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Defining Sustainability

Updated on April 24, 2011

What Is Sustainability?

The term “sustainability” has a number of different meanings in the scientific community. With its origins in ecology, sustainability also has origins rooted in the environment and resource management, the biosphere, technology, the no-growth model, and ecodevelopment. One common ground in every niche that recognizes sustainability is that it is an important issue that demands attention to avoid the inevitable decline and fall out of an unsustainable situation.

In the prologue to Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, Diamond compares past civilizations to present civilizations who are confronted with similar problems while displaying their reactions to those problems. Usually, one civilizations reaction to their unsustainable circumstance would lead to their demise, whereas the other’s reaction would enable that civilization to continue on through their problems. He also makes note that the sustainable management of natural resources is a key to the survival of a people. The purpose of Collapse is to educate the reader on past societies and the ways that they were lost in order to focus on the correct ways that our societies in the present can prevent a similar demise without drawing any conclusions of direct relationships between the conclusions of the two. This is because present societies may more than likely have different, more technologically advanced systems of repairing unsustainable circumstances or may have advanced technological problems that simply mirror problems of the past. This way of defining sustainability is the capability of a civilization to survive tribulations thrown at them without succumbing to their own destruction. Clearly, if a civilization “collapses,” or is wiped out, then something about that civilization was unsustainable. Whether it is the choices that the civilization made based on a given set of problems or the failure to adapt to an environmental change, the lack of a sustainable reaction will inevitably lead to the destruction of a civilization if the right steps are not made to rectify the situation. An example given is ecocide, which is the unintentional destruction of a natural environment due to the overexploitation of natural resources. How this ties in, is when we look back into history at the ways that past civilizations have fallen, we can see clearly that the overexploitation of natural goods can lead to a nation’s demise when left unchecked.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland). This is one of the most accepted definitions of sustainability, and although it pertains to development, the idea spans across all regions of sustainability. The problem with this in present day America is that Americans have become accustomed to an unsustainable way of living that will be difficult to revoke. America’s dependence on fossil fuels is a major problem when brought up in conjunction with sustainability, as it is naturally impossible. The burning and over exploitation of fossil fuels is extremely unsustainable because the Earth only contains a finite amount of this natural resource and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The primary reasons for getting into a sustainable form of energy are the current catastrophes as a result of the dependence on fossil fuels for energy. Climate change, air pollution (or the drop in the quality of air), and oil spills are three of the major reasons for the world to attempt to separate itself from the use of these non-renewable resources. All of these cause degradation in quality of life for both humans and animals. Another trouble with fossil fuels is the abundance and location of these resources. Wars such as the Persian Gulf War or the War in Iraq were fought in part for fossil fuels. Much conflict in the Middle East is a direct result of fossil fuels and their locations.

The Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP)’s Glossary in Sustainable Energy Regulation states that sustainable energy “consists of two key components; renewable energy and energy efficiency” (Lemaire). The major current sources of energy in use are all non-renewable. In fact, “over 85% of the energy used in the world is from non-renewable supplies” (UCCP). The main sources of this non-renewable energy are fossil fuels (coal and oil). In order for a sustainable system of energy to be put into place, the world would have to transfer off of these fossil fuels into a source of renewable energy. The United States has slowly been working its way into this sector with the rise of interest in “green energies,” such as hydropower, solar power, wind power, geothermal power, and biomass. Although the idea of running an entire country off of a sustainable energy source is ideal, putting it into practice is extremely difficult for a number of reasons. The first trouble with adopting a renewable energy source over the current unsustainable practices it the cost of implementing any of the aforementioned systems. Estimates have put the costs at their cheapest at around three times that of standard non-renewable resources. Other problems stem from the unforeseen environmental consequences of these new sources of energy. For example, a problem for hydropower is “river habitat destruction” (Bradley), a problem for solar power is “desert overdevelopment” (Bradley), a problem for biomass is the “air emissions” (Bradley), and a problem for geothermal energy is found in “depletion and toxic discharges” (Bradley).

