international biosecurity legislation to minimise the transmission of pathogens and invasive organisms and, through CITES legislation, control the trade in rare and threatened species. Increasingly at the local level public awareness programs are alerting communities, gardeners, the nursery industry, collectors, and the pet and aquarium industries, to the harmful effects of potentially invasive species.[117]

[edit] Management of human consumption

Helix of sustainability – the carbon cycle of manufacturing

Direct human impacts on the environment are the result of the indirect underlying driver of these impacts which is human consumption. Impact is reduced by not only consuming less but by also making the full cycle of production, use and disposal of goods and services more sustainable. Consumption of goods and services can be analysed at all scales through the chain of human consumption, starting with the effects of individual lifestyle choices and spending patterns, through to the resource demands of specific goods and services, up to the impacts of economic sectors and even national economies. Analysis of individual and collective consumption patterns takes account of total resource use and this is then related to the environmental, social and economic impacts of that resource use in the particular context under investigation. The ideas of embodied resource use (the total resources needed to produce a product or service ), resource intensity (the resources needed for each dollar spent on a good or service), and resource productivity (the amount of good or service produced for a given input of resource) are important aspects of consumption management. At a simple level human consumption can be examined through the demand for the basic resources food, energy, materials and water; the goal is circular material flow. [118]

[edit] Resources


Flow of CO2 in the global ecosystem

The activity of living organisms is possible through the expenditure of the Sun's energy that has been stored by plants (primary producers) during photosynthesis. This is passed through the food chain to other organisms and it ultimately powers all living processes. Since the industrial revolution the concentrated energy of the Sun stored in fossilized plants as fossil fuels have been a major driver of technology which, in turn, has been the source of both economic and political power. In 2007, after prolonged skepticism about the human contribution to climate change, climate scientists of the IPCC concluded that there was at least a 90% probability that this atmospheric increase in CO2 was human-induced - essentially due to fossil fuel emissions and, to a lesser extent, the CO2 released from changes in land use. Projections for the coming century indicate that a minimum of 500 ppm can be expected and possibly as much as 1000 ppm. Stabilising the world’s climate will require high income countries to reduce their emissions by 60-90% over 2006 levels by 2050. This should stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 450-650 ppm from current levels of about 380 ppm. Above this level and temperatures would probably rise by more than 2 °C (36 °F) to produce “catastrophic” climate change.[119][120] Reduction of current CO2 levels must be achieved against a background of global population increase and developing countries aspiring to energy-intensive high consumption Western lifestyles.[121]

Attempts to reduce greenhouse emissions, referred to as decarbonization, have ranged from tracking the passage of carbon through the carbon cycle [122] to the exploration of renewable energies, developing less carbon-hungry technology and transport systems and attempts by individuals to lead carbon neutral lifestyles by monitoring the fossil fuel use embodied in all the goods and services they use.[123]


Water & sustainability

In the decade 1951-60 human water withdrawals were four times greater than the previous decade. This rapid increase resulted from scientific and technological developments impacting through the economy - especially the increase in irrigated land, growth in industrial and power sectors, and intensive dam construction on all continents. This altered the water cycle of rivers and lakes, affected their water quality and therefore potential as a human resource and, most significantly, altered the global water cycle.[124] Currently towards 35% of human water use is unsustainable, drawing on diminishing aquifers and reducing flows of major rivers.[125]

Over the period 1961 to 2001 there was a doubling of demand and over the same period agricultural use increased by 75%, industrial use by more than 200%, and domestic use more than 400%. [126] Humans currently use 40-50% of the globally available freshwater in the approximate proportion of 70% for agriculture, 22% for industry, and 8% for domestic purposes and the total amount is progressively increasing being about five times that at the beginning of the 20th century.[124]

The path forward appears to lie in improving water use efficiency through: demand management; maximising water resource productivity of agriculture; minimising the water intensity (embodied water) of goods and services; addressing shortages in the non-industrialised world; moving production from areas of low productivity to those with high productivity; and planning for climate change.[98][127]


Food & sustainability

The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines a "sustainable food system"[128][129] as "one that provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment. A sustainable food system also encourages local production and distribution infrastructures and makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all. Further, it is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities."[130]

Concerns about the environmental impacts of agribusiness and the stark contrast between the obesity problems of the Western world and the poverty and food insecurity of the developing world have generated a strong movement towards healthy, sustainable eating as a major component of overall ethical consumerism.[131]

