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Sustainability is often on people’s lips nowadays. Everybody seems to have an idea

of what it means, and yet it is an elusive concept. Before giving some definition, let
us search for what it includes.

For one, sustainability is about the future, making sure that humanity does not follow a
path to crisis and doom. We need to take responsibility for our actions toward future
generations, and with this responsibility comes a moral imperative. In other words,
sustainability is a good to be sought, and not just for us but also for our children and

Sustainability is also about the environment. None of our activities would be

sustainable if it led to environmental demise. So, in sustainability is contained another
responsibility, that toward nature. It includes operating within the limits imposed on us
by the environment.

Assembling the pieces, we see that the concept of Sustainability implicates our actions,
future generations, the environment, responsibility, and limits.

The challenge before us is to identify, and engage in, those responsible actions that
make the environment an integral part of our economy and respect environmental limits,
so that we and future generations can continue to live on this spaceship called Earth.

My favorite definition of sustainability:

"Sustainability is the ultimate relation of action and consequence."

(Kirsten Childs, in Sustainable Architecture - White Papers, 2004)

Demand on resources

A thought to ponder...

On the eve of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi was interviewed by a British

journalist, who asked him whether independent India could follow the British model of
industrial development. Gandhi, in his famous response, said:

“It took Britain half the planet’s resources to achieve its level of prosperity.
How many planets would India require for its development?”

And, there is the “Factor 10”:

- Population is expected to double before it levels off → Factor 2

- If everybody in the world aspires to the American standard of living, the rate of
resource consumption would have to quintuple (assuming constant ratio between
economic activity and material consumption) → Factor 5

2 x 5 = 10

Thus, one can expect a ten-fold increase in demand for resources.

Yet, our mining activities already span the entire planet. So what should be done?

Definition of carrying capacity

"The maximum rate of resource consumption and waste discharge that can be sustained
indefinitely in a given region without progressively impairing the functional integrity and
productivity of the relevant ecosystems."

(Paul L. Bishop, in Pollution Prevention: Fundamental and Practice, 2000, page 574)

Starting with Carrying Capacity

For natural ecosystems, Sustainability can be defined as the carrying capacity,

that is, the amount of use that can be sustained over time without degradation of
the system.

A typical example is pasture land: Without fertilizer, a 40-hectare (100-acre) pasture

can sustain no more than about 80 dairy cows. More cows would consume grass at a
rate faster than soil can regenerate it by natural growth.

Exceeding the carrying capacity leads to a collapsed system, bare land and dead cows.


The event

In June 1992, the United Nations convened the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil. More than 118 countries participated to consider sustainable development
and what it meant for them and the planet.

The event was a watershed in the sense that it demonstrated that the only way to
achieve long-term economic and social progress is to link it with environmental

Out of the Summit came a declaration. The so-called Rio Declaration consists of a
preamble and 27 articles, putting forward a number of principles.

The pursuit of sustainable development at the global scale was furthered at the
World Summit for Social Development at Copenhagen in March 1995.

Principles enunciated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio

(Note: The list is not exhaustive and the wording not verbatim.)

1. People are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

2. Today's development may not undermine the development and environmental needs of
present and future generations.

3. Nations have the sovereign right to exploit their own resources, but without causing
environmental damage beyond their borders.

4. Nations shall develop international laws to provide compensation for damage that
activities under their control cause to areas beyond their borders.

5. Nations shall use the precautionary approach to protect the environment. Where there
are threats of serious or irreversible damage, scientific uncertainty will not be used to
postpone cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. (This is known as
the Precautionary Principle.)

6. To achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral

part of the development process.

7. Eradicating poverty and reducing disparities in living standards are essential to achieve
development and meet the needs of the majority of the people.

Principles enunciated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio (cont’d)

8. Nations shall cooperate to conserve, protect, and restore the health an integrity of
Earth's ecosystem.

9. The polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution. (This is generally known as
the Polluter Pays Principle.)

10. Sustainable development requires better scientific understanding of the shared global
problems. Nations should exchange knowledge and innovative technologies to achieve
the goal of sustainability.

