Only very recently on humankind’s historical timeline have we been able to see the disastrous impact our exponential growth can have on the planet we so dearly call home. This new epoch where humans directly affect Earth’s ecosystems has even been granted its own title: the Anthropocene. Since 1820, the world population has increased from roughly 1 billion people to nearly 7 billion today (de Vries 2013). The Industrial Revolution and rapid globalization caused this intense exponential growth. From around 1750, when we started burning up fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), CO2 and other “greenhouse” gasses have entered back into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change and adverse weather that threatens the survival of many organisms and human societies.
Up until George Marsh’s Earth Modified by Human Nature (revised in 1874), this destructiveness of human activity on Earth’s biosphere had not been documented (Kates 2012). About a century later, the concept of linking the environment with future development was born—aptly named “sustainable development.” The Brundtland-led World Commission on Environment and Development report Our Common Future, published in 1987, gave this new concept an official definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). What paradigm shift in science will guide nations’ scientists and leaders in their journey towards a sustainable future?
Sustainability science differs from all other fields of study. The reason for this is because it was created with the most ambitious of goals: solving Earth’s biggest problems and securing human well-being for future generations. This new place-based and problem driven science observes the dynamic interactions between nature and society, integrating ecological, economic, and sociocultural processes. The paradigm-shift status of this new way of thinking may be explained by its transdisciplinarity. What this means is that researchers from multiple scientific disciplines work together with non-academic participants and stakeholders—all sharing the common goal to develop use-inspired knowledge that benefits society. According to Robert Kates, the leading sustainability scientist and co-chair of Our Common Journey: A Transition toward Sustainability, there have been three major tasks for sustainability science: do fundamental research on use-directed problems, nurture the next generations of sustainability scientists, and put accumulated knowledge into action (Kates 2012). What types of interactions do researchers observe to distinguish where the problems lie, and what methodologies do they use? After discussing the approaches used by this problem-driven science, we will take a look at the following components individually: nature and ecosystem services, the creation and distribution of energy, and human well-being and behavior. Finally, to paint a picture showing how all of these principles can be applied to a real-world scenario, the Bullitt Center in Seattle will function as an all-encompassing example.
Sustainability scientists take a systems approach to analyze the complex interplay between humans and their environments. The complex adaptive systems (CAS) studied most frequently by these scientists are coupled human-environment systems (CHES) (Wu 2013). Working in partnership with systems thinking, models—mathematical representations of a part of reality based on data and inferences—can help to observe and replicate the world around us (de Vries 2013). Through data collection and collaboration between multiple disciplines, clever system models allow scientists to determine probabilities and risks of unsustainable events occurring in the future.
We can figure out the probability of certain (un)sustainable outcomes through the use of indicators. An indicator is a variable or an aggregate of variables whose values can give information about the trajectories of the system they are a part of (Wu, Wu 2012). So, sustainability indicators would provide information on the state, dynamics, and main drivers of coupled human-environment systems (Wu, Wu 2012). An example of such an indicator within a larger system would be adult literacy rate. While this indicator alone may provide us with some important knowledge about education, it is not sufficient for understanding growth within a country. For this reason, indices—aggregates of indicators—are often created to understand the bigger picture and to inform policymakers and the public (Wu, Wu 2012). The Human Development Index (HDI) is a perfect example of one of these indices. First proposed in the 1990’s, the HDI measures the geometric mean of a life expectancy index, an education index (the adult literacy rate indicator is within this), and standard living aspects of quality of life (de Vries 2013). Indices like HDI help policymakers in creating reports that show (un)sustainable growth within a country.
Besides the ability to pinpoint indicators and create indices, using systems science can bring numerous benefits to a sustainability scientist. Systems thinking—the science of making inferences about system behavior through the understanding of structure and processes—is used in a variety of situations and at extremely different scales (de Vries 2013). When using this approach, you view an interconnected set of elements in a system as a series of arranged closed-loops (feedback loops) that are causally related to one another and organized around some purpose (de Vries 2013). A positive feedback loop, or reinforcing loop, has dynamic growth in which the rate of change of a quantity is positively proportional to that quantity (de Vries 2013). An example of this would be a nuclear arms race between two countries: as one increases their firepower, the other is likely to do the same, which in turn will make the first country increase their weapons even more. A negative feedback loop, or stabilizing loop, shows the reverse: a growth in which the rate of change of a quantity is negatively proportional to that quantity (de Vries 2013). A small-scale example of this would be a thermostat in your house sending signals to the air-conditioning to turn on (stabilizing feedback), which would lower temperatures. These closed loops that make up a system are composed of stocks and flows. A stock is the content of reservoirs or compartments in which “stuff” is stored (in the example above, it would be all the air in your house) (de Vries 2013). A flow shows changes in the stock, and is measured through rates and fluxes (the time it takes to heat the air in your house) (de Vries 2013). So, what can sustainability scientists do with this kind of information?