The environmental effects of different dietary patterns depend on various factors, including the proportion of animal and plant foods consumed and the method of food production.[132][133][134][135] The World Health Organization has published a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health which was endorsed by the May 2004 World Health Assembly. It recommends the Mediterranean diet which is associated with health and longevity and is low in meat, rich in fruits and vegetables, low in added sugar and limited salt, and low in saturated fatty acids; the traditional source of fat in the Mediterranean is olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fat. The healthy rice-based Japanese diet is also high in carbohydrates and low in fat. Both diets are low in meat and saturated fats and high in legumes and other vegetables; they are associated with a low incidence of ailments and low environmental impact.[136]

At the local level there are various movements working towards more sustainable use of wastelands, peripheral urban land and domestic gardens. This includes permaculture[137], urban horticulture, local food, slow food, and organic gardening.[138]

[edit] Materials

Dematerialization and sustainability

With increases in population and affluence has come an increase in use of materials— their volume, kind and distance transported. Included here are raw materials, minerals, synthetic chemicals and products (especially plastic), manufactured products, food, living organisms and waste. [139] Much of the sustainability effort with materials is directed at dematerialization, converting the linear path of materials (extraction, use, disposal in landfill) to a cyclical one that reuses materials indefinitely, much like the cycling and reuse of waste in nature. [140] This is being assisted by product stewardship and the increasing use of material flow analysis at all levels, especially individual countries and the global economy.[141]


Synthetic chemical production has escalated since the stimulus it received during the second World War: this includes everything from herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers to domestic chemicals and hazardous substances. [142]

Although most synthetic chemicals are harmless there has been concern expressed over the reliability of chemical testing before the introduction of new products and the possible long-term toxic effects of new chemicals on both humans and other organisms, of a host of domestic and commercial chemicals, agricultural pesticides, herbicides etc. International legislation has been established to deal with the global distribution and management of dangerous goods.[143][144]

The waste hierarchy


The average human uses 45-85 tonnes of materials each year. [139] Industry, business and government are adopting the ideas of industrial metabolism, industrial ecology, ecodesign [145] and ecolabelling to make use of materials more sustainable (see side bar). In addition to the well-established “reduce, reuse and recycle” shoppers are using their purchasing power for ethical consumerism.[146]

[edit] Economics

The Great Fish Market, painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Sustainability interfaces with economics through the social and ecological consequences of economic activity.[147] Sustainability economics represents: "... a broad interpretation of ecological economics where environmental and ecological variables and issues are basic but part of a multidimensional perspective. Social, cultural, health-related and monetary/financial aspects have to be integrated into the analysis."[148] At present the developing world per capita consumption is sustainable (as a global average) but population numbers are increasing and individuals are aspiring to high consumption Western lifestyles. The developed world population is stable (not increasing) but consumption levels are unsustainable. The task is to curb and manage Western consumption while raising the standard of living of the developing world without increasing its resource use and environmental impact. This must be done by using strategies and technology that decouple economic growth from environmental damage and resource depletion.[149] In addressing these issues several key economic areas have received major attention: the potential consequences of unconstrained economic growth; the consequences of nature being treated as an economic externality; and the possibility of a more ethical economics that takes greater account of the social and environmental consequences of market behaviour.[150]

[edit] Nature as an economic externality

Economics & sustainability

The economic significance of natural resources has been acknowledged by sustainability science through the use of the expression ecosystem services to indicate the market relevance of nature which can no longer be regarded as both unlimited and free.[151] In general as a commodity or service becomes more scarce the price increases and this acts as a restraint that encourages technical innovation and alternative products. However, this only applies when the product or service falls within the market system.[152] Nature and natural resources are generally treated as economic externalities and because they are unpriced economic activities they will be overused and degraded, a situation referred to as the Tragedy of the Commons.[151]

Protecting the biological world is becoming progressively subject to "internalising" market strategies including ecotaxes and incentives, tradable permits for carbon, water and nitrogen use etc., and an increasing willingness to accept payment for ecosystem services by these and other methods. Green economics encourages alternatives to free market capitalism by supporting a gift economy, local currencies and Local Exchange Trading Systems.[153]

[edit] Decoupling environmental degradation and economic growth

In the second half of the 20th century world population doubled, food production tripled, energy use quadrupled, and overall economic activity quintupled.[154] Historically there has been a close correlation between economic growth and environmental degradation: as communities grow, so the environment declines. This trend is clearly demonstrated on graphs of human population numbers, economic growth, and environmental indicators. [155]

International Recycle Symbol

Unsustainable economic growth has been compared to the malignant growth of a cancer[156] because it eats away at the Earth's ecosystem services which are its life-support system. There is concern that, unless resource use is checked, modern global civilization will follow the path of ancient civilizations that collapsed through overexploitation of their resource base.[157][158]

Part of the task for sustainability is to find ways of reducing (decoupling) the amount of resource (e.g. water, energy, or materials) needed for the production, consumption and disposal of a unit of good or service based on the assumption that reducing resource use generally equates to reduced environmental degradation.[159]

