Sustainability : The Art and Science of it

We live in a challenging world, with local responsibilities and global pressures. With fast paced lives, and ever changing ideologies. Seems like trying something and sticking to it is being replaced by all you can eat buffets. All to what end?

Challenges are indeed among us, however some inspired thinkers do provide some semblance of light to help us navigate out of the caves we may find ourselves in.

I like to quote environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken’s recent address to a graduating class in the United States, about the challenges we face today in an ever changing world: “When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.”

In terms of sustainability, there truly is an art and a science to it, as Hawken suggests. Many of which is widely accepted and agreed upon. One thing that is widely agreed upon is the defi-nition, which was set by the Brundtland commission to the UN in 1987, as follows: “Sustainability is the ability to meet our needs for today without compromising the futures ability to meet their own needs.”

The Science of Sustainability

In order for us to meet the needs of today without compromising the future requires that we start by seeing just how we are stealing from our future through our actions today.

The Natural Step based in Sweden, is an internationally recognized organization that takes a no-nonsense approach to sustainability through a lens of science and practical application. The Natural Step looks at four major principles occurring in today’s world that are not natural to the earth’s ecosystem. In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  1.  Concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust;
  2.  Concentrations of substances produced by society;
  3.  Degradation by physical means; and
  4.  In that society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

What the Natural Step is saying is that the continuous extraction of fossil fuels and other materials from the earths crust is against the basic principles of how nature operates. Furthermore, that humans have become alchemists by systemically changing the properties of some substances (like converting gasoline or coal to a gas form), is also not a natural phenomenon in nature.

Thirdly, the physical degradation of the planet’s life support system, like in over-foresting, polluting our air and water streams, bio-engineering pesticides and herbicides to kill off entire species of insect, animal or weed. Lastly, the Natural Step states that as a society we have systemically undermined the ability for all of us to meet our own needs, for example, through unsafe work practices, low-wages, or exploi-tation of indigenous peoples.


To better describe this phenomenon, the Natural Step looks at the supply and demand of our natural resources versus our demand for an ever increasing consumer lifestyle, globally. What they call the ‘funnel effect’ is essentially a diagram showing the decreasing supply of resources and increasing demand for more resources by more people.

This shows that soon enough that graph will converge and we will have a very big mess on our hands. Therefore, sustainability looks at how we can take our present scenario and instead of continuing down this path, we must see how we can equal out our supply and demand through more sustainable practices in our everyday lives, and in our processes for developing as a society.

The evidence is very substantive, and although many declare that issues like Global Warming are natural and part of the planets renewal system, there are clear facts that link human activity to the sudden rise in Green House Gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere. In fact we are currently standing around 378 PPM CO2 in the atmosphere, which is up from less than 280 only 200 years ago. By 2020, some scientists estimate that we will be over 450 PPM. If at 378, we are already starting to see the shifts in climate, imagine how rapid things will continue to increase over the next decade.

This is why in July, the G8 world leaders met in Italy to set a commitment to avoid heating the worlds temperature above an average increase of 2 degrees Celsius. Most of the discussion was centered on controlling GHG emissions. In December of this year, the world leaders will meet again in Copenhagen to chart a path forward in how countries respond to climate change. These events are real discussions happening, and literally millions of people are taking part in raising awareness about the profile of these debates.

In addition to rising GHG levels in the atmosphere, we are seeing a still rapid increase of human populations, with a staggering decrease of animal and species populations. Our response has been to plan our cities and communities for ever increased growth!

Statistically, if we consider only a 7 percent rate of growth, whether in business or if we are talking about population, we will see a duplication in just 10 years. Which is why, it is predicted that by 2040, we will have increased to 9 Billion. As a planet, we have doubled in population 4 times in only 200 years, and each time, less and less years came in between the doubling.

Another scientific law states that the planet is finite. In other words, matter is not created nor destroyed, just transformed from one state to another. The signi-ficance of this is that at our present rates of consumption, and based on the fact that still a majority of things we produce cannot be recycled, means we are taking resources, using them, and transforming them into a state that is no longer usable. Let me remind you, there is “no away” when it comes to taking out the trash.

Carbon Dioxide is an example of this. By burning coal, oil and gas, we are transforming all those millions of barrels of oil every day into particles that are floating in our air, entering our lungs, and covering our waters and forests. This is similar to the effects of someone addicted to cigarettes; they inhale a gas form of a compilation of thousands of chemicals found in a single cigarette, and that gas coats the lungs in the form of tar, eventually leading to various health problems inclu-ding cancer.

However, the symptom most smokers associate with is a loss of breath, or difficulties breathing. The same applies to our ecosystem. We are restricting its ability to breath, and that is what is causing an increase in natural disasters, and an increase in average temperatures. Can we make a nicotine patch big enough for the entire planet?

The 2008 Living Planet report declared that we are now using resources 30 percent faster than the earth is able to replenish those resources, and that by 2030, we will need 2 planets to meet our demands. So where do we get a second planet? Scratch that, at a constant growth rate of 4 percent, we’ll need to add two more planets by 2035. In other words, we are now at the top of the jar, and there are no other planets to rely upon for more resources.

Technology has been the focal point in the discussion about climate change, and how only through scientific discovery, we will create the technologies that will combat climate change. Such statements sound rather tongue in cheek, for two reasons. The first being the reluctance of the vast majority of the current energy producers to invest money necessary to developing better renewable energy supplies.

The second has to do with the fact that we already have the technology, completely powered by solar energy, to beat climate change they are called plants. Yes, plants inhale carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air, and every plant on earth is plugged into solar energy.

In fact, solar power is our greatest source of energy still to this date. So yes, technology will save the planet, but not necessarily the technology built by human beings in a lab; rather the technology that exists all around us, and which we get for free.

Our greatest challenge isn’t innovation; it is the way we look at systems. Systems thinking will become key to moving our society towards a sustainable future. How we associate with other human beings, with animals, with plants and with the natural systems in the world will greatly define our success as a species. In fact, even for your very own business, or family or way of life, the one thing that will guarantee one’s success is the degree at which they can maintain relevance to the demands of the present.

Originally coined in 1869, Charles Darwin went to great lengths to communicate what he meant by his statement “Survival of the fittest”. In other words, “those who are, and stay, relevant to the world”.

The basic rudimentary system that will help us understand the degree to which we are relevant comes in the triple bottom line model. That is to understand the relationships of the well-being of interacting social, economic and environmental systems. When we can identify our own actions in terms of its impact on society, the environment and the economy, and work to only create positive relationships between them, the more relevant we will be to the present. Therefore, sustainability is not just an idea, it is a competency, or a literacy that will drive the term ‘progress’ into the next century.

In the beginning of this article, I quoted Hawken who tells us that the data truly is depressing. However, there is a strong growing movement of citizens that are voluntarily changing their consumption habits, and looking for solutions to the world’s greatest problems. They are working on really defining the art of sustainability for the rest of us.

The Art of Sustainability

One of the ways Webster’s dictionary defines art is by using the word Archaic, or a science, learning, or scholarship. Therefore the art of sustainability is truly a skill one needs to master.

As defined above, the single best tool for sustainability is to understand and identify our own actions based on the triple bottom line, or the economic, social and environmental systems. This is a basic literacy or decision making process that can be used to evaluate virtually any good or service that is available for us to consume.

The art of sustainability depicts imagery of leadership, personal and societal. It is about initiating what you know is right, even if others are not ready to embrace the ideas yet. This is where leadership will define who stays relevant, and who isn’t “fit” according to the changing times.

So how do we achieve true sustainability? With a lack of tangible parameters to evaluate our impacts in relation