Response Paper: What is sustainability and why is it so difficult to achieve?

Response Paper: What is sustainability and why is it so difficult to achieve?

Cover Photo: Generic Sustainable City (Source:

I am currently studying to get a Master's degree and I am taking a course on sustainability at the moment. Every week the professor assigns us readings to do and gives us a question to write a personal response about after the readings. I will be posting these after they are handed back to us to make sure everybody in the class has handed them in. This week, we read

At its core, sustainability is a buzzword lacking a rigorous definition. This is very unfortunate given the tremendously important concepts that the word represents. New Visions for Addressing Sustainability has a reasonably broad and anthropocentric definition: "For human populations, sustainability means transforming our ways of living to maximize the chances that environmental and social conditions will indefinitely support human security, well-being, and health." McMichael et al. provide a good springboard for further discussion that dives into more specific fields. However, a fundamental issue with the current scientific community is that it actively encourages specialization into very separate fields. Proper development of sustainable systems will require interdisciplinary work that is only starting to fit into the current academic systems.

Examining further what a sustainable system would look like, I find the urban sustainability efforts most compelling. In the NAS Paths to Sustainability, the author lays out Michael Freedberg's six principles that were refreshingly detailed relative to much sustainababble literature out in the world. As a transportation engineer from Scandinavia, I naturally believe in a multi-agency partnership that tries to shift modal choice towards public transit. One issue with this approach is that building new infrastructure is very energy-intensive. Systems like London's congestion charge successfully avoid this problem by using license plate readers on cameras (with blocky, high-contrast license plates that are easy for computers to read) to identify anyone traveling in downtown London using a personal vehicle. These people then have until the end of the day to go online or use their cellphone to pay the charge of £11.50 per day ($17.45 as of October 5th, 2015). Often times public transit systems are not running at full capacity, and policies like congestion charging encourage these modal shifts.

Furthermore, the majority of Freedberg's policies have a strong social justice component. Public transport, affordable housing, and economic competitiveness must extend to a diverse set of demographic groups. It is enormously important that disadvantaged populations can move past current difficulties to lead sustainable lives. In Is Sustainability Still Possible? Robert Engelman notes how it is ethically problematic for rich environmentalists to say people living in abject poverty should remain there so the world might become a better place.

When I studied in Cape Town, South Africa, the program I was on focused on Globalization, the Environment, and Society in the (mostly) South African context. Much of the land the government had set aside for conservation had originally belonged to local tribes who very reasonably want to regain possession of their land. Due to Apartheid, the old National Party had forced many of these tribes into horrifying living conditions after taking their lands.

In the program, we examined the plight of the current-day San tribe who had some land returned to them from the national park service. There were, and still are, large concerns that the San will not use the land sustainably by cultivating livestock that will overburden an area with less than 300 mm of rain per year. Beyond that, there is a large aquifer deep below the ground that does not replenish itself and already several developers have purchased land in the region just to the south of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (although there has not been any large scale development on San property yet). These developers are creating resorts with pools and air conditioning in the middle of the desert while depleting the aquifer using boreholes. While I can ramble forever about this, the crux of this issue is that new government support will be necessary to ensure that this wronged population group can develop the land sustainably, provide local revenue, and retain autonomy.

Through these examples, the reasons it is so difficult to achieve sustainable systems become clearer. Most people consider personal autonomy a fundamental right (up to a certain point). On one level, it is up to national governments to create and enforce laws that prevent environmentally damaging behavior by individuals and corporations. This requires partnerships with scientists so that policy makers know what laws to enact, which is already difficult when the science community does not trust governments. On another level, in order to carry out successful sustainable developments there has to be coordination between engineers, scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, politicians, and everyday citizens. Managing communication with all of these people will require more holistic educational practices where working between disciplines is encouraged. If all these fields come together to work towards a sustainable present, the word might finally gain an accepted universal meaning that can properly pay tribute to the important concepts it represents.