Ecological economics includes the study of societal metabolism, the flows of energy and materials that enter and exit the economic system.[160] Analysts from a variety of disciplines have conducted research on the economy-environment relationship, with concern for energy and material flows, sustainability, environmental quality, and economic development.[161]

[edit] Economic opportunity

Rather than treating the environment as an externality, by focussing on the triple bottom line, sustainable business practices attempt to integrate ecological concerns with social and economic ones. This approach views sustainability as a business opportunity. The benefits of waste reduction in industry include savings from disposal costs, fewer environmental penalties, and reduced liability insurance.[162] Energy efficiency can increase profit margins through reducing costs. The concept of sustainability as a business opportunity has led to the formation of organizations such as Entrepreneurs for Sustainability in the Greater Cleveland area which are oriented towards small and medium sized enterprises.[163] Ideas of sustainability as a driver of job creation through Green-collar jobs has gained recent attention.[164]

[edit] Social concerns

Society & sustainability

The problems of sustainability are often expressed in scientific terms, but solving these problems is also a social challenge in many areas, including international and national law, urban planning and transport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism.[165] "The relationship between human rights and human development, corporate power and environmental justice, global poverty and citizen action, suggest that responsible global citizenship is an inescapable element of what may at first glance seem to be simply matters of personal consumer and moral choice."[166]

[edit] Peace, security, social justice

Social disruptions like war, crime and corruption divert resources from areas of greatest human need, damage the capacity of societies to plan for the future and generally threaten human well-being and the environment.[166] Broad-based strategies for more sustainable social systems include: improved education and the political empowerment of women, especially in developing countries; greater regard for social justice notably equity between rich and poor both within and between countries; and intergenerational equity. [167] Depletion of natural resources including fresh water[168] increases the likelihood of “resource wars”.[169] This aspect of sustainability has been referred to as environmental security and creates a clear need for global environmental agreements to manage resources such as aquifers and rivers which span political boundaries, and to protect global systems including oceans and the atmosphere.[170]

[edit] Human settlements

Local sustainability

One approach to sustainable living, exemplified by small-scale urban transition towns and rural ecovillages, seeks to create self-reliant communities based on principles of simple living, which maximise self-sufficiency particularly in food production. These principles, on a broader scale, underpin the concept of a bioregional economy.[171]

Other approaches, loosely based around new urbanism, are successfully reducing environmental impacts by altering the built environment to create and preserve livable cities which support sustainable transport. Residents in compact urban neighbourhoods drive a third fewer miles, and have significantly lower environmental impacts across a range of measures, compared with those living in sprawling suburbs.[172]

Ultimately, the degree of human progress towards sustainability will depend on large scale social movements which influence both community choices and the built environment. Eco-municipalities may be one such movement.[173] Eco-municipalities take a systems approach, based on sustainability principles.

Sustainability principles

1. Reduce dependence upon fossil fuels,
underground metals, and minerals.
2. Reduce dependence upon synthetic chemicals
and other unnatural substances.
3. Reduce encroachment upon nature.

4. Meet human needs fairly & efficiently.[174]

The eco-municipality movement is participatory, involving community members in a bottom-up approach. In Sweden, more than 70 cities and towns — 25 per cent of all municipalities in the country — have adopted a common set of "Sustainability Principles" and implemented these systematically throughout their municipal operations. There are now twelve eco-municipalities in the United States and the American Planning Association has adopted sustainability objectives based on the same principles.[174]

[edit] Transformation

Although a sustainable future requires the implementation of all the strategies detailed above, at its core sustainability is about cultural, socio-political, psychological and behavioural change at all levels and contexts of society.[175] The urgency of the present situation cannot be doubted.[4] Even so, weight of information and scientific evidence is often insufficient to produce necessary social change, especially if that change entails moving people out of their comfort zones.[176]

[edit] Social ecology and deep ecology

According to Murray Bookchin, the idea that humans must dominate nature follows from the domination of one over many. Capitalism and market relationships, in Bookchin’s view, have the capacity to reduce the planet to a mere resource to be exploited. Nature is thus treated as a commodity: “The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital.” [177]

Social ecology, founded by Bookchin, is based on the conviction that nearly all of humanity's present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. Thus ecological problems cannot be understood without understanding society and its irrationalities. Bookchin believed that apart from natural catastrophes, it is economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts that have produced the most serious ecological dislocations faced by human civilization face today.[178]

Deep ecology establishes principles for the well-being of all life on Earth and the richness and diversity of life forms. This is only compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population and the end of human interference with the nonhuman world. To achieve this, deep ecologists advocate policies for basic economic, technological, and ideological structures that will improve the quality of life rather than the standard of living (i.e., the difference between "great" and "big"). Those who subscribe to these principles are obligated to try to make the necessary change happen.[179]