11. Peace, development, and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible.


At first glance, Sustainability seems to be a straightforward concept, but as soon as we go

beyond the obvious broad lines, the meaning because murky.

For some environmentalists, sustainability is an imperative for radical change.

For captains of industry, it sometimes reduces to good business practices that guarantee an
environment healthy enough to keep the business alive.

No wonder there are hundreds of definition of Sustainability !

But, this is not all. There are some who advocate that Sustainability should remain a vague
concept, to leave freedom in its practice or to allow consensus to evolve in support of the
idea. Others deplore this position as a way to conceal hidden agendas or so unspecific as
to become useless. Others claim that a weak definition is a recipe for incremental
changes, whereas systemic changes are called for.

And, some pick bones about specific words. They remark that sustainable growth is an
oxymoron because no growth is forever, that the Earth's carrying capacity is elastic, or
that some provisions are unfair to business.

Timothy O'Riordan commented in 1985 that defining Sustainability is "Exploration into

a tangled conceptual jungle where watchful eyes lurk at every bend."

Two aspects of Sustainability

1) Not the same as carrying capacity.

Carrying capacity is a static concept that fits non-evolving ecological systems.

Human activities progress by successive inventions. Problems due to excess are not
generally solved by reduction but are most often overcome by new tools and new
resources. As the proverb goes: “Necessity is the mother of all inventions.” This leads
to the concept of Sustainable Development.

2) Three-pronged approach.

Achieving sustainability requires staying within the carrying capacity.

The big question is: What is the carrying capacity of Planet Earth?

There is unfortunately no direct answer. Planetary carrying capacity is nearly impossible

to define because of human creativity: Past excesses have generally not been solved
by reduction but most often by the invention of new technologies or use of new resources.
In other words, instead of staying under the limits, we have constantly pushed the limits

An example is the large concentration of people in cities. Such concentrated occupation

of land became possible only with the invention of drinking water distribution, sewage
treatment by activated sludge, and other technologies.

This lack of precise knowledge of planetary capacity leads to the concepts of

Ecofootprint and Sustainable Development, to supersede Sustainability.

Ecological Footprint

How do we know whether we are operating within the carrying capacity of our ecosystem
Earth? One way to find out is to see how much we use and compare it to what is
available. In doing so, we face an immediate problem, for we use all kinds of different
things, air, water, foods of many types, metals, and on and on. How can we sum all these
apples and oranges?

The ecological footprint is a way to systematize the computation. It reduces all our
consumption to the land surface that is needed to produce it. For example, the
footprint associated with frequent eating of meat that is locally grown is 1.32
hectares (3.26 acres), more for meat that needs to be shipping in from some distance
away, and driving an average car for 240 km (150 miles) per week is equivalent to 0.88
hectares (2.16 acres), counting where the materials came from to manufacture the car,
the share of highway and parkinglot spaces, where the fuel comes from, etc.

Land type Equivalence Biocapacity
Factor (acres per person)
Arable (crops) 2.2 1.31
Pasture 0.5 0.67
Forest 1.3 2.12
Built-up 2.2 0.25
Sea 0.4 0.35
Total: 4.7

(Source: Jim Merkel “Radical Simplicity” 2003)

If we divide the total productive surface on the earth by the population, we arrive at 1.9
hectares (down to 4.6 acres since Merkel’s book was published!) per person. Anybody
who uses more is either depriving someone else or contributing to irreversible damage
on Earth.

Footprints of individuals, groups and even nations have been calculated. A finding is
that the wealthier the group, the larger the footprint. This is because wealth and
consumption are closely related.

Sustainable Development

Because sustainability is so hard to define in the presence of human progress, we can

approach the concept by not defining Sustainability per se but Sustainable Development.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission -- named for its chairwoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland,
then Prime Minister of Norway, was one of several unofficial international entities which
prepared the way for the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio
de Janeiro in 1992. It made the claim:

"Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable -- to ensure that it

meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs."

In this definition, which sounds more like a declaration, note the words:

“has the ability” → reflects optimism, even certainty.

“needs” (twice) → refers to necessities of life, such as shelter, food and basic health
care, not whims and wants.

“compromising” → there are limits.

What Sustainable Development entails

Like sustainability, sustainable development can mean different things to different people.
There is no universally accepted definition, but the following elements are regarded by
essential by most people.

1. Systems view - Integrative approach

2. Environment alongside social welfare and the economy (Triple Bottom Line)

3. Regenerative systems - Waste of a process to become food for another

4. Use of planetary resources at a rate below regeneration

5. Local production if possible

6. Long-term view (multi-generational)

7. Obligation to future generations

8. Social equity

9. Recognition of limits

10. Precautionary approach

11. Respect of biological and cultural diversity

Sustainability in action, according to William McDonough (Architect & Dartmouth alum)

1. Worn out products should become soil. This should be the new definition of
consumable. Waste = food.

2. If a product is not biodegradable, it is an industrial and must remain in a closed-loop

system, to be continually reused. In other words, no waste, only useful residues.

3. When toxic, a product must not be manufactured.

4. Rely on solar income

5. Respect diversity

Who are they and why we need them

A stakeholder is any person or organization who has a vested interest in a certain activity.

For example, the stakeholders of a manufacturing company are

- The management, because running the company is their job
- The employees, because this is their occupation and income
- The shareholders, because they are the owners
- The customers, because they buy the products
- The suppliers, because they sell to the company
- The local residents, because they may be affected by pollution
- The regulators, because they issue permits and exert some control.

Sometimes, stakeholders are proxies. This is the case when environmental organizations
speak for the local residents or labor unions speak for the employees.

Competitors are another group with a vested interest but are not included among
stakeholders, for an obvious reason.

It is important in the pursuit of sustainable development to give all shareholders a

voice. First, they will all be affected by the changes. Second, sustainable development
has a social dimension.

(Recall the Triple Bottom Line: People - Profit - Planet.)

Obstacles to Sustainability

There is no significant technical obstacle to achieve Sustainability. Yet, efforts in the pursuit of
Sustainability are difficult, and many have failed for a variety of reasons, chiefly of social
1. Affluence
Consumption in the wealthiest nations is grossly unsustainable. Therefore, improved
energy and materials efficiency cannot be sufficient. A paradigm shift is necessary.

2. Apathy
Wealthy people live well and have difficulties accepting that there is a long-term
problem. A major change may appear threatening to them. Also, environmental effects build
up slowly, and the lack of obvious crisis makes it hard sometimes to take notice.

3. Insufficient priority
In Third World countries, social and economic priorities most often trump environmental

4. Lack of public awareness

Individuals fail to engage in sustainable practices through their everyday choices for
simple lack of knowledge. For example, one can find a bumper sticker that extols the
virtue of recycling on the back of a gas-guzzling sports-utility vehicle.

5. Lack of corporate awareness
Many sustainable technologies exist but companies tend to prefer business as usual
for fear of the unknown.

6. Uncertainties
A paradigm shift entails risk, environmental indicators have large error bars, and
the future is uncertain. These factors create resistance to action.

7. Regulations
A number of existing regulations force businesses to act a certain way and
discourage sustainable innovation. Or, the amount of money spent on meeting current
regulations leaves insufficient resources for the adoption of newer and more benign

Additional impediments to achieving sustainability,

according to Paul Bishop, a chemical engineer

1. Resource scarcity: finite amounts of non-renewables, existing planetary limits to

regeneration of renewable resources.

2. Environmental degradation: Previous damage makes it harder to move forward.

3. Poverty and the Third World: existing economic models profit a mere few; economic
incentives not aligned with betterment of all people.

4. Conflicts of interest between nations: Easier to fight war to get resources from
elsewhere than change one’s industrial system.

5. Falling social conditions: Rise in GNP per capita has been associated with social
decline (ex. more suicides); weakened social standards make it harder to get people to
think of the larger community.

6. Inadequate economic systems: Communism, socialism and unrestrained capitalism not

fit for the task.

7. Lack of technology: Need for greater efficiency in resource use and energy
consumption; more with less.