Defining sustainability

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This forum supports discussion on topics of interest to the Environmental and Energy Special interest Groups of the System Dynamics Society. Everyone who is logged in may post to this forum.
Jack Harich
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Defining sustainability

Post by Jack Harich » Tue Feb 17, 2009 8:38 pm

Thanks Bob, for creating this subject area.

I recently submitted a paper dealing with solving the environmental sustainability problem. Feedback was very helpful and greatly appreciated. However, the reviewers commented that:
It would be helpful to consider sustainability in a wider perspective. Sustainability is neither equivalent with the work done in the wider context of Limits to Growth, nor is it equivalent with environmentalism. … A broader review of the literature on sustainability would also reveal that sustainability is a normative concept open to debate among various stakeholders, and not a purely scientific or environmental approach.
By “wider perspective” do they mean I should broaden my use of the word “sustainability” to include economic and social sustainability? Or do they mean something else? What does “normative” mean to the reviewers? Do they feel that sustainability cannot be defined because it’s a normative concept? Well, I don’t know.

I feel that if you are working on a large, difficult problem and cannot define it precisely, then problem solving effort will be much less efficient, due to an ambiguous goal. The larger and more difficult the problem, the more precise the definition of the problem must be. This is a standard business, military and scientific project principle. Why shouldn’t it apply to social problems?

Guessing quite a bit, here’s an addition I’ve made to the paper:
There is much confusion about the term sustainability, which diminishes problem solving efficiency. As just one example, Pezzey, 1989, cites over fifty definitions of “sustainability.”

We define sustainability as the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. For more practical detail, the behavior you wish to continue indefinitely must be defined. For example, environmental sustainability is the ability of the environment to support a defined level of environmental quality and natural resource extraction rates indefinitely. Then there is economic sustainability, which is the ability of an economy to create a defined level of economic production indefinitely. And we must not forget social sustainability, which is the ability of a social system to function at a defined level of social well being indefinitely.

Disagreement on defining the desired levels and required types of sustainability will continue. This frequently involves endless discussion about values, cultural differences, feasibility, fairness, etc. But such normative debate is best treated as part of the problem to solve, which the above definition accommodates.

Compared to say, the useful but contentious 1987 Brundtland definition of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” this clear and more implementable definition allows us to state a second definition of sustainability, one close to the popular sense of the word: environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Of these three types the highest priority must be environmental sustainability, because if our species destroys its ecological niche then economic and social sustainability at reasonable levels becomes impossible. Hence this paper focuses on environmental sustainability. For brevity, and more importantly as a way to emphasize this priority and return to the earlier and proper meaning of the term, we frequently just say “sustainability.” (For a similar, delightful, and more thorough argument see Daly, 1996, p. 1 to 9.)

Daly, Hermann. 1996. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Beacon Press.

Pezzy, J. 1989. Definitions of Sustainability. CEED Discussion Paper No. 9. The UK Center for Economic and Environmental Development, Cambridge.
I’m inexperienced in writing journal articles, so I’ve not developed the fine sense of judgment that many on this list/forum have. Do you think this definition adequately addresses the concerns of the reviewers?

More importantly, is it a step forward in defining sustainability, or are there perhaps some good definitions sitting out there I’m not aware of? No need to reinvent the wheel.

Thanks,

Jack

Ralf Lippold
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Ralf Lippold » Thu Feb 19, 2009 8:50 am

Hi Jack,

Sustainability could be really extended much further as most people would see it.

For me the breakthrough came when I was travelling back from a job interview in early 2008 and got the idea that lean thinking (which Toyota is building on for decades) is all about sustainability.

Lean thinking is about saving resources in processes (in order to deliver more value to its stakeholders, such us customers, workers, suppliers, etc.).

Up to now there is no connection of lean into the sustainability world and to be honest I feel a bit as a loner :?

Curious to learn more about your work.

Best regards

Ralf

Eric Stiens
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Eric Stiens » Thu Feb 19, 2009 7:38 pm

Sure lean thinking could be a technology that contributes to sustainability, so could cradle to cradle manufacturing, permaculture, local currencies, etc etc etc - but I'm not sure they need to be incorporated into the definition.

I think the definition offered is clear and precise and not sure what is wrong with it -- (I would ask instead, what definitions of sustainability would be in conflict with your proposed definition?) It's a bit of a tautology but something sustainable is that which can be sustained and that to me implies a near-infinite time horizon (ie; indefinitely). -- now it may well be that there are still arguments over whether certain things can be sustained indefinitely, or to what extent certain technologies are sustainable at all, or to what extent the sustainability capacity of our ecosystem can be expanded, but those aren't normative arguments, they are practical arguments. Likewise other debates around sustainability (example: Could any form of nuclear energy be sustainable given that we know that nuclear waste needs to managed in a certain way that requires both highly specialized technical knowledge, a certain infrastructural capacity and a stable political/cultural situation for an extraordinarily long time horizon - longer in fact than we could ever reasonably say "we know that this waste can be managed safely 5,000 years into the future" I would say that because the dangers of nuclear waste last longer than any reasonable modeling time horizon, that nuclear power is de facto not sustainable; others would disagree )

The problem with this definition, is that there is always a degree of uncertainty in it, ie; you can only truly know if something was in fact sustainable from an infinite distance in the future. We can say with certainty that the Mayan socioeconomic/political system was not sustainable, because it crashed. However, with other cultures we only say - it appears that this socioeconomic/political system could have been continued indefinitely. We can say that using an energy source with a negative net energy is definitely not sustainable, but we can't say that using a renewable source of energy with net positive energy is in fact 100% sustainable because we don't know what all the unintended consequences may be - we can only say based on our incomplete knowledge of this system, this appears to be sustainable.

(This of course touches on your limitations of modeling and implies that any human-designed sustainable system will include a continual feedback loop that is a "check for sustainability")

The only concern I would have would be placing environmental sustainability as the prime concern -- one could envision, for example, socioeconomic systems that may be environmentally sustainable, but not socially or economically sustainable, therefore they would not be able to be sustained. I would agree that if something isn't ecologically sustainable, it doesn't matter how viable it is otherwise, but likewise with other forms of sustainability.

Jack Harich
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Jack Harich » Sat Feb 21, 2009 10:57 pm

Ralf,

By “Sustainability could be really extended much further as most people would see it” do you mean extending the definition of the problem, or visualization of the simplified, idealized solution? Or something else?

Lean thinking is another approach to optimizing efficiency.

Perhaps you use “efficiency” differently from the mainstream, but Thomas Princen argues in The Logic of Sufficiency that for the world to solve the sustainability problem, it needs to move from efficiency to sufficiency.

More about my work? It’s too wet behind the ears to be of much value yet. But with a little help from Steve W. and two referees, that may be about to change.

Jack
Thwink.org

Jack Harich
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Jack Harich » Sat Feb 21, 2009 11:04 pm

Eric,

A beautiful question:
…what definitions of sustainability would be in conflict with your proposed definition?
See this glossary entry for my thoughts on this.


The problem with this definition, is that there is always a degree of uncertainty in it, ie; you can only truly know if something was in fact sustainable from an infinite distance in the future.
That’s a sharp observation. But this logic could be applied to any problem solution: you don’t know if the problem will stay solved until the time horizon for the solution has passed.

For example, World War One was also named “The War to End All Wars.”

Still, you raise a good point. It must be strongly addressed. In the System Improvement Process, the process I use, difficult social problems are decomposed into three subproblems. The third one is avoiding excessive model drift. Here “model” is used in the sense Thomas Kuhn uses it in the Kuhn Cycle. It’s your shared mental model of how a field looks at something. In this case it’s how the world looks at the solution to the sustainability problem.

The strategy is that if you can keep model drift low, the solution will evolve as the system/problem does. This will keep the problem solved. This is also known as self-organized behavior. It is this strategy, rather than command and control approaches like regulation, that will ultimately be necessary.


The only concern I would have would be placing environmental sustainability as the prime concern -- one could envision, for example, socioeconomic systems that may be environmentally sustainable, but not socially or economically sustainable, therefore they would not be able to be sustained. I would agree that if something isn't ecologically sustainable, it doesn't matter how viable it is otherwise, but likewise with other forms of sustainability.
This comes up a lot. Simplifying total sustainability to the “three pillars” of environmental, economic and social, which should have the highest priority?

My argument is that when you examine all three and look for the factor that caused the largest population collapses in the past, it was almost always environmental. It typically causes 80% population collapse or more. (This estimate is from memory, based on reading Diamond’s Collapse.) By comparison, economic bubbles and depressions cause hardship, but they don’t cause 80% mass deaths. Looking at the social pillar, yes, wars have caused huge deaths. But as a percent of the population of the countries involved, the percent is low.

