What do we mean by Sustainability?
Sustainability as a concept has a long and changing history. Perhaps the most famous definition is from the 1983 Brundtland Commission report: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
However, this definition actually talks about "sustainable development". Is that what we mean today? Probably not. Sustainability's definition and meaning is still evolving. This evolution is occurring because we are beginning to understand just how complex Sustainability actually is and how difficult a concept it is to embody.
It was thought in the 1980's that the environment, the economy and society were the keys. A lot of energy went into trying to fit these concepts into graphic images. The image at the left shows a few of the thousands of conceptual models of sustainabilty one can find on the internet. There are both subtle and not so subtle differences between them. Everyone has a different idea of what Sustainability means.
Sustainability has outgrown such simple conceptual models as Sustainability issues are more complicated than we thought. We need to rethink some of these basic assumptions.
One way to consider Sustainability is to examine its underlying concepts. First and foremost, Sustainability is not about maintaining the status quo. Nor is Sustainability the latest management fad.
Rather, Sustainability embraces a process that considers complex system attributes and what happens when complex systems are impacted by human intervention.
Sustainability is also concerned about equilibriums of ecosystems and their tipping points and humanity's impacts on critical equilibriums.
Sustainability includes issues such as global warming and the accompanying climate change. It is concerned with species loss and extinction, desertification, and deforestation as well as such issues as non-biodegradable materials, energy efficiency, and dwindling water resources.
Most importantly, Sustainability is about humanity and humanity's future. Now, more than ever, we need to understand how our current practices are impacting future generations and their ability to survive under the coming changes brought about by current human activities. We need to understand the impacts of our choices. To help us understand the impacts of our choices, new fields of study are evolving. Fields such as Sustainable Design, Sustainable Engineering and Sustainable Infrastructure are providing new tools that measure impacts and provide new ways of achieving goals by working within system equilibriums. DWR will be incorporating these and other concepts in its business practices and in its mission in the years to come. The future of all Californians depends on it!
What are planetary boundaries?
One emerging concept in sustainability theory is known as "planetary boundaries".
Nine planetary boundaries are identified as critical to human survival. These boundaries are thresholds beyond which key earth systems are in danger of collapse or being set to new, irreversible levels. These boundaries are thought to be:
1. Climate change
2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
4. Ocean acidification
5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
7. Freshwater use
8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).
Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity, says an international team of 18 researchers in the journal Science (16 January 2015).
The four are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).
Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call "core boundaries". Significantly altering either of these "core boundaries" would "drive the Earth System into a new state".
What are "Tipping Points"?
Tipping points can be described as when the "The earth's environmental systems "are being pushed towards their biophysical limits," beyond which loom sudden, irreversible and potentially catastrophic changes" which have been brought on by human activities.
A 525 page study done by the United Nations Environment Program in June of 2012 reported that "the melting of the polar ice caps, desertification in Africa, deforestation of tropical jungles...spraying of chemicals and the emptying out of the world's seas are just some of myriad environmental catastrophes posing a threat to life as we know it". This can cause a detrimental effect on ecosystems.
An international team of 22 scientists, including two UC Davis professors also found that "Earth may experience the next major tipping point within a few generations". These "pressures are greater than the natural forces that caused the end of the last ice age roughly 11,700 years ago, a time when half the planet's large mammal species went extinct and humans migrated out of Africa".
Anthony Barnosky, a paleobiologist at the University of California, Berkeley agrees with 20 other experts in paleontology, ecology, geology, population biology and complex systems "that at the landscape scale, if you disturb between 50 to 90 percent of patches, you see major changes in ones that you haven't disturbed directly...we know that we are at a point on the planet where you have more than 43 percent of the land surface wholesale transformed for human needs. If we transform more and more, we'll be at a point where even places we haven't transformed with our sledgehammers will go through major changes."
What are the Effects?
A study done in three years by a team of 300 researchers concluded that "adverse implications include rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts, and the collapse of fisheries". Other consequences include "20 percent of vertebrate species are under threat of extinction, coral reefs have declined by 38 percent since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, and 90 percent of water and fish samples from aquatic environments are contaminated by pesticides".
There have already been signs of "complex, non-linear changes" already at work in parts of the world...such as increased incidence of malaria in areas where average temperatures have crossed the threshold that encourages the spread of mosquitoes that carry the disease".
Another issue arising in recent years by scientistswho study climate suggests "that humans have changed it enough to push Earth into a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. Biologists have warned that accelerating rates of species loss suggest the planet is entering the sixth great extinction in its history, on par with the event that wiped out the dinosaurs".
UNEP executive director Achim Steiner also commented that "once a tipping point occurs, you don't wake up the next morning and say, 'This is terrible, can we change it?' That is the whole essence of these thresholds. We are condemning people to not having the choice anymore."
What can be Done?
Although the situation seems grim, suggestions and solutions have arisen in order to start curtailng these effects. Baronsky suggest the ability to "anticipate what are the worst-case scenarios and develop work-arounds in time to actually work around them".
Another suggestion has been to develop "better predictive models that are based on a detailed understanding of how the biosphere reacted in the distant past to rapidly changing conditions, including climate and human population growth. Better forecasting could lead to better decisions about protecting natural resources".
Steiner agreed, stating that "'change is possible'...adding that the report includes an analysis of a host of environmental preservation projects that have worked. "Given what we know, we can move in another direction."
Kat Kerlin. "A Warning on Climate 'Tipping Point'". UC Davis Magazine, Fall 2012.