What is Whole-System Sustainability? Part 1: Basic Principles for Environmental Sustainability

Reader Contribution by Ruth Tandaan Sto Domingo
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Photo by Pixabay/12019

There are a great many cases where platitudes are voiced regarding “Sustainability” and more commonly, “Sustainable Development”. There are, fortunately, also many cases where individuals and even corporations are making a concerted effort towards reaching meaningful levels of sustainability. Nevertheless and far too often, “Sustainability” is rendered unsustainable for anything other than marketing and sales campaigns.

As cynical as that may seem, however, worse still are the many efforts where singularly sustainable areas are highlighted — usually at the expense of other equally important fields of concern. For anything to be truly sustainable, it must be systemically sustainable, which begs the question addressed in this article; What is Whole System (or Systemic) Sustainability? And more importantly, how is it attained in a truly sustainable development?

Sustainability in the Development Community

As was rather derisively noted above, sustainability is often used as little more than a catchphrase for marketing and sales purposes, with very little being sustainable at a meaningful level. This is especially true in both in issues of land development and human growth and development. The imperative first step in any undertaking is an accurate knowledge of just what the stated goal is in reality and in its entirety.

In terms of development theory, a good working definition for sustainability can mean being able to provide for at least the most basic wants and needs of the people today, without impeding the ability of future generations to do the same.

What is Singular Sustainability?

Often times, a singular portion of a major development will be focused on issues of sustainability. Generally, this is in the form of environmental sustainability, and generally encompasses little more than ensuring that very little waste has been generated during the construction of the development, while doing little if anything for the long-term issues of meaningful environmental sustainability.

The residents will likely still drive and otherwise traverse on paved streets and other surfaces that cover the vast majority of all open spaces. Residents will still likely shop in grocery stores that require goods to be shipped in from afar utilizing trucks and other means of shipping. If there are any “Greenbelts” included in the area, they will likely be left in a comparatively unproductive state, providing very little benefit to the human residents and little more than a very limited natural ecosystem for any of the local wildlife, even in a development that is ostensibly environmentally sustainable.

In the case of land development as just one example, even in cases where there is a somewhat halfhearted approach towards environmental sustainability. In such a scenario, numerous home sales and commercial and industrial facilities will provide a limited amount of economic input.

Unfortunately, the only way that economic sustainability will be achieved, is through the continual leeching of funding from the people who are, in reality, receiving very little benefit in regards to sustainable living. This usually comes in the form of a Home Owners Association or other group that requires constant funding in order to maintain (the appearance of) environmental sustainability. This same effect is perhaps best demonstrated in charities that cannot maintain economic and/or financial stability, and as such, are forced to spend a large portion — if not the vast majority of their donations merely to seek out additional donors.

Sustainability in any singular area of development does not automatically add up to a Sustainable Development, and more often than not, the only true sustainability that has been achieved is every bit as illusory as it is beneficial.

Under the best of circumstances, a singularly sustainable development will perhaps allow for an emotional benefit, though there is very little real benefit to the local residents, human or otherwise. Under the worst cases, the illusion of sustainability will allow for other areas of the development to accrue in such an unfavorable manner so as to negate any benefits while at the same time, creating additional issues that will have to be addressed at a later date. For any Development to be truly Sustainable in nature, it must be Systemically Sustainable.

Marketplace in Hyderabad, India. Photo by Pixabay/12019

Moving Toward Systemic (or Whole-System) Sustainability

Complex and systemic problems generally require complex and systemic solutions in order to be effective upon implementation. Each and every complex system is inevitably going to be unique, so it is imperative that the overall principles be both adaptive and integrated in nature and design. At the same time, there must be basic principles of the system that are consistent, even if they do appear to be overly broad at first glance.

The three primary areas that must be addressed and resolved for any development to be wholly sustainable in planning and design are Environmental Sustainability, Economic (and Financial) Sustainability, and Social Sustainability.

