What is sustainability?

Currently there is no single agreed upon definition on sustainability. My definition is to sustain the present considerably high living standard into the long term of time. Current focus is the risk of unsustainablility (overshoot and collapse) during the 21st century.

What is the difference between sustainability and environmental protection?

The concept of sustainability is more than environmental protection. Its has as much to do with balancing human society needs and our supporting environment. Environmental protection is one of the possible ways, but not the only one.

For what purpose do we strive for sustainability? Why not just let nature take its course?

Given the risk of unsustainablility during the 21st century, it is a matter of live or death of millions/billions of people. To the most selfish (doesn’t care about his/her own children and future generation) people, the question is “could you have the peace of mind to be rich in a turbulent world?” This is clearly a question of ethics or value. Values vary between individual. It is the first time in human history that we can carry out scenario planning on complex dynamic problem. For proactive people, they will envision the future and plan to achieve it.

Is sustainability an issue, after all (Do we really face it, or it is just false alarm)?

Yes, it is, after various scenarios in rigorous formal model showed that the way our current economy grow is unsustainable, there is “limits to growth”. Note that the model is not predication because we can change it if we have determination, and the validness of the model stands on its assumptions. But by formal modelling, the model assumption is made explicit, and so far no one have successfully found out the error of the model using its assumption. The real world symptoms so far support the model, such as global warming, food security and peak oil.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body comprised of over 2500 scientists that is the world’s leading authority on global warming, released its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), concluded that “Climate change is a serious threat to development everywhere”. Given this, anyone wishing to challenge the heavily reviewed conclusions has to overcome a rather staggering burden of proof. That is not to say it can’t be done. But for the moment, it hasn’t, which means that adopting a skeptical stance towards global warming in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus seems to be an abuse of skepticism.

After all, it is certainly possible that 2500 IPCC scientists might have made the same mistake. And if so, we would want someone to point that out. Still, the prevailing view on global warming has gone through repeated challenges in the court of scientific opinion and emerged in its current form.

While we should give the mainstream thought the benefit of doubt, if there are increasing evidents support the doubt, we will need to consider the doubt. In other words, when the trend is not yet obvious, burden of proof is on who propose to act; when the trend is widely accepted, burden of proof is on who propose inaction.

No matter what is the truth, the most important outcome is it raises up public awareness to be watchful of our future direction and rethink about development.

Why should we conserve for sustainability, not relying on technology and market innovation?

Conservationist is based on belief that environmental limits must structure our approach to social policy; while the Promethean response is that the solution to sustainability is innovation. The most common criticism of conservationist is that they underestimate the power of technology and the adaptive resilience of the free market.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) 2000 found that “environmental gains from new technology and policies are being overtaken by the pace and scale of population growth and economic development.”

Excerpts from GEO-4:

  • The energy intensity of our society (defined as energy use per unit of GDP in PPP units) has decreased since Brundtland by an average of 1.3 per cent per year. However, the impact of total GDP growth on energy use has outweighed these mitigating efficiency improvements.
  • Air pollution has decreased in some cities in different parts of the world through a combination of technology improvement and policy measures. However, increasing human activity is offsetting some of the gains.

One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent achieve sustainability is that they are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment and optimize for short-term gain. That is, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

Impressive — and even sufficient — technological advance is conceivable, but only as a consequence of determined societal decisions and willingness (public support) to follow up such decisions with action and money.

An implicit assumption of Promethean is that sustainability has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human behaviour or idea of morality. Is it valid?

Therefore, we need to examine the potentials and constraints of science, what businesses can and cannot do, as well as the role of the government and community in shaping potential for science and business to play a positive role in sustainability.


What is sustainability research?

Sustainability research is very broad, including:

  • Systems analysis (especially through computer simulation model, e.g. System Dynamics, Agent-Based Model)
  • Expertise from conventional fields:

    • Ecology
    • Demography
    • Politics (e.g. Global politics)
    • Economics (e.g. Ecological economics, Environmental and resource economics)
    • Sociology (e.g. the role of social network in disaster recovery)
    • Policy studies
    • Law
    • Land use study
    • Urban planning
    • Hazard management (e.g. vulnerability, impact, adaptive capacity)
    • Physical sciences (e.g. Atmospheric science, Hydrology, Geology, Chemistry)

  • Technology / Engineering research on:

    • Pollution reduction
    • Waste disposal
    • Resource consumption efficiency (e.g. timber)
    • Renewable energy
    • Information Technology (e.g. Ecological Informatics)
    • Engineered “solution” ideas (e.g. Geo-engineering to combat global climate change)

  • Focus on specific issue:

    • Global warming
    • Food / Agriculture
    • Fresh water (quantity and quality)
    • Peak oil
    • Deforestation
    • Biodiversity
    • Fish catch
    • Desertification
    • Soil exhaustion/erosion
    • Stratospheric ozone depletion
    • Pollution (e.g. eutrophication, acid rain, haze)
    • Spread of diseases (e.g. AIDS, bird flu)

  • Indicator / Metric:

    • Genuine Progress Indicator
    • Genuine Savings
    • Ecological Footprint
    • Human Development Index
    • Gross World Product (aggregate of all Gross Domestic Products)

Why systems analysis is very important to sustainability?

Sustainability issues are interrelated and the consequences of potential solutions affect each other (e.g. biofuel vs. food). Improper policy often leads to policy resistance, or even unintended consequences. Systems analysis allow policy maker to study interconnection of the issue of interest deeper (insight) and so support decision and policy making.

What are the outstanding roadblocks towards sustainability?

Five “tectonic stresses” are accumulating deep underneath the surface of today’s global order:

  1. Economic stress – income gaps between rich and poor widening, skewed wealth distribution
  2. Climate stress – global warming, Stratospheric ozone depletion
  3. Environmental stress – pollution, degradation
  4. Resource stress – resource depletion, peak oil, unsustainable consumption pattern (especially waste on non-renewable resources)
  5. Demographic stress – population growth increases resource demand, uneven population growth rates between rich and poor countries

Interaction among these stresses will seriously threaten survival of vulnerable poors in the world, contribute to social polarization and conflicts. Failure of government and economic institutions attend to the endless social problems on the surface will then fosterage the use of violence. After passing a tipping point, desperation may lead to international terrorism and world war, overwhelm the well-being of even the rich. The old regime is irreversible, no matter we like it or not.

How can I learn more about thinking for sustainability?

If you are interested, you can read A Synopsis of Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update and the Chapter 8 of The Limits to Growth:The 30-Year Update. For introduction to System Dynamics please refer the paper Some Basic Concepts in System Dynamics. Then you can browse the links in this blog.

Last updated: 25 August 2009