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Welcome to the Energy & Environment (E&E) Exchange, a blog dedicated to science and engineering topics that are (generally) related to energy and the environment. This blog is meant to encourage discussion about the challenges and possibilities surrounding sustainability through science and technology. The blog's owner, cheme_wordsmithy, is a former technical writer and engineering editor at IEEE GlobalSpec, the company that powers CR4.

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Just What (or Whom) Are We “Sustaining?”

Posted May 31, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes

In a previous post I discussed the founders of the original Earth Day predicted that our 21st-century world would be devoid of any and all animal life, humans would rarely live past 45, and our ambient sunlight would be reduced by 50%. Obviously this post-apocalyptic vision did not come to pass, although maybe this fear-mongering frightened concerned citizens into giving the environmentalist movement a boost, or at least a few new members.

Near the heart of this movement is "sustainability," a buzzword that seems to grow in popularity as time goes on. It's nearly impossible to avoid: food companies are shamed for unsustainable fishing, large corporations tout their sustainable business practices, and institutions of higher education have sustainability officers. But while the mention of sustainability tends to evoke an environmentalist viewpoint, it also brings up the question: what or whom are we actually sustaining?

The general concept of sustainability is often described as the interplay between economy, society, and environment. The diagram on this page sums it up nicely: addressing any two of these three issues results in activities that are bearable for the environment or equitable for society. But the ideal is a midpoint between all three: sustainability.

Which of these three factors is the true focus of sustainability, however, is often muddled. The Brundtland Report, a 1987 UN report purporting to "re-examine the critical issues of environment and development," first defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." While the report goes into further detail about factoring ecological considerations into all decision making, much of it focuses on sustaining ourselves, whether in the present or future. Clearly this definition leans toward economics, and to a lesser degree society.

In a thought-provoking 2015 blog post, biogeochemist and environmentalist Bill Schlesinger wrote that environmental "sustainability" is an oxymoron in that it concerns sustainable use of finite and therefore unsustainable resources such as petroleum and groundwater. He also points out that, even when we replant forests or develop sustainable fisheries, we tend to establish monocultural environments and ignore biodiversity. In other words, whereas these activities look good today, we're probably setting future up generations for more headaches in the future.

A few weeks ago Starbucks made news by issuing the first US corporate sustainability bond. According to a press release, the company "will use the net proceeds from the offering of $500 million in [notes] to enhance its sustainability programs around the coffee supply chain..." Craig Russell, EVP of Starbucks Global, is quoted as saying that "the longevity of the coffee industry is directly linked to the social, economic and environmental conditions of coffee communities around the world [...] This new sustainability bond offers a way for investors to better understand the work we are doing to help ensure that there is a future for farmers and our industry." In my humble opinion, subtracting the term "sustainability" from this offering renders it the same as any bond, in which the holder accrues a little interest for supporting Starbucks' business activities. Adding the term back in conveys that Starbucks cares about the little guys producing their product-a brand play. The press release later claims that the bond offering improves the effectiveness of coffee farming and advances the socioeconomic conditions of farmers, but without reasonably happy farmers there would be no coffee, and without coffee there would be no Starbucks. There are clearly two viewpoints as to the sustainability target.

The widespread use of and confusion over the term "sustainability" doesn't help the environmental cause. In an addendum to his blog, Schlesinger calls out the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) for including energy companies such as Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., whose primary activity generates emissions at least 10% greater than conventional oil harvesting; requires on-site removal of not only trees and brush but also topsoil, clay, and other layers that impede an oil sand deposit; and may eventually concentrate heavy metals via the oil sands extraction process. But the DJSI has every right to include oil companies because it evaluates corporate sustainability, not strictly the environmental type. The Dow Jones evaluation of corporate sustainability focuses on long-term shareholder value and "managing risks and opportunities deriving from economic, social and environmental developments." They mention the Big Three sustainability factors, but their focus is on long-term business success. When evaluating corporate sustainability, even one of Canada's largest greenhouse gas producers can achieve high marks for their community investment and employee engagement, but maybe adding "Corporate" to the DJSI label would clear up some confusion.

It's not often clear whether "sustainability" refers to protecting business interests, the environment, or both. Stakeholders need to be careful about throwing the term around, especially when it can take on drastically different meanings whether used in industry, ecology, and even higher education.

Image credits: Johann Dréo / CC BY-SA 3.0 | CIAT / CC BY-SA 2.0

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#1

Re: Just What (or Whom) Are We “Sustaining?”

05/31/2016 12:07 AM

Starbucks clearly morphs into something quite different in the future....

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Re: Just What (or Whom) Are We “Sustaining?”

06/01/2016 12:01 PM

Looks like someone found the GTA 'cheat code.'

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Re: Just What (or Whom) Are We “Sustaining?”

05/31/2016 1:00 PM

I think we are mostly sustaining the lifestyles of the top 1% given most of the effort we put out at our level hardly comes close to being anything balanced or gainful to us ourselves.

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Re: Just What (or Whom) Are We “Sustaining?”

06/01/2016 4:01 PM

I think sustainability is just another word for improving efficiency....as efficiency improves the need for raw materials decreases....but then an ever increasing population demand works against it...as a result the need for raw materials continues to increase, the only thing that seems sustainable is production of waste...

http://www.livescience.com/41160-managing-the-world-s-waste-infographic.html

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Re: Just What (or Whom) Are We “Sustaining?”

06/02/2016 1:42 PM

The terms bearable, viable, and equitable are not necessarily palpable, quantitative terms, at least in the parlance I grew up with, and the girls I could find at the dance.

This all plays into the "everybody is always and ever more equal" mentality. Nobody ever loses (or wins). This is in stark contrast to nature (Darwinism) where everything and every species either competes or dies out. Social Darwinism applies to cultures, nations, maybe even planets. If a nation persists in not insisting on the residents abiding by the rule of law, has completely non-existent borders, and rewards interlopers while punishing the "natural" residents (those who have never existed any where else), then that nation is divided against itself, and cannot stand, it will fall. Ladies and gentlemen, we stand at a defining moment in history, a precipice from which our nation may never return, and some say it has already slipped over the edge.

To my mind, that is the singular definition of unsustainability in our time. Can you stop it? Will you stop it? Will you go under?

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