Systemic Sustainability is defined as the point at which each aspect of the complex system within the fields of Economic, Environmental and Sociological Sustainability have all been attained, each field working wholly and efficiently as an independent subset within the system and each supporting the other efforts of the system and the system as a whole, singular set.

It was once said that there is no difference between practice and theory — in theory at least. In practice, there are numerous “real-world” variables that can never be fully quantified while the development is still in the planning stage. Thus, it is not possible to plan for all of the variables in the planning phase, so the design must be adaptive in nature to be plausible, if not feasible.

Social, cultural, historical, environmental, alongside a host of other variables (and restrictions), will always be present, forcing each and every development to be at least partially unique. Still, in order to be unified in purpose, if not efficacy, other measures and options must be readily available to be put into action in order to meet the ever-changing demands of local, domestic and even international communities.

Perhaps one of the most blatant examples of this would be large-scale hog farming that is ideally suited towards many isolated, less economically developed locations, realizing of course, that such a concept would not work in predominantly Muslim areas. Thus, in order to retain the ability of the development to generate a sufficient supply of methane from its own waste to provide for its own energy, a viable alternative needs to be put into place when such restrictions are present.

Pork is the most widely consumed meat on the African Continent, though there are a great many locations, primarily in West Africa, where the large Muslim communities would have religious concerns about such an operation and it would not be tenable. However, among the more rural areas of Southern Nigeria, especially along the coast, such operations would thrive and provide a host of benefits to the local communities where these Service Centers were constructed and maintained operations. The same holds true in Sustainable Community Developments in both the Northern and Southern Philippines, the Southern Philippines being home to a very large Muslim contingency.

Photo by Pixabay/Stanvpetersen

Environmental Sustainability

Asking what environmental sustainability is sounds almost like an absurd invitation for someone to step forth and state the obvious — but is it? We have a global environment, but at the same time, the local environment in the tropics is not going to be the same as it is in the arctic regions.

Does environmental sustainability need to focus solely on carbon dioxide (CO2) while ignoring more potent greenhouse gases like water vapor and methane, which occurs naturally at substantially higher rates and is substantially more potent than carbon dioxide? Does environmental sustainability mean getting rid of all of the plastics and going back to cloth and paper bags for all of our toting needs?

Conversely, does environmental sustainability mean continuing with a reasonable production of plastic while at the same time reducing the levels of waste that are proving to be so troublesome, not only in the Pacific and Atlantic Gyres, but throughout the oceans (and many other areas) of the world?

Environmental Sustainability is defined as the point at which a system, as largely symbiotic in nature between the environment, local ecosystems and the life within that environment can all function, each independently of the other, while all function together to benefit the whole of the system.

The “environment” in its most basic form includes the surroundings and/or conditions in which a life form survives and functions. This is one of those areas where individual locations will all have variables, not all of which may be adequately planned for or considered.

History is rife with examples of environmental restoration projects that have destroyed large swathes or even entire ecosystems because there was an incomplete picture of the local environment that was not adaptive, or at least, not very well planned and implemented. This again though, reverts back to the primary issue of singular solutions to complex and systemic problems. The environment is a very large, diverse and complex system and in order for solutions to be effective and meaningful, they need to be adaptive, complex and systemic solutions in planning, design and implementation.

Part 2 of this series covers the other two pillars of Whole-System Sustainability: Economic and Social Sustainability. Please leave any of your thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions in the comment section below so that I can address them individually and perhaps them for consideration in future articles. None of this work would be possible without you, the reader, and as such, your thoughts and considerations are the most important aspect of any articles.

Ruth Tandaan Sto Domingo has worked with numerous NGOs, governments and Indigenous communities in Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and Vanuatu to implement sustainable solutions. She is the co-author of Whole System Sustainable Development. Ruth enjoys “hyper-realistic” cross stitch and is working with her husband to build a largely off-grid and self-sufficient home where she will raise livestock and garden both flowers and food. Connect with Ruth on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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