The most bizarre and greatly unforeseen problem comes from adopting wind power as a primary source of energy. The “Avian Mortality” problem that stems from the wind turbines killing off bird populations is actually a main factor mentioned by environmentalist groups. In a study done by Luis Barros and Alejandro Rodriguez found in the Journal of Applied Ecology, it was determined that the mortality rates are indeed a problem. They concluded that measures would indeed have to be taken in order to account for the lives of aviary creatures in the area and that a study of bird behaviors in the regions where turbines are to be constructed is a necessary precaution. (Barrios and Rodriguez)

The concept of “Energy Efficiency” is given by the U.S. Energy Information Administration as, “Increases in energy efficiency take place when either energy inputs are reduced for a given level of service or there are increased or enhanced services for a given amount of energy inputs” (Energy Efficiency Report). What this means is that the energy required must me reduced so there is less energy needed to be produced. Being the second half of the idea of sustainable energy, efficiency is ultimately just as important as a renewable source of energy. Efficiency is implemented in many ways through the introduction of new household items that are aimed directly at improving energy efficiency and through old conventions that have been learned and passed down through the ages.

A standard of energy efficiency that has been in practice for some time now is insulation in homes. Insulation in homes results in “lower utility bills, higher home resale value, increased comfort, and increased durability of the home” (Efficient Home Insulation – The Renewable Planet). Home insulation saves energy and keeps your house more energy efficient by resisting the flow of heat. This is an energy saver because it lowers the requirements of a house to be heated in the winter and cooled in the summer by maintaining a more consistent, comfortable temperature. Another new form of energy efficiency in modern houses that has hit the mainstream has been the use of CFLs, or Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs. These light bulbs all exceed the energy efficiency guidelines set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency and when compared to an incandescent bulb, they “use about 75% less energy” (Light Bulbs (CFLs): Energy Star) and “produce about 75% less heat” (Light Bulbs (CFLs): Energy Star).

Movies Based on Cited Works:

The combination of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources are what would make sustainable energy possible. People have got to both lower the amount of energy being used while replacing the current unsustainable sources of energy with sustainable, renewable forms of energy in a cost-effective and timely manner before the problems resulting from the over-use of fossil fuels become far too bad to repair.

Farming and agriculture have become problems that are reaching into unsustainable regions as well. According to Charles Kidd, in order for a farming system to be sustainable, it needs to contain all of the following:

“1. It should maintain the long-run biological and ecological integrity of natural resources (soils, water, plants, animals, etc.) without which agricultural production cannot be increased, and probably not sustained.

2. It should be viewed as an integral – and viable – part of a country’s economic development strategy or process, taking into account cultural and socio-economic traditions. A system cannot be considered sustainable if farmers are unwilling or unable to adopt it” (Kidd 22).

These items are especially under attack today in the American corn industry. The cause for this is the way America subsidizes corn growth. It causes the farmers to increase their yields in order to make the most money for their work and the increased yields are creating a number of environmental problems as well as unsustainable agricultural issues. From 1995 to 2009, the United States has spent 73.8 billion dollars in corn subsidies, with the majority going to the states of Iowa and Illinois (United States Corn Subsidies || EWG Farm Subsidy Database).

With Iowa and Illinois receiving the majority of the corn subsidies in America, this means they are also growing the most corn. One of the negative effects of this comes from the runoff of the massive quantities of fertilizers used on the crops. These fertilizers are very rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, which then runs into the Mississippi River, which then runs down into the Gulf of Mexico and creates what is called a “dead zone” or a “hypoxic zone” where eutrophication can occur. Eutrophication is “the process by which a body of water acquires a high concentration of nutrients, especially phosphates and nitrates. These typically promote excessive growth of algae. As the algae die and decompose, high levels of organic matter and the decomposing organisms deplete the water of available oxygen, causing the death of other organisms, such as fish” (Eutrophication Definition Page). This hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico has already had an effect on the fishing industry in the area, as it spans approximately “6,000-7,000 square miles… beginning at the Mississippi River delta and extending westward to the upper Texas coast” (The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone). If the agriculture industry continues this process of fertilization and continues to promote the mass growth system of corn, the hypoxic zone will grow, causing further harm to the ecology of the water in the Gulf of Mexico and the industries in the area, creating a highly unsustainable environment.