We can use systems analysis to determine important components in a system, how the system can be optimized, and where a system’s vulnerabilities may lie. Through the use of computer programs like STELLA (Structural Thinking Experiential Learning Laboratory with Animation), we can use system dynamics to create models and solve complex problems that hinder sustainable development (de Vries 2013). One of the key aspects of systems crucial for sustainability is resilience—the ability of a system to preserve identity under external disturbances and to return to its original structure when the disturbances are over (de Vries 2013).
In the following sections, we will discuss the various components that researchers often observe and input into their models and simulations when they are using systems analyses. All of these subtopics within sustainability science are crucial for understanding if we are to create resilient systems proper for sustainable development.
Nature and ecosystem services
The concept of strong sustainability means that economic activity is part of the social domain, and both economic and social actions are constrained by the environment. With this type of sustainability, it is important to understand that man-made capital and natural capital cannot be substitutes. Herman Daly, an ecological economist, developed a strong sustainability framework that links Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs with different forms of capital (Wu 2013). This framework, aptly named “Daly’s Triangle,” holds the natural environment (natural capital) at the base of the triangle, with economy, technology, politics and ethics as the middle (built and social capital), and equity and human well-being at the top (ultimate ends). This shows that achieving our final goal of human well-being cannot be attained without simultaneously protecting our planet’s life-support system (Wu 2013). So, what part of Earth’s “natural capital” must we preserve and protect?
The 2005 Millenium Ecosystem Assessment report gave the name “ecosystem services” to describe the benefits and value people may obtain from ecosystems (de Vries 2013). The MEA classifies ecosystem services into four types: provisioning services (food, water, etc.), regulating services (purification of air, flood regulation, etc.), cultural services (aesthetics, spiritual, etc.), and supporting services (nutrient cycling, soil formation, etc.) (Wu 2013). Jianguo Wu (2013), in his paper on landscape sustainability science, says, “natural capital, ecosystem services, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are conceptually linked, and this relationship can be operationalized in practice.” According to Wu, “landscape sustainability science is a place-based, use-inspired science of understanding and improving the dynamic relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being with spatially explicit methods” (Wu 2013). Through systems analyses and modeling, scientists like Wu can determine the capacity of a specific landscape to provide long-term regional services and resources (food, water, etc.) for maintaining human well-being. Designing resilient landscape configurations that sustainably distribute ecosystem services to a region can be a difficult task—especially when Earth’s resources are dwindling at such a high rate.
Ground water, which is stored underground by natural rains, natural river supplies, and man-made induced resupply, was once an abundant ecosystem service. However, human industrial and agricultural use effects the natural stocks and flows of this resource, and thus it is now considered nonrenewable—it is being depleted faster than it recharges (de Vries 2013).
Fish, another provisioning service Earth provides, is one of the most difficult common pool resources to manage—due to its accessibility across every ocean and complex migration patterns. As of 2009, 57% of oceanic fish stocks evaluated by the FAO were considered “fully exploited,” while 30% took up the “overexploited” category (de Vries 2013).
Forests, one of the most obvious forms of natural capital, provide services such as soil protection, water filtering, climate regulation, and nutrient cycling (de Vries 2013). While deforestation has slowed down significantly in the past decade, better forestry management and cooperation between nations can still be improved in order to secure biodiversity, the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the forest for survival, and numerous other crucial ecosystem services.
In sum, according to Daly, these three rules from a systems dynamics perspective should be applied for the sustainable management of resources and sustainability overall: 1) the rate of use of renewable resources do not exceed their rates of regeneration, 2) the rate of use of nonrenewable resources do not exceed the rate at which sustainable renewable substitutes are developed, 3) the rates of pollution emission do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.
Creation and distribution of energy
At the beginning of this paper, it was briefly noted how much damage fossil fuels have done to our atmosphere through our careless misuse of them for energy. Why are fuel sources such as coal and oil considered unsustainable? These fossil fuels are geological formations underground that have stored up solar energy from the past, and can now be dug up through mining or the use of oil wells (de Vries 2013). Along with these sources of energy being finite (meaning they don’t renew themselves at a sufficient rate for human extraction), they also pollute our atmosphere with greenhouse gases—mainly CO2—that have contributed to global warming, smog, loss of biodiversity, and numerous other harmful consequences. Since the basis of sustainability science is to secure human well-being into the future, we must advocate the nonuse of fossil fuels and work together to find sources of energy that are available, affordable, reliable, and sustainable (de Vries 2013).
Stanford authors Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi (2009) believe that wind, water, and solar resources could power 100% of the world’s energy. These sources of power were chosen for their ability to create energy with little impact on global warming, pollution, water supply, wildlife biodiversity, and land use—all of which are largely affected by fossil fuels (Jacobson, Delucchi 2009). While their WWS (wind, water, sunlight) plan may seem grandiose, and nearly impossible to accomplish by the 2030 mark, it does include crucial elements for a sustainable energy agenda. For one, Jacobson and Delucchi make it clear that only technologies with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions over their entire life cycle should be used—this means during construction, operation, and decommission (Jacobson, Delucchi 2009). Another key point the authors bring up is the materials hurdle that must be crossed in order to construct massive solar power plants and millions of wind turbines. Rare-earth metals such as neodymium are used in turbine gearboxes, amorphous silicon and copper are used in photovoltaic cells that power solar panels, and lithium is used for lithium batteries that power electric vehicles (Jacobson, Delucchi 2009). If we are going to set goals for a clean energy transition, we must use sustainability science to construct resilient systems that account for not only the construction of these power plants, but also the prospecting and recovery of minerals required as well.
At the same time new technologies such as those described above are being integrated into society, energy security around the world should be improved. Because energy is the force that delivers ecosystem services, it is vital for eradicating poverty, improving human livelihood, and raising living standards (Vera, Langlois 2007). An astonishing 1.7 billion people on this planet still have no access to electricity (Vera, Langlois 2007). Sustainability science can help these people across the globe that lack energy services by developing sets of indicators that measure a country’s energy progress and help to highlight vulnerabilities in its energy distribution system (Vera, Langlois 2007).
Human behavior and well-being
Understanding human behavior may be the most important key for sustainable development to succeed, yet at the same time the most complex due to difficulties in quantifying it. Current traditional market and state institutions reinforce consumerist behaviors that result in the ongoing degradation of our planet and its ecosystem services (Fischer, Dyball, Fazey, Gross, Dovers, Ehrlich, Brulle, Christensen & Borden 2012). Fischer et al. (2012) propose five themes that need to be addressed to help transition us into a world where humans behave sustainably: “1) reforming formal institutions at the level of nation states; (2) strengthening the institutions of civil society and fostering citizen engagement; (3) curbing consumption and reducing population growth; (4) routinely considering equity and social justice in decision making; and (5) reflecting on deeply held value and belief systems, which fundamentally shape behavior.” This last point—altering deeply held value and belief systems—will prove to be most difficult. How does one expect a country, whose entire culture envisions well-being as having riches and fame, to shift its value system towards one that promotes limited consumption and energy use? Certainly, this will not happen overnight.
Sustainability science can learn from non-Western worldviews that promote sustainability, such as the Thai concept of a “sufficiency economy,” and mold them into the Western lifestyle through education, civil society institutions, and grass-roots community groups (Fischer et al. 2012). While basic human well-being integrates many dimensions of quality of life (health, wealth, happiness, clean water and food), the western world’s concept of well-being needs to transition into one that’s less energy demanding, less consumerist, and more collectively immaterial if we are going to live in a sustainable world.
An all-encompassing example
The Bullitt Center in Seattle is a “living building” that showcases the most advanced level of sustainability in the built environment. This structure was created with a sustainability science approach; ecosystem services, renewable energies, and human behavior tools were incorporated into its design.
Water, a resource that most commercial buildings seem to waste, is gathered here from rainwater and then disinfected inside a giant vat (Nelson 2013). It is then piped throughout the Bullitt Center for human use. What about giving back to the ecosystem, and replenishing instead of harming it? Every toilet in this building is connected to giant composters in the basement that are designed to extract waste—which will eventually be turned into mulch and used as fertilizer!
This office building receives its energy from photovoltaic solar panels attached to the roof, which can produce around 230,000 kilowatt-hours a year, and supply its needs for heating, cooling, and electricity (Nelson 2013).
Tenants who work in the Bullitt Center have to abide by strict annual usage budgets and must pay for any overages that might occur. However, because of the highly sophisticated circuits and outlet metering, a user would be able to catch his or her large amounts of energy use right down to a specific outlet (Nelson 2013). Tenants in this building could also be subject to social comparison between other tenants and their amounts of energy use per year—an interesting energy-saving method that progressive utility companies are using to harness the drive people have to conform to the social norms of their peers (Fischer et al. 2012).
In sum, the Bullitt Center, one of the few net-zero energy office buildings in the world, gives a near-perfect understanding of how sustainability science should be applied.
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