Environmental Sustainability Theme

“The search for sustainable development becomes a search for an adequate mode of civilization in the 21st Century” – Dr. Paul Raskin

The scale of human economic activity in the age of the Anthropocene has reached a level where we are now changing the structure and function of earth systems as a whole – not simply as a set of independent interventions. It is this qualitative change that in turn requires a qualitatively different response, one that looks at whole systems and integrates socioecological systems.

The kind of complex sustainability challenges of today rarely exist in isolation and often lead back to broader unsustainable economic, cultural and social institutions. Often trying to solve some environmental issue will lead one to a technology or economic issue which will lead one to some socio-political or cultural issue. Thus it is required that we understand and look at sustainability as both a social and environmental phenomenon.

The linkage between systems thinking and sustainable solutions are today becoming ever more apparent, reductionist approaches that focus on optimizing parts may lead to sort turn solution but will ultimately not be sufficed given the scale of human intervention into ecosystems around the world, real long-term sustainable solutions require us to look at and design complex socio-ecological system.

Sustainability is though not a property of a thing, things in isolation cannot be sustainable. Sustainability is more what we call an emergent feature of whole systems, it is not so much about the parts as how the parts work together to enable effective overall outcomes. For example, an electric car is not really sustainable if the power system it is running on imports coal from the other side of the planet to provide it with electricity. Or likewise, if we build an eco-home in the middle of suburbia where the inhabitants have to drive a long distance to do shopping or take their kids to the park, this again will not achieve sustainable outcomes. 

Sustainable Economies

This is a different way of looking at things where we stop focusing so much on the efficiency of individual products but are required to look at the effectiveness of whole systems in relation to their environment; things start to look very different when we do this. This illustrates why sustainability is not just about energy efficient light bulbs and preventing climate change. It is truly a new economic paradigm, it is a whole new economic logic affecting every area of economic activity creating a whole new dimension to our economy by going beyond accounting for the parts to accounting also for the whole. This is why achieving a sustainable form of global economy will take us into a new world of complexity, because we have to look at, account for, and manage whole interconnected socio-technical systems in order to achieve overall sustainable outcomes.

Full Cost Economy

In the age of the Anthropocene, the global economy and global ecosystem are now one and have to be managed as one. A top-down conservationist approach of regulating impacts through centralized institutions so as to conserve the environment is no longer sufficed. A decentralized approach is now necessary, one where the value of natural and social capital are integrated into every aspect of the economy; not simply imposed upon it through external regulation.

This means that today we are challenged with building a whole new dimension to our economy; an economy that goes beyond the standard model of utility to incorporate a wider spectrum of value forms that affect the sustainability of the whole system. Instead of the single dimensional metric of financial capital we see now new forms of social capital and natural capital emerging as central parts of how our economy works, no longer simply exogenous. A sustainable economy is not simply one that optimizes the parts for efficiency it is instead one that factors in all relevant costs to the whole.