What’s interesting is the largest percent population drop that consistently occurs, besides that due to environmental degradation, is disease. Look what the black plague did in the middle ages in Europe: an estimated 30% to 60% population loss. Disease is not typically considered in the three pillars of sustainability, which says something about the comprehensiveness of the that definition of sustainability.

Thanks for your thoughts,

Jack

William Braun
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by William Braun » Tue Feb 24, 2009 10:35 am

Jack Harich wrote:Thanks Bob, for creating this subject area.

snip other stuff

I’m inexperienced in writing journal articles, so I’ve not developed the fine sense of judgment that many on this list/forum have. Do you think this definition adequately addresses the concerns of the reviewers?

More importantly, is it a step forward in defining sustainability, or are there perhaps some good definitions sitting out there I’m not aware of? No need to reinvent the wheel.

Thanks,

Jack
Regardless of the reference point (natural resources, economics, etc.) sustainability is the state in which the resources consumed are less than or equal to the natural replenishment rate of the resources. The term "natural" is admittedly broad and vague. Nevertheless, when consumption is greater than replenishment, it would be hard to think of that as sustainable.

Geoff McDonnell
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Geoff McDonnell » Tue Feb 24, 2009 11:25 pm

This week's PNAS (Feb 24 2008 has a cover article related to this problem
Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/short/106/8/2483?rss=1

Eric Stiens
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Eric Stiens » Wed Feb 25, 2009 3:26 pm

Disease in some ways is a good proxy for all three areas of sustainability because it has environmental components, social components, and economic components. Many diseases could be completely controlled by environmental factors alone, but socioeconomic disparities are often the mechanism that determines who is affected by the environmental mechanisms (access to clean water, exposure to toxics, access to sanitation, etc)

Jack Harich
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Jack Harich » Wed Feb 25, 2009 4:35 pm

Bill,

Thanks for the succinct reply. But I wonder if your “sustainability is the state in which the resources consumed are less than or equal to the natural replenishment rate of the resources” is widely applicable. You may be considering only renewable and non-renewable environmental resources.

How, for example, would your definition handle economic sustainability, where a nation might define its goal as a certain level of GDP and percent growth? GDP is not a resource. It’s an index of throughput.

How would it handle social sustainability, where one component could be keeping crime down to a certain level? Crime is not a resource. It’s a measure of social well being.

How would it handle environmental pollution? A resource is not a sink. Sinks, such as the atmosphere and the ocean, are not consumed. They are polluted and self-cleaned, which is not the same as replenishment, since the pollutant is removed rather than added.

This is but a sample of the difficulties in defining sustainability.

Thanks,

Jack

Jack Harich
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Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Jack Harich » Wed Feb 25, 2009 4:41 pm

Geoff,

Thanks for the link. This looks interesting. It’s very related to my work.

However, this brings up a bit of a problem I’ve been having. Since I’m not a member of an academic or research related institution, I don’t have a literature account. Every time I encounter yet another “please pay $xx to read this journal article” I have to say no, and instead use other sources such as books, free or reprinted online articles, or the SD Review, which is the only journal I have an account to. Since I skim 10 to 30 articles a day when researching to find just one worthwhile and relevant article, you can see why I have the policy of saying no.

I can go to a nearby university library and use their account, but they are 6 miles away and I must park about a mile away off campus. Once inside, I must wait for the line of people waiting for the terminal to become empty. This takes hours, so I’ve only done it once. But it was good exercise. :-)

So I thought it would be an appropriate time to ask the members of this forum, how do independent researchers go about getting a literature account? I’d be glad to pay hundreds of dollars a year for one or to affiliate with an institution. I tried contacting some online accounts directly, but they said I had to be a member of an institution. They do not deal with individuals.

I expect there are others in the same situation.

Some of my contacts have offered to send me the articles I need using their account. But I believe this violates their account agreement. Plus I prefer not to burden my friends with 10 to 30 requests a day, which would also greatly slow down my method of operation.

But there’s always a way forward.

Thanks again for the link, Geoff. At least I can wistfully reread the abstract and imagine what the article says. ;-)

Jack

Update Feb 26 - I've emailed my alma mater, Georgia Tech, to see if alumni can somehow get a literature account through Georgia Tech.

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