Banner
    Guidelines For Achieving Sustainability
    By Caitlin Kight | April 10th 2012 05:00 AM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Caitlin

    I am a research scientist who dabbles in freelance writing and editing, birding, cooking, indoor gardening, needleworking, various athletics, music...

    View Caitlin's Profile

    Although conservationists often advocate sustainability, it's not always clear how this concept can be incorporated into our lives in a practical way. It requires people and institutions to use scientific knowledge to shape (or reshape) our ideals, practices, and laws. As a result, it stands at the junction of several fields of study--including (but not limited to) biology, sociology, economics, and philosophy. Previously, the development and implementation of sustainability plans may have been held back by our lack of scientific knowledge, but, according to collaborators writing in a recent issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the greatest barrier to sustainable living is now our lack of direction. 

    To combat this problem, the authors have suggested five "priority themes" that should help both governments and individuals incorporate sustainable practices into everyday living. The themes were mainly developed with industrial societies in mind, as these are considered to be "the primary origin of the sustainability crisis," and also because these are the entities "better equipped...to actively address unsustainable behaviors."

    The first of the themes is "reforming formal institutions," from local interest groups all the way up to the level of federal governments. Because institutions are "the underlying rules and structures that shape the social, economic, and political transactions within society," reform of these organizations can alter the way that decisions are made and rules are enforced. Integrating environmental policy considerations into basic institutional activities could help ensure that sustainable practices are discussed (and hopefully incorporated) in many sectors, ranging from finance and trade to energy, transport, and urban development.


    However, the researchers recognize that institutional changes are driven by individuals, and also that individuals are active in society outside the framework of these organizations. Thus, their second theme is "engaging community in a stronger civil society." Institutions are often focused on "traditional imperatives" that are not easily married with sustainability--for instance, businesses want to make money, but green practices sometimes require large financial investments. Individual citizens, however, are not constrained by these same concerns; just as some communities design shared pastures and parks, so too might individuals come together to develop a "green" culture.

    Achieving this will be easier if people remain mindful of the authors' third theme: "curbing consumption and population growth." The researchers suggest we should be particularly careful to minimize "inconspicuous consumption," or the use of objects and practices that are not actually necessary but have been employed for so long that we think of them as such--air conditioning, for instance, or long, hot showers. In order to "reorient economic life," the authors advocate research on the topic of whether, and how, people might be persuaded to "bring their preferences into better alignment with the requirements of ethics and sustainability." Simultaneously addressing population growth will not only have ecological benefits, the researchers argue, but also social ones--improved health, well-being, quality-of-life, and gender equality, to name a few.

    Speaking of equality, the fourth theme is "equity and justice," two concepts that the authors admit are often thought to be far removed from the realms of science and conservation policy. However, these are important ideas because they determine who takes responsibility for certain activities or outcomes, and who has a say when decisions are made. For example, it is good to have clear guidelines in place for the disposal of hazardous waste, otherwise the same communities or areas might end up with an unfair amount of toxic garbage; likewise, predetermining who will be tasked with any emergency cleanups will ensure there are not legal hold-ups when and if any leakage does occur.


    The final theme is "value and belief systems," which, of course, will influence all of the above. Factors such as age, gender, education level, and social status will cause individual variations in values over time, while societal variations will be driven by socioeconomic development. Because such fluctuations impact "human-environment relationships," the researchers stress the need to keep these factors in mind when developing conservation plans. They hope that we can find inspirations in worldviews that emphasize sustainability--not necessarily as a replacement for current beliefs, but as a "fresh perspective on sustainability problems," and a way to find "alternatives to consumption- and growth-based society." Understanding how these philosophies and emotions will impact each of the above themes, however, will likely require some inspired interdisciplinary research.

    On the whole, the authors write, "sustainability requires a social avalanche of unprecedented proportions." Although the avalanche can be started by anyone, the researchers hope that conservation researchers might help initiate change by forging more transdisciplinary alliances--not just among academics but also between academia and other societal institutions. Further, they suggest that researchers should be more vocal in advocating sustainability; by finding novel and exciting ways to discuss this topic in public, scientists might inspire the public and begin to teach by example.

    ---

    Fischer, J., Dyball, R., Fazey, I., Gross, C., Dovers, S., Ehrlich, P.R., Brulle, R.J., Christensen, C., and Borden, R.J. 2012. Human behavior and sustainability. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10:153-160.

    Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

    http://www.roscoedm.co.uk/sustainability.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Human_Sustainability_Confluence_Diagra...

    http://valmarassociates.com/index.php/services-solution-offerings/sustainable-business-practices/

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    Previously, the development and implementation of sustainability plans may have been held back by our lack of scientific knowledge...
    I'm surprised, and I'm even more surprised that the most important point isn't raised until the third theme; population.  Surely it hasn't escaped these researchers that "sustainable" isn't a term normally associated with dynamic or explosive growth.

    It would seem that the strongest point is that nothing can be sustainable if we continue to grow and exhaust whatever resources are available.  Certainly one can argue that if we consume less then we can support a larger population, but that sounds like a "race to the bottom".  We can certainly be less wasteful, but then again, that is only marginally offset if the population continues to grow.

    So, it seems like they're still tap-dancing around the central problem which is to tell people that if they don't get a handle on population voluntarily, then they're going be really bummed out when they hit the real physical/biological limit.  Generally, whenever "nature" makes a correction it isn't a very orderly process and it most definitely tends to be indiscriminate.

    I know many people don't believe in limits, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.  While we may quibble about where the precise limits are, we've already lost major opportunities for achieving sustainability [in most cases I don't think it's recoverable].  It's often discussed that if the standard of living is raised, then population will tend to curb itself, but it's largely a fantasy to believe that there are enough global resources to raise the standard of living for the entire world to a level where that would occur.  That's a missed opportunity that might have been a realistic solution 100 years ago.

