What Is True Sustainability?

Reader Contribution by Staff

“We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security. The restorative economy unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes.”

— Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

Every day we hear about topics like sustainable growth and sustainable building, but what does it really mean to be “sustainable?” In broad terms, sustainability quite clearly means that each new year finds the earth in at least as good of a condition as the last one. No increasing degree of deforestation, no fewer fish in the ocean, no higher levels of toxic pollution, and the concentration of atmospheric pollutants the same or better the next year as it was the prior one. Classically, many native American tribes had a high respect for the sustainability of the world, making collective decisions about whether or not to continue a particular course of action based upon if it would have a negative effect seven generations into the future.

Two modern day thinkers,  the economist Herman Daly and Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, have given sustainability much thought, offering us clear definitions to help us along our journey towards this goal. After all, if we are to develop an effective plan and roadmap for creating a sustainable world, we must first have a clear idea of what it truly means to be “sustainable”!

Herman Daly has suggested three simple rules to help define sustainability:

  1. For a renewable resource — soil, water, forest, fish — the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate of regeneration of its source. (Thus, for example, fish are harvested unsustainably when they are caught at a rate greater than the rate of growth of the remaining fish population.)
  2. For a nonrenewable resource — fossil fuel, high-grade mineral ores, fossil groundwater — the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate at which a renewable resource, used sustainably, can be substituted for it. (For example, an oil deposit would be used sustainably if part of the profits from it were systematically invested in wind farms, photovoltaic arrays, and tree planting, so that when the oil is gone, an equivalent stream of renewable energy is still available.)
  3. For a pollutant, the sustainable rate of emission can be no greater than the rate at which the pollutant can be recycled, absorbed, or rendered harmless in the environment. (For example, sewage can be put into a stream or lake or underground aquifer sustainably no faster than bacteria and other organisms can absorb its nutrients without themselves overwhelming and destabilizing the aquatic ecosystem.)

Another way of looking at sustainability comes from Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Robèrt’s passion for sustainability developed in the late 1980s when he was working as a medical doctor and cancer treatment researcher. He felt a deep sorrow and fear in his heart concerning the destruction of the Earth’s environment. Working with his microscope, he saw that there were environmental limits that must be maintained within and around each cell and that when these limits are breached, the cell’s death is absolutely certain. The parallels to our Earth’s perilous condition of continuous environmental degradation became obvious, and Robèrt’s passion for the issue of sustainability turned into an obsession.

As Robèrt’s ideas began to crystallize into a formula for sustainability, he wrote a scientific paper on this subject, and shared it with numerous Swedish colleagues and scientists. After something like 22 drafts, this paper was published, and their consensus for a sustainability definition and guidelines became known as, “The Natural Step.” Robèrt recognized that our world is essentially a closed system, meaning that outside of the sun’s energy streaming to Earth, there are no new materials and resources to be found on this planet other than what was here to begin with. If we are to stand a chance of modifying humankind’s practices and industry in sustainable ways, then we must first understand what it means to be “sustainable.”

In two simple sentences, The Natural Step (TNS) defines four minimum environmental conditions as necessary elements for maintaining life sustainably in a closed-system world such as planet Earth:

In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  1. Concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
  2. Concentrations of substances produced by society; or
  3. Degradation by physical means.
  4. And in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

These four conditions provide us with a definition to help us determine whether a society is sustainable or not. TNS also provides a collection of strategic methods and resources for helping organizations, whether they are governmental or industrial, to make genuine progress on the road to sustainability. Robèrt’s sustainability conversations expanded beyond his circle of friends and the scientific community to public television, Swedish media stars, leading politicians, and even to the King of Sweden. Robèrt’s  ideas have had a profound effect on many businesses, including IKEA, McDonald’s, Electrolux, and many others.

Let’s take a closer look at the four TNS conditions for sustainability:

  1. Stored deposits: In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to increasing concentrations of potentially toxic materials that have been “liberated” from where they were stored as deposits inside the Earth’s crust. Mankind has been refining natural substances, such as mercury, lead, and radioactive materials, in unnatural concentrations. These substances that were previously bound into stable, durable matrices, such as bedrock or coal, are now accumulating in the biosphere, where they are metabolized into living organisms at ever increasing concentrations. Nothing disappears from our world, and everything that is not bound into a solid, stable matrix eventually disperses into the ecosystem.
  2. Synthetic compounds and other unnatural material byproducts of society: In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to increasing concentrations of unnatural synthetic compounds. If this condition is not met, eventually the concentrations of these substances will reach concentration levels where irreversible changes begin to occur, with potentially dire consequences. The solution is to proactively substitute more common compounds, or ones that break down easily, for certain persistent and unnatural compounds, and for society to use substances efficiently. Remember that even using less of a toxic compound (improved efficiency) will still add up over time to too much of a bad thing, if this compound decomposes slower than the rate at which it is inserted into the biosphere.
  3. Physical degradation of ecosystems and natural resources: We must draw our resources from well-managed ecosystems. Our health and prosperity depend on the capacity of nature to restructure our wastes into new resources. Human activities need to work in harmony with the cyclic principles of nature.
  4. Human needs: Unless basic human socioeconomic needs are met worldwide through fair and efficient use of resources, it will be difficult to coordinate efforts and cooperation to meet conditions one, two, and three on a global scale. In a sustainable society, human needs are met worldwide.

(Source: Adapted from The Natural Step for Business, by Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare, 2001)

From looking at both Robèrt’s and Daly’s definition of sustainability, we see that few things in our modern world are actually built, processed, or manufactured sustainably, including what is generally referred to as “sustainable building”, and that we have a long ways to go towards actually making our modern word sustainable.

Building a sustainable world will not be easy, but it is doable!

Green tip for the day: Fix it instead of throwing “it” away! When an item is manufactured, far greater inputs in the form of energy and raw materials go into making most items than meets the eye, and far more waste is generated in manufacturing and refining these raw materials than the item that sits in front of you. For example, according to a UN University study, 1.8 tons of raw materials are used to manufacture the average PC, and most of these materials are dumped somewhere as waste. So, when you repair an item rather than throwing it “away,” you are reducing your consumption and ecological footprint on the planet. It often seems hardly worth your time to sew a split seam on an item of clothing, upgrade a computer, or repair an appliance, but fixing something yourself, or spending a few bucks for someone else to fix it, is one more way of Doing the Right Thing. The exception to this rule is when the item is an old energy hog, such as a refrigerator that is more than ten years old, or a gas guzzling car. In these cases, the energy wasted by the old appliance over its lifetime is far more energy than what goes into making a new efficient one.