[edit] Post-environmentalism

Social change and sustainability

The World Wide Fund for Nature report Weathercocks and Signposts [180] points to the ineffectiveness of the “small painless step” marketing approach to behavioural change which encourages less consumptive consumerism by turning off appliances, using energy efficient light bulbs, offering financial rewards, appealing to self-interest, social norms, status etc. Small painless steps can bring about small changes, but big changes will also be needed to achieve sustainability. This in turn requires a political strategy that tackles underlying individualistic and materialistic societal values head-on by offering an unequivocal statement of alternative values – an approach referred to as “post-environmentalism”. According to George Lakoff "People do not always vote in their self interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values." [181] Pro-environmental behaviour is more easily achieved by encouraging ‘intrinsic’ values (personal growth, community, relationships) than ‘extrinsic values’ (material goods, social status, financial reward). The report ends by offering eight practical steps for change:

It is no use saying,

"We are doing our best."
You have got to succeed in

doing what is necessary.
  • Establish greater clarity on environmental values
  • Emphasise intrinsic goals in environmental communication
  • Use a broader vocabulary of values in policy debates
  • Find common ground between these values and those of development agencies
  • Help business to think beyond “the business case for sustainable development”
  • Highlight the way marketing manipulates behaviour
  • Support public figures who promote intrinsic values
  • Identify and promote ways of making public appreciation of nature more relevant.[180]

[edit] See also


[edit] References

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[edit] Further reading

  • Adams, W. M. and Jeanrenaud, S. J. (2008). Transition to Sustainability: Towards a Humane and Diverse World. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 108 pp. ISBN 978-2-8317-1072-3.[29] Retrieved on: 2009-03-12.
  • Atkinson, G., Dietz, S. & Neumayer, E. (2007). Handbook of Sustainable Development. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. ISBN 978-1-84376-577-6.
  • Bartlett, A. (1998). Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment—Revisited revised version (January 1998) paper first published in Population & Environment 16(1): 5-35. Retrieved on: 2009-03-12.
  • Benyus, J. (1997). Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature. New York: William Morrow. ISBN 0060533226.
  • Blackburn, W.R. (2007). The Sustainability Handbook. London: Earthscan. ISBN 978-1-844-07495-2.
  • Bookchin, M. (2005). The Ecology of Freedom: the Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Oakland, CA.: AK Press. ISBN 9781904859260.
  • Brundtland, G.H. (ed.), (1987). Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019282080X.
  • Costanza, R., Graumlich, L.J. & Steffen, W. (eds), (2007). Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-03366-4.
  • Cothran, H. (ed.). (2003). Global Resources: Opposing Viewpoints. New York: Greenhaven Press. ISBN 1565106733.
  • Daly H. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-4709-0
  • Daly H. and J. Cobb. (1989). For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-4705-8 Review Retrieved on: 2009-03-12.
  • Dodds, W.K. (2008). Humanity’s Footprint: Momentum, Impact, and our Global Environment. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-13967-0 .
  • Hargroves, K. & Smith, M. (eds.) (2005). The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century. London: Earthscan/James&James.ISBN 1-84407-121-9. (See the books online companion at Retrieved on: 2009-03-12.
  • Marks, N., Simms, A., Thompson, S., and Abdallah, S. (2006). The (Un)happy Planet Index. London: New Economics Foundation. [30] Retrieved on: 2009-03-12.
  • McDonough, W. & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle. New York: North Point Press. ISBN 0-8654-75873.
  • Norton, B. (2005). Sustainability, A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226595214.
  • Raskin, P., Banuri, T., Gallopin, G., Gutman, P., Hammond, A., Kates, R., and Swart, R. (2002). "Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead". Boston: Tellus Institute. Retrieved on: 2009-03-12.
  • Richardson, B.J. and Wood, S. (eds) (2006). Environmental Law for Sustainability: a Reader. Oxford: Hart Publishing. ISBN 9781841135441.
  • Robèrt, K-H. (2002). The Natural Step Story: Seeding a Quiet Revolution. Gabriola Island, BC.: New Society Publishers. ISBN 978-0865714533.
  • Rolando, L. (2008). "Children and Youth in Sustainable Development". HUGS Movement, New York. Retrieved on: 2009-03-12.
  • Speth, J.G. (2008). The Bridge at the edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Devon, PA.: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300151152.
  • Steffen, A. (2006). Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century. New York: Abrams. ISBN 9780810930957.
  • Unruh, G. (2000). "Understanding Carbon Lock-in". Energy Policy 28(12): 817–830.
  • Unruh, G. (2002). "Escaping Carbon Lock-in". Energy Policy 30(4): 317-325.

[edit] External links

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