Sustainability Principles and Practice
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Sustainability Principles and Practice

Margaret Robertson

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eBook - ePub

Sustainability Principles and Practice

Margaret Robertson

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About This Book

Sustainability Principles and Practice gives an accessible and comprehensive overview of the interdisciplinary field of sustainability. The focus is on furnishing solutions and equipping students with both conceptual understanding and technical skills. Each chapter explores one aspect of the field, first introducing concepts and presenting issues, then supplying tools for working toward solutions. Elements of sustainability are examined piece by piece, and coverage ranges over ecosystems, social equity, environmental justice, food, energy, product life cycles, cities, and more. Techniques for management and measurement as well as case studies from around the world are provided.

The 3 rd edition includes greater coverage of resilience and systems thinking, an update on the Anthropocene as a formal geological epoch, the latest research from the IPCC, and a greater focus on diversity and social equity, together with new details such as sustainable consumption, textiles recycling, microplastics, and net-zero concepts. The coverage in this edition has been expanded to include issues, solutions, and new case studies from around the world, including Europe, Asia, and the Global South.

Chapters include further reading and discussion questions. The book is supported by a companion website with online links, annotated bibliography, glossary, white papers, and additional case studies, together with projects, research problems, and group activities, all of which focus on real-world problem-solving of sustainability issues.

This textbook is designed to be used by undergraduate college and university students in sustainability degree programs and other programs in which sustainability is taught.

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Part 1

1What is sustainability?

We live in a vast, three-dimensional, interconnected web of energy flows and life forms. Years ago our world appeared to be the size of whatever culture we lived within and felt as if it were stable and unchangeable. Our world is now understood to be planetary in scale, to be changing very fast, and to be situated either at the threshold of a planetary disaster of unprecedented magnitude or at the beginning of a sustainable new era. Whatever the outcome, the new state of the world will not be like it is today.
In this world of planet-scale crises and opportunities, sustainability is a topic of increasing focus. Many people are familiar with some of the strategies employed in sustainability efforts: solar panels, recycling, or harvesting rainwater, for example. These are important positive steps. They and many others are discussed in more detail later in the book, but by themselves they cannot make the current conditions sustainable. So, what does it mean to be sustainable?

Defining sustainability

Sustainability means enduring into the long-term future; it refers to systems and processes that are able to operate and persist on their own over long periods of time. The adjective “sustainable” means “able to continue without interruption” or “able to endure without failing.”1 The word “sustainability” comes from the Latin verb sustinēre, “to maintain, sustain, support, endure,” made from the roots sub, “up from below,” and tenēre, “to hold.” The German equivalent, Nachhaltigkeit, first appeared in the 1713 forestry book Sylvicultura Oeconomica written by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a mining administrator in a region whose mining and metallurgy industry depended upon timber and who realized that deforestation could cause the local economy to collapse. Carlowitz described how through sustainable management of this renewable resource, forests could supply timber indefinitely.
We are part of linked systems of humans and nature, so the study of sustainability goes beyond environmentalism. A key attribute of the field is a recognition of three interrelated dimensions: ecological, economic, and social. The planet faces many problems that are connected, including poverty, impaired health, overpopulation, resource depletion, food and water scarcity, political instability, and the destruction of the life support systems on which we all depend. Scholars debate about whether environmental destruction causes poverty, or whether poverty causes environmental destruction out of sheer desperation, but it is agreed that they go together (Caradonna 2014, 224). We cannot fix one problem in isolation because they are all connected.
The three dimensions of ecological sustainability, economic opportunity, and social inclusion are captured in the phrase sustainable development. The term was introduced in World Conservation Strategy, a 1980 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the first international document to use the term (ibid. 141). It was made popular in the 1987 report Our Common Future, produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) and commonly known as the Brundtland report, which highlights the connection between environment, economics, and equity. Gro Brundtland wrote that “the environment is where we all live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable” (WCED 1987, 7). In the Brundtland report, “sustainable development” is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (ibid. 43). Sustainable development recognizes the rights of all people, including future generations, to grow and flourish.
These three dimensions—environment, economics, and equity—are sometimes called the “triple bottom line” (TBL), a term introduced in 1997 by corporate responsibility expert John Elkington (Elkington 1998, 70). They are sometimes referred to as the “three Es” and are also known as the three pillars of sustainability or “planet, people, and prosperity” (United Nations 2015b, 3).
Sustainability science is a field of study devoted to tackling the challenges of sustainable development in the transition toward sustainability. This field is interdisciplinary, “defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs” (Kates 2010, 26). Its work integrates research on stabilizing the human population, reducing hunger and poverty, sustaining the life support systems on which we all depend, and the interactions among these systems. Sustainability science focuses on understanding the dynamics of these coupled ecological and social systems (Vries 2013, 5).

Systems thinking

The study of sustainability is the study of systems. A system is a coherently organized set of interconnected elements that constitute a whole (Meadows 2008, 188), where the identity of the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. The properties of the whole cannot be predicted by examining the parts; they are emergent properties, arising from the relationships and interactions of the parts. Systems are nested within other systems. A cell, an organ, and a human body are all systems, as are an ecosystem, an ocean, and an economy. The Earth itself is a system, made of myriad other nested and interconnected systems; it is the focus of a field of study known as Earth system science.
The field known as systems science became part of the public conversation in 1972 with the publication of the groundbreaking Limits to Growth, the result of a study by MIT systems scientists Donella and Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers commissioned by a think tank called The Club of Rome. The report included the first modern use of the word “sustainable” (Caradonna 2014, 138). Using cutting edge computer models, the researchers analyzed in detail how economic growth, consumption, and population growth would cause humans to exceed the limits of Earth’s carrying capacity and lead to a condition of overshoot.
Carrying capacity is the maximum number of individuals a given environment can support indefinitely. Its inverse is the ecological footprint, the demand placed on nature for resources consumed and wastes absorbed, expressed as land area. Earth is currently operating at 140 percent of its capacity (Ewing et al. 2010, 18) and on track to be operating at 200 percent by the 2030s (Gilding 2011, 52). That is, we are already in overshoot: the condition in which human demands exceed the regenerative capacities of the biosphere. Ecological economist Herman Daly identified four conditions for avoiding overshoot: In order to live sustainably within Earth’s carrying capacity, humans would need to maintain the health of ecosystems (our life-support systems); use renewable resources at a rate no faster than they can be regenerated; use nonrenewable resources at a rate no faster than they can be replaced by the discovery of renewable substitutes; and emit wastes and pollutants at a rate no faster than the rate at which they can be safely assimilated (Daly 1990).
Humans have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity and are living by depleting its natural capital and overfilling its waste sinks (Rees 2014, 192). Natural capital consists of the resources and services provided by the Earth system (Matson et al. 2016, 32). Renewable resources can support human activities indefinitely as long as we do not use them more rapidly than they can regenerate. This is analogous to living off the interest in a savings account and not spending the capital. We have the planetary equivalent of a savings account, but it is made of plants, animals, soil, water, and air (Hawken et al. 2008). This natural capital provides ecosystem services, the biological functions that support life, including provision of materials and food, assimilation of wastes, seed dispersal, pollination, nutrient recycling, purification of air and water, and climate regulation.


Much sustainability work focuses on the concept of resilience. Resilience science originated in the field of ecology and is based on the understanding that life is not static, that change is inevitable. “At the heart of resilience thinking is a very simple notion—things change” (Walker and Salt 2006, 9). Resilience is the capacity of a system to accommodate disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure (ibid. xiii); it is the capacity to cope with change. A resilient system adapts to changes without losing its essential qualities. All systems which are resilient share common traits: they are self-organizing and they feature diversity, modularity, and connectivity.
Whether in ecosystems, such as forests or oceans, or in social systems, such as cities or nations, the more diverse a system is and the more variations there are, the better that system will be able to deal with change and stay resilient. Diversity gives a system flexibility; it has multiple ways to perform its functions, so the failure of one part does not cause the entire system to crash (Mazur 2013, 355). The parts of a resilient system are connected, although not in a predictable, linear way (Walker and Salt 2017, 165).
In social and ecological systems, modularity means that groups of parts are strongly connected internally, but only loosely connected to other groups.2 When one module fails, others keep functioning and the larger system has a chance to self-organize (Walker and Salt 2006, 121). For example, a local food system is a module that may also be connected with national and global food sources, but when there is a disruption in the larger distribution chain, people in the community can keep growing food and are less likely to go hungry.
Connectivity is a feature of all resilient systems. Familiar examples include cells connected within organisms, organisms connected within ecosystems, habitat patches connected by wildlife corridors, nonprofit groups connected across the internet, and global climate systems connected by biogeochemical cycles. Connections between parts of a system are what allow the system to self-organize and adapt.
We understand that humans and ecosystems are not separate, but are interdependent and dynamically linked. In resilience and sustainability science these integrated systems are known as social-ecological systems: linked systems of humans and nature (Walker and Salt 2012, 1). Social-ecological systems are complex adaptive systems (CAS).
Sustainability and resilience are not synonymous but are interrelated concepts. They provide complementary frameworks that are employed toward the same goal: to enable social-ecological systems to continue into the long-term future. A sustainability approach identifies long-term goals, examines strategies for achieving those goals, and systematically evaluates using indicators. A resilience approach emphasizes change as a normal condition, recognizes that a system may exist in multiple stable states, and focuses on building adaptive capacity to respond to unexpected shocks and disturbance. Sustainability scholar, Charles Redman explains it this way: “sustainability prioritizes outcomes; resilience prioritizes process” (Redman 2014, 37).

Complex adaptive systems

The problems facing the planet, such as climate change, mass extinction, water scarcity, and poverty, are challenging because they are intrinsically systems problems (Meadows 2008, 4). Systems are complex.3 Complexity refers to systems that have outcomes which are indeterminate and cannot be predicted (Ehrenfeld 2008, 100); their behavior is nonlinear (Heinberg and Lerch 2010, 31; Wessels 2006, 120). The many systems which make up the larger Earth system are known as complex adaptive systems. Their elements are interconnected. It is not possible to change one component of a complex adaptive system without affecting other parts of the system, often in unpredictable ways.
Complex adaptive systems are self-organizing systems. They use connections...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Sustainability Principles and Practice
APA 6 Citation
Robertson, M. (2021). Sustainability Principles and Practice (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Robertson, Margaret. (2021) 2021. Sustainability Principles and Practice. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Robertson, M. (2021) Sustainability Principles and Practice. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Robertson, Margaret. Sustainability Principles and Practice. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.