What Is Sustainability

The current accepted working definition of sustanability is that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (1987 “Our Common Future,” United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development). While at least official, this is a vauge principle and the commission did not provide a means to weigh the importance of social, economic, and environmental aspects.

A laughable definition, and one taken seriously by the authors of The Costco Connection: “in its simplest interpretation, a sustainable program is one that ensures an adequate ongoing supply of a product.” Then they have a case study of vanilla bean farmers in Uganda that somehow partner with Costco to get loans and establish an infrastucture to produce product in mass to sell in the US. “It’s a system where everybody wins. That’s sustainability.” Ha! More like plain old vanilla colonialism.

I contend a sustainable process is one that uses natural resources at a rate lower than the rate they are produced. The farming happening in Uganda before colonialism was likely more sustainable than what is happening now (burning the natural resource of fossil fuels faster than some organic mass deep in the Earth is becoming oil for example) – not to mention emissions. By my contention a process is sustainable when it’s emission rate is lower than the rate said emissions are consumed by the environement. I believe everyone from city folk to country folk agree on the basic premis of using what you have or living within your means – and that applies to Spaceship Earth. We need to get away from party politics. Although humans are contributing to global warming, requiring corporations to participate in Cap and Trade costs them too dearly for the marginal effect to that human contribution. I hate to see the government require more efficeint vehicles – no consumer likes to buy more gas for the money so it seems the market would drive this on its own, but I digress.

Of course there is no cheap or easy way to become a sustainable society. Currently I am trying to determine the least sustainable practices and contribute to efforts that address them. To that end, my primary question is, “what natural resources are being consumed in excess?” while secondarily, “what processes emit greenhouse gasses?” To the first I suspect petroleum and coal. These can be burned with marginal greenhouse gasses (as they are here in the US), but there are many alternative solutions – petroleum products can be replaced by (in order of decreasing sustainability) algae, biomass, vegetable oil, corn, and natural gas; while electricity can be generated from (in order of decreasing sustainability) geothermal, wind, PV solar, and nuclear. It seems the more sustainable solutions are the lest developed.


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