Visualizing Sustainability

Defining sustainability is one of the most difficult things to do.  And we cannot hope to achieve sustainability until we can define it.  The UN’s definition of meeting the needs for the future and today promises all things to all people.  The Venn diagram of environment, economy, and society is too vague.

Oxfam International has developed a new framework in Kate Raworth’s report “A safe and just space for humanity: can we life within the doughnut”.  This model establishes a baseline, a ceiling, and a good zone.

Too often, humans get ignored in the environmental framework in which sustainability is usually framed.  The doughnut sets a social floor, where poverty and injustice need to be removed in order for true sustainability to exist.  Without education, health, and jobs, society is not sustainable and all people can never share in a sustainable future.

At the same time, through our lifestyles we are overstepping real environmental boundaries.

Including this floor makes one very important (and often ignored) point.  Without these basic necessities, we cannot begin to take care of the environment.  Environmental protection is (largely) the consideration of those in rich countries.  However, growth – the normal solution to end poverty – is not the way to go either.

These envisionings create real possibilities for solutions – sustainability for all people, not just for some.  I know its changed the way I see things, and my students will get this new view next week.


Breakfast anyone?

Sometimes they are lying to you.  And you know they are lying to you.  You just don’t know when, where, or how they are lying to you.  Why is pretty certain, they are trying to sell you something.

All products labelled “organic” (or, worse, “natural”) are not equal.  Some are just organic by technicalities.  The consumer does not know who to trust.  To combat that, the Cornucopia Institute (an organization devoted to preserving small family farming) has created a list of scorecards for:

How organic really is your cereal?

How organic, free-range, and well-managed are your eggs?

Organic, small scale chicken-farming (from the Cornucopia Institute.)

How organic, human, and sustainable is your dairy?

Organic, but not sustainable (from the Cornucopia Institute)

How organic and sustainably managed is your soy?

They surveyed brands for such things as additives, farmer relations, strength of certification, and purchasing programs and rated the results on a score of 5 (high ) to 0 (low).

In a time when we could all use some help in deciphering the commercial messages we receive, these ratings are a useful, helpful tool.  The main remaining problem is that it’s still up to the consumer to have to research every product we buy, when the burden really should be on the maker to show their product is healthy and good.

We’re number 49!

According to this year’s  Environmental Performance Index by Yale and Columbia Universities, the United States is the 49th most environmental country on the planet.    This puts us smack in the middle of environmental performance world wide.  Not a comfortable place.

The top countries are:

The worst performers?  In from least to, well, less least they are: Iraq, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Yemen, Kuwait, India, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Libya, Eritrea, and Tajikistan.

The Map available from the main Environmental Performance Index Website.  the map shows a clear trend of the Americas, Europe, and Southeast Asia doing well – and the rest of the world lagging behind.

How did we get beaten?

Much of the top 10 have been constant performers: Iceland, Switzerland, France, Costa Rica, Austria, Britain and New Zealand.  Switzerland and Latvia have enacted policies to improve air quality and fight climate change.  Costa Rica wrote environmental protection into their constitution.  Norway and Luxemborg were noted for good environmental governance.  In comparison, most of the countries at the bottom of the pack are plagued by bad governance.

I teach the divisions (and similarities) between the developed and developing worlds.  Last week, we examined the correlation between rising energy use, rising standards of living, and falling population growth.  Realistically, as other countries develop, they will use more energy and likely pollute more unless there is a massive technology transfer from the developed world.  In order to have that transfer, the US (among others) needs to innovate and keep their own energy use down.

Image from the United Nations Developmemt Programme’s 2004 World Energy Assessment.

In short, I’m still rooting for Team USA.  I hate it when we’re 4th in any international contest, let alone 49th.  We can do better than that, let’s goooooooooooo USA!  And get real with some sustainability measures.