The difficulty in quelling this sort of phenomena is found in the amount of money farmers are subsidized for their crops. Higher yield of crops leads to more money, which leads to more nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, which leads to more eutrophication and hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a problem that now, with the introduction of biofuels produced from corn, which increases the need for higher corn yields, seems to not have a solution. A study from the National Academy of Sciences done in 2008 concluded that “projected expansion of corn-based ethanol production could make the already challenging goal of reducing nitrogen export by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico practically impossible without radical shifts” (Eutrophication | Energy Solutions for Independent Farms). Researchers with The Nature Conservatory in Indiana have been working on a project recently to try to significantly reduce the amounts of fertilizers that end up running off into the ocean. The project is called the “Two-Stage Ditch Design”, which has shown to greatly reduce the amount of runoff when incorporated into a farming system (The Nature Conservancy in Indiana - Two-Stage Ditches). The only combatant to this project so far is the actual process of incorporating these drainage ditches into the farming landscape.

Sustainability is a complex subject with a vast number of differing opinions and definitions, though it’s widely agreed that it is a goal with which the world needs to achieve. The ideas and processes put forth are more than just eye-openers. They are a call to action for an everyday modernized people to engage in a system of repair that will keep our planet and our way of life sustainable for many generations to come.

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Works Cited

Barrios, Luis and Alejandro Rodriguez. Barrios.2004. <>.

Bradley, Robert L. Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not "Green".27 August 1997. <>.

Bruckner, Monica. The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.<>.

Bruntland, G. Our Common Future; Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development.<>.

Diamond, Jared M.Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.Viking Press, 2005.

Efficient Home Insulation - The Renewable Planet.<>.

Energy Efficiency Report: Chapter 2: Introduction.17 October 1999. <>.

Eutriphication Definition Page.<>.

Kidd, Charles V. "The Evolution of Sustainability."Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics(1992).

Lemaire, Xavier.Glossary of Terms in Sustainable Energy Regulation.August 2004. <>.

Light bulbs (CFLs) : ENERGY STAR.<>.

Pollan, Michael.The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural history of Four Meals.New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

United States Corn Subsidies || EWG Farm Subsidy Database.2010. <>.


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    • elayne001 profile image


      7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Hope you got an A on your paper. Well done.

    • Scosgrove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      TLMinut, Diamond's "Collapse" is right up your alley! I highly recommend it for starters.

    • TLMinut profile image


      7 years ago

      I've got the Teaching Company's course "Ancient Empires before Alexander" which dealt in part with this issue. It was focused on political and military issues but other factors leading to an empire's decline and fall are discussed as well. I think I'll read the books you recommend here unless I chicken out and decide I'd prefer not to think about it all anymore.

    • Scosgrove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      @Ed, Agreed!

      And thank you.

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 

      7 years ago from Texas, USA

      I was impressed by Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, but Collapse has had a lasting impact on me that Guns did not. It was also, I think, more accessible to general readers, although it does require attention. Your writing and research is impressive as well. Thank you for the work.

    • Scosgrove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      @J.S.Matthew - Thank you very much! Tons of research, but I'm really into the topic, so it helps. "Collapse" is incredible. It can be a tough read in areas, but it's completely worth it. If you were able to finish "Guns, Germs, and Steel", I'd highly recommend reading "Collapse".

      National Geographic also made a film based on "Collapse", though, as always, I'd still recommend reading the book first.

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      You are a flawless writer. This is well researched. What an awesome job here! You provide so much useful information. As you know from the Questions and Answers forum, I enjoyed "Guns, Germs, and Steel", by Diamond. It sounds like "Collapse" is an interesting book. Is it a tough read? I struggled a little bit through "Guns..." Anyway, great job! Keep up the good work!


    • Scosgrove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      @Charlu - Oh, no doubt. And it's pretty scary to think about!

    • Charlu profile image


      7 years ago from Florida

      Wow Great hub. 85%, ecocide, it all really makes you think.


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