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19.4.2: Sustainability and the Future

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    Ecological Footprint

    The ecological footprint (EF), developed by Canadian ecologist and planner William Rees, is basically an accounting tool that uses land as the unit of measurement to assess per capita consumption, production, and discharge needs. It starts from the assumption that every category of energy and material consumption and waste discharge requires the productive or absorptive capacity of a finite area of land or water. If we (add up) all the land requirements for all categories of consumption and waste discharge by a defined population, the total area represents the Ecological Footprint of that population on Earth whether or not this area coincides with the population’s home region.

    Land is used as the unit of measurement for the simple reason that, according to Rees, “Land area not only captures planet Earth’s finiteness, it can also be seen as a proxy for numerous essential life support functions from gas exchange to nutrient recycling … land supports photosynthesis, the energy conduit for the web of life. Photosynthesis sustains all important food chains and maintains the structural integrity of ecosystems.”

    What does the ecological footprint tell us? Ecological footprint analysis can tell us in a vivid, ready-to-grasp manner how much of the Earth’s environmental functions are needed to support human activities. It also makes visible the extent to which consumer lifestyles and behaviors are ecologically sustainable calculated that the ecological footprint of the average American is – conservatively – 5.1 hectares per capita of productive land. With roughly 7.4 billion hectares of the planet’s total surface area of 51 billion hectares available for human consumption, if the current global population were to adopt American consumer lifestyles we would need two additional planets to produce the resources, absorb the wastes, and provide general life-support functions.


    Common Cause and Sustainability

    Common cause: Brings about change in all people/interest groups/world leaders because of common goals. Below are a list of sustainability goals across the sustainability paradigm. Most, if not all, are common cause goals for the now, and into the future.


    • No poverty
    • Zero hunger
    • Good health
    • Quality education
    • Gender equality
    • Peace, justice, and strong institutions
    • Clean water and sanitation
    • Reduced inequalities


    • Terrestrial life/habitats conservation and restoration
    • Oceanic life/habitats conservation and restoration
    • Climate action
    • Reduced waste/pollution


    • Affordable and clean energy
    • Decent work and economic growth
    • Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
    • Responsible consumption and production
    • Sustainable cities and communities
    • Partnerships locally and globally


    Sustainable Living

    Sustainable living describes a lifestyle that attempts to reduce/eliminate an individuals (or societies) use of resources so as to be as close as possible to "net zero living". As such, an individual (or society) focuses on reducing their footprint (ecologically, carbon, socially, etc) through their choices/methods of:

    • Use of resources (energy/diet/transportation/water/etc)
    • Support of people/companies (voting/economic/social/etc)
    • Practices of reducing, reusing, and recycling
    • Consciousness of priority and focus for local concerns/needs versus global concerns/needs
    • Sharing knowledge with their community (all ages)


    Goals for sustainability based priority, scale, focus on timelines, and approach

    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Considerations for sustainable living goals. Image by Sustainability Week Switzerland in Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA)

    The thought of getting started with sustainable living can be overwhelming! However, it is important to note that although we can acknowledge all the things that need to be accomplished, that that entire burden does not lie with just one individuals control (see figure below). It takes a multi-layerd approach to appropriately take action at the individual, societal, and political levels (see figure above).

    Venn diagram illustraing the focus point for what one cares about versus what one can control

    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): Focus for individual sustainability lifestyle goals. Image by Rachel Schleiger (CC-BY-NC)


    The Bionic World

    This book will conclude by stating a huge myth held by most of today's society, the myth of the Bionic World. It is the belief that science and technology will solve the pressing issues of human’s impact on this earth. If society follows this logic, we have no tough choices to make about how we view and treat our surroundings, and decisions can be put off until the economic markets demand or justify a solution. Society can hope to be right…. However, until supporting evidence emerges that humanity can solve all their own problems with the ever shrinking timeline to do so, then we need to start making tough choices to ensure an equitable and sustainable future.

    Robot arm holding up the earth

    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): Robot arm holding up the Earth. Image by Pixabay (Public Domain)


    Video \(\PageIndex{a}\): Perspectives: Michael Green discusses sustainability goals and what we can do moving forward (Videos from 2015 and 2018)



    Modified by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger from Environment and Sustainability from Environmental Biology by Matthew R. Fisher (licensed under CC-BY) and The Myths of Restoration Ecology by Robert H. Hilderbrand, Adam C. Watts and April M. Randle 2005 (CC-BY-NC)

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    This page titled 19.4.2: Sustainability and the Future is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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