A primer on sustainability

By Andree Gosselin O'Meara

The Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows, et al, created an “international sensation” when it was published in 1972.

The book discussed the future impact, based on computer modelling, of sustained and unchecked economic and population growth, thereby strengthening the environmentalism movement and informing the average person about the carrying capacity of the planet’s renewable and non-renewable resources.

In 1987, the Bruntland Commission offered a widely cited definition of sustainability: “… meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This definition was crafted with the spirit of making human development sustainable.

More than 10 years later, John Elkington imbued the definition with a distinctive corporate tone with his introduction of the “Triple Bottom Line” (TBL) concept and its three Ps: planet, people, and profit.

From that point on, Elkington’s TBL enabled sustainability to be talked about in business terms.

The World Summit in 2005 furthered the concept of sustainability by showing the need to reconcile requirements from the environment, society, and the economy. The concepts of the three Es were articulated: environment, equality, and economy.

Below is one of the best visual representations of the concept of sustainability as per today’s accepted definition.

One must note, however, that this Venn diagram-like representation has many drawbacks, the most glaring one being the potential perception of the terms’ relative equal weight.

As such, given that we have only one planet to draw our resources from, many argue that without “environment” we have no “human societies.” And without human societies we have no “economy.”

This diagram below, with its concentric circles, reflects the physical restrictions we are dealing with and is a closer representation of the reality. However, for discussion purposes, the three Es framework will be used within this blog when we are referring to sustainability.

Why the subject of sustainability won’t go away.

Two major issues are continually discussed: the issue of the “planet’s carrying capacity” and climate change. Increasing income disparity and equity are also entering non-stop discussions around sustainability. You can probably think of another half-dozen subjects pertaining to sustainability, and all would be relevant.

The carrying capacity refers to the ability of ecosystems and humans to survive on the planet’s renewable and non-renewable resources. As things stands, we have passed the capacity of many of our ecosystems.

Depending on your sources, it is estimated we are now using between 1.2 and 1.5 planets.

Population growth is an important factor that was hotly debated at the RIO+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. Related to carrying capacity is each individual's consumption, as defined by how much we buy, use, discard, and the energy consumed as a result.

Those calculations are very complex and require a fairly deep knowledge about ecosystems, resilience, innovation, mitigation strategies, adaptation capacity, and a host of other factors.

Discussions about climate change are reported almost daily in the media. The subject of climate change is extremely complex, and the debate about policies and strategies is polarised.

Among climatologists, 97% agree the planet is warming. See NASA’s video images of the Earth’s surface temperature from 1880 to 2012. Note that some areas are cooling, but overall the average surface temperature is increasing.

One of the largest contributors to global warming is the accumulated carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and the current flow of emissions of CO2. This is an unfair simplification of the causes of climate change, but you can read all about it here.

Scientists have studied the capacity of some ecosystems to adapt to warming so as to identify their probable limits of adaptation and the likelihood of extinction. This subject is contentious as the science is imperfect — read about it in this Scientific American article.

All of these issues have particular relevance to the news and media industry, and we will explore them in future posts.

About Andree Gosselin O'Meara

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