What is a sustainable system?
Systems can only be sustainable if they can continue indefinitely, without depleting the resources required to maintain the system. This concept can refer to the economic, social, or natural capital in a society or ecosystem that is required to run the system. Sustainable systems strive to meet the needs of the current society, without compromising the needs, the biodiversity, or ecosystem function, for future generations. Sustainable practices can be implemented on every level of organization, from local human systems, to natural ecosystems, and to global scale systems.
Sustainability was first applied to the concept of harvesting natural resources. For example, to protect natural resources such as forests and fisheries from overexploitation, which would compromise the ecosystem; scientists try to determine what maximum level of resource extraction is safe and will not damage the system. This takes into account the regeneration time of the natural resource and the health of the ecosystem. By accurately calculating the time that it takes for ecosystems to regenerate and repair themselves after a disturbance, scientists can better understand what proportion of natural resources can safely be harvested without damaging the ecosystem. Proper calculation of natural resource extraction allows for a sustainable yield of resources that can continue indefinitely. However, if the resources are extracted at a rate that is greater than the ecosystem can replenish them then the yields are unsustainable and this unsustainable level of resource extraction will eventually cause the system to collapse.
The concept of sustainability is now widely used for human societies. A sustainable human society is one that is in balance with the natural world and does not extract resources, faster than the environment can replenish them, or does not create waste and pollutants faster than the ecosystem can absorb and process them. For the majority of human history, societies have been sustainable in that they did not extract more resources than ecosystems could handle, and they did not produce more waste than the ecosystems could absorb. However, most modern societies today have become highly unsustainable in that we are consuming many more resources than is sustainable, and producing much more waste than the Earth can possibly absorb. This is evident from the worldwide decline in ecosystem health and the large-scale changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Currently, sustainability is often thought of in social, economic, and ecological spheres. But in reality, a system cannot be sustainable unless all three spheres are sustainable in themselves. The intersection of sustainable economic, social, and environmental spheres leads to systems where sustainable development can occur (Figure. 11.1).
The spheres of sustainability
Do sustainable practices actually cost more?
Studies have shown that changing to sustainable practices does not necessarily cost more, especially when the actual environmental and social costs of resource use, extraction, and waste generation are calculated into the cost of production. Currently, when the cost of alternative, or more sustainable business practices is calculated, the external costs of social or ecological improvements resulting from the sustainable practices is not factored into the calculation.
Currently, much environmental degradation occurs because the current market economy undervalues the external social and environmental costs of many business practices. This is where governments can make huge strides in promoting sustainable business practices. If governments ensure that the actual social and environmental costs of business practices are incorporated into the market price for a consumer good, than businesses would have a greater incentive to use more ecologically and socially sustainable business practices.
For example, in the
Studies have shown that in business, sustainable practices do not cause job losses and profit declines. However, sustainable practices do transfer wealth from unsustainable, polluting, and ecological degrading corporations to businesses that are more ecologically and socially sustainable. Governments can promote sustainable business practices by providing incentives for ecologically and socially sustainable products and practices. For example, if consumers and producers were required to pay extra fees for inefficient production and the consumption of unsustainable or ecologically damaging products, this would encourage change to more sustainable products and business practices. Alternatively, if products were energy efficient and ecologically sustainable, governments might then provide rebates or other incentives to producers and consumers to promote sustainability.
Why is education critical to sustainable societies?
Education is one of the most powerful tools available for bringing about the changes necessary for sustainability on every scale. Education brings about changes in knowledge, values, and behaviors that promote peace, stability and sustainability within and among countries. Education is the key to empowering social groups and is a pivotal tool for addressing problems related to poverty, development, environmental degradation and disease. Therefore, free, high quality and comprehensive education for all children around the world is a critical step for developing sustainable societies.
There are several educational approaches that are particularly important for promoting sustainability. Education to promote sustainable practices can be done using both formal and informal practices. If children are educated, they develop the critical thinking skills necessary to lead meaningful and fulfilled lives, which lead to an improved society with less poverty and better social programs. In addition, lifelong learning practices that promote education for people of all ages can be particularly useful in promoting sustainable practices and disseminating information to the people that would benefit most from the information. Lifelong learning practices can include anything from small community based courses to widespread distance learning using the Internet, radio and television.
Interdisciplinary approaches and those that promote systems thinking are also particularly useful for understanding sustainability and promoting sustainable development. For example, ecological and social sustainability problems generally do not fall under one discipline. Therefore, interdisciplinary approaches, which incorporate and integrate knowledge of the system, and that span multiple disciplines, are often more successful than strict disciplinary approaches for solving issues related to sustainability and for the promotion of sustainable development. Interdisciplinary approaches to sustainable development are also useful for promoting partnerships and collaborations. Collaboration between community groups, governments, and educational institutions can make great strides in promoting sustainable development. Collaborations between diverse groups are also important for including different cultural perspectives and promoting integrated approaches for problem solving that are culturally appropriate and locally relevant. Together, all of these approaches can empower marginalized groups and promote greater ecological and social sustainability.
Studies have shown that one of the most important factors for sustainable development is promoting the education of women and girls. Gender equality in education at all levels and in all fields of study is a critical key to decreasing birth rates and promoting more sustainable societies. It is also especially important that women and girls share equal access to science and technology for societies to be sustainable. The education of women promotes more democratic societies that have real equality between the sexes. In addition, since women are often closely connected to the land, the education of women safeguards the land, air, and water resources on which they depend.
What role do global agreements play in sustainability?
The concept of sustainable development, or the continued improvement of living standards from economic growth, began with the United Nations, which defined sustainable development as progress that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In general, sustainable development strives to improve living standards and wellbeing of both humans and natural systems, without causing harm.
However, debate about what form sustainable development should take often arises from opposing viewpoints of economists, sociologists, and ecologists that often have different views on what sustainable development should entail. Often economists are concerned with economic growth and the maximum exploitation of natural resources to for economic profit and growth; whereas sociologists may be more concerned with programs that promote social equity and justice, education, and the preservation of cultural identities. Conversely, ecologists often think of sustainable development as living within the carrying capacity of natural systems and preserving biodiversity and ecosystem functions.
However, sustainable solutions for societal problems, which have economic, social and environmental roots, must lie at the intersection of theses three viewpoints. Development cannot be sustainable if it is not economically feasible. Likewise, development will only work if it is socially acceptable, desirable and equitable. Furthermore, if the development plan is not ecologically sustainable, it will not matter if it is socially or economically desirable because it will eventually fail if the ecosystems, which provide the natural resource and capital on which societies depends, are unhealthy. Therefore, it is crucial the development meets the needs of economic, social and ecological systems to actually be sustainable.
Since the human society has become global with the advent of air travel and easy communication through technology like televisions, telephones, and the Internet, human development has also become a global issue that is dependent on global cooperation and agreements. Globalization has accelerated the exchange of ideas, goods, and people around the world, and this global interconnectedness has altered many societies, sometimes improving, and admittedly sometimes harming societal and ecosystem wellbeing. However, whether you support or oppose globalization, we are currently in the communication age. Therefore, global cooperation and agreements must be devised to protect the health and wellbeing of humans and the Earth system from any of the negative consequences that may arise from these large-scale changes in economic, social, and technological systems.
To transition from the current unsustainable nature of modern human societies, global cooperation and global agreements must be achieved to: curb human population growth, alter economic systems to one that rewards the protection of ecosystem health, to create new technologies that do not deplete natural resources and produce toxic waste-products, and to curb urban sprawl and unsustainable urban growth. In addition, one of the most important jobs for global cooperation and agreements to accomplish is to eliminate widespread injustice, preventable disease, and poverty because when people live in extreme poverty with survival is their main priority, the health and sustainability of ecosystems and social sustainability cannot be adequately addressed.
Reassessing wealth and wellbeing: what should we expect?
An ecological footprint analysis estimates how much productive land and water it takes to support a person’s level of consumption and waste production. Based on the finite area of productive land on Earth and the number of people that are present on the planet, we can estimate how much productive land area each person can sustainably use without harming the Earth. To be ecologically sustainable, each person living on the planet should consume no more than 1.8 hectares of land for their total ecological footprint, meaning that 1.8 hectares should produce all of the food, water, and natural resources necessary for survival, as well as absorbing all the wastes that that person generates. Therefore, at the current global population if everyone used only 1.8 hectares we would be ecologically sustainable. If people consume more than the equivalent of 1.8 hectares per person we would need more planets to support the population and therefore would be living unsustainably. Unfortunately, the average American ecological footprint is roughly eight times that amount, which is clearly unsustainable.
Ecological, economic, and social systems are often viewed as distinct systems; however, issues with roots in one sphere also are connected to the other two spheres in many direct and indirect ways. For example, we cannot protect our environment without addressing the underlying social issues that are causing ecological degradation. Furthermore, poverty and environmental decline are deeply rooted in today's economic systems. Thus, we need to consider ecology, economics, and sociology to create an economy that is both socially and ecologically sustainable. So where do we start?
Education is clearly one of the most important factors in
changing to a more sustainable human society. Currently, there are more than 6
billion people on the planet and this number is expected to increase to more
than 9 billion by the year 2100. Since scientists and lay people alike can
already see the signs of ecological and social degradation due to unchecked
unsustainable practices, comprehensive education that promotes sustainability
is critical to the future health of human societies and the Earth. Education is
also the key for the promotion of individual lifestyle changes, guiding
consumer choices, and curbing rampant over-consumption currently taking place
While education provides the building blocks for people to understand why sustainable practices are so critical to ecological and social sustainability, concrete actions must also be taken to protect the Earth and the other organisms that depend upon its health. Habitat protection of marine, aquatic, and terrestrial ecosystems is vital for the continued health of Earth’s biodiversity. Governments, corporations, and civil societies together must look at the big picture and determine the actual costs and benefits of development compared with habitat conservation. These costs and benefits must take into account the potential development benefits such as jobs, but must also consider potential species losses, waste production, the removal of natural habitat the cleans air and water resources.
Political involvement and participation in non-governmental environmental or social organization is also critical for the promotion of sustainability and implementing the protection of threatened land. Political involvement can range from voting to elect officials that promote sustainable agendas, to active participation and lobbying for particular causes. Membership in environmental and social organization can have large-scale impacts on conserving and protecting land, cleaning up pollution, and prosecuting those that degrade the environment or pollute the air, land, and water in individual communities. Additionally, volunteer organizations can make great progress in improving and restoring degraded land through habitat restoration. Volunteer organizations can also greatly contribute to urban renewal and social improvements through improving urban infrastructure and by providing community education and social programs.
Although education and political involvement are the building blocks of sustainability, individual choices, and environmental and social stewardship, are the pinnacle of sustainability and sustainable development. Environmental and social stewards are people that engender improving the common good, caring for others, promoting environmental and social justice, and living within the natural system by practicing sufficiency, as opposed to practicing a lifestyle that promotes over-consumption. Each day, every one of us makes individual choices that have roots in sustainable systems. Will I walk to work or drive my car? Will I use a disposable paper towel or a reusable washcloth to clean up a spill? Will I bring a reusable coffee cup with me or buy a disposable one? Will I turn up the heat or put on a sweater? All of these everyday choices impact society in that their resources are rooted in the same Earth system. We have the opportunity to work together to create a truly sustainable human society. However, that choice will depend on our individual choices and our collective worldview of the importance of sustainability for current and future generations.