    Anyway, I'm just rambling now, but it's a good article.  Thanks
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Population is third because we can't do anything about it, and because all indications are that it will level off around 9-9.5 billion anyway. If we still had a birth rate of about 6 like in the 60's then it would be pointless to talk about sustainability. However that isn't the case; whatever we say or do there will be around 9 billion people so we have to live with it. 
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually there's nothing like that at all.  That's all based on the assumption that fertility rates will continue to fall, not that they actually will.
    The relatively modest populations projected for 2050, with low, medium and high scenarios at 7.4 billion, 8.9 billion and 10.6 billion, respectively, and the modest peak populations for the low and medium scenarios of 7.5 billion and 9.2 billion are heavily dependent on continuing fertility falls across the developing world towards sub-replacement fertility over the next half century.

    The single clearest message to come from the projections is that the high scenario is untenable and that such a path of population growth must not be allowed. This is an extraordinary implication.  A total fertility ultimately settling at only 2.35 children per woman would yield a global population of 36 billion by 2300.
    http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf
    So, let's hope the estimates hold, because if they don't, then people are in for a rude awakening when someone has to interpret what "must not be allowed " means.  Also note the use of the word "untenable";  not "impossible" or even "unlikely".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Yes lets hope they hold, but there are good biological reasons to expect they will. Overcrowding equals less offspring across mammals/birds etc so I don't see why we should be different, that would be human bias now wouldn't it? Compare birth rate to population density and there certainly is a relation.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Oh well, I guess Kurzweil will have to put the singularity on hold for a bit longer.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Stellare
    It never stops to amaze me, how the question of population is more or less avoided. It is like the elephant in the room in many meeting I've attended addressing the issues of management of our planet.

    I understand that it is a delicate and politically difficult topic, but so are many other topics.

    Reproduction is so touchy! Trying to tame reproduction is also a major political strategy for both civil, religious and military powers. So maybe it is no wonder then....:-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Thor Russell
    Yes it can seem like an elephant, but how do you avoid prodding the elephant and having it go in the wrong direction? As far as I am aware the highest birth rate is in Africa, the lowest in Europe/developed world. It would be very difficult to do anything that doesn't look like white people telling Africans to have less children, and I expect that to backfire. Effective charity (there is more ineffective charity in my opinion) that addressed all aspects of a particular communities life may work (healthcare, educating women, etc). 

    Also I think people living in cities have less children so giving away tractors and automating farming hence leading to more urban population could be effective? Of course big agriculture has its own problems. If you know the effect of these policies on population then you don't need to explicitly make it a separate goal to still take them into account.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    It's an elephant in the room because most people/scientists/groups don't have the guts to address it for the problem it is.  Birth rate will never be brought under control by telling anyone anything directly.  There will always be people that think the rules don't apply to them, or for religious reasons will continue to bring forth litters of humans.

    The main point is that unless it is discussed, people can never be educated about it.  In addition we have to stop the practice of rewarding it. 

    However, in my view the problem will never be solved, because (1) it requires a level of economic equity that has never existed in the history of humanity and (2) the effective solutions are simply unpalatable to a civilized society.  Our technology is a great benefit to us and it is also the rope that will hang us, because we will expend all of our resources attempting to achieve an exemption from biological consequences.

    Natural selection is going to work against us for a solution, because those people that voluntarily choose to have less children will be less represented in future generations, while those that want large families will continue to foster those beliefs.  So, in the final analysis, the population will tend to shift to more people that believe in having more children.  There are no political nor economic solutions to the problem, because everything has already been framed within the context of trying to avoid the consequences of children suffering. 

    So, in the end, this will simply have to play out however it will, and we'll have to hope that when we hit the wall, it isn't so extreme as to risk extinction for the entire human race.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Stellare
    I remember a very enlightening exhibition at Cite des Sciences, at La Villette in Paris some decades ago. There it was explained very simply the different reproduction strategies going from giving birth to a lot of children to compensate for loss (children dying) to the 2.1 kid per woman that we can afford due to our MEDICAL knowledge + those who are in the transition.

    My understanding is that it is just as much a question about access to medical support as anything else. Then of course you have the catholics who insist that protection against both AIDS and unwanted children is a sin and that mess things up a bit. But all in all it makes sense to me that the question of medical support is key. In the end that also is politics I suppose, but if you look at the history of those different kinds of reproduction strategies it should evolve eventually. The question is then, will it evolve fast enough?

    I am not sure I am quite as pessimistic as you though, Adam. We might be able to influence the process...starting with seeing the elephant perhaps....:-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Hank
    It's touchy because reproduction will go from being voluntary, like birth control, to being mandatory.  And that means some elites are going to decide who in the herd gets culled.  That is not a better civilization.
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't see that happening, because any attempt to make something like that mandatory will tend to accelerate the breakdown of society.  There are too many people that would oppose such a position even if they didn't intend to have children themselves.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Stellare
    It worked for a while in China...
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, but culturally they're more prepared to accept that kind of authority.  Many other countries are not.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Stellare
    Agreed, it will only work in dictatorships.  There are a few of those in the world though...

    Seriously, I believe the swedish statistiscian Rosinge shows us the relationships between population, economy and health (and other stuff) and you'll find surprises of the distribution of those.

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Stellare
    It is not only birth control, it is also necessary with medical treatments. That is what made us transit from the former reproduction strategy (many kids, some will survive to take care of us when we get old) to the current (medicin take care of us - and in some countries ;-) social welfare - when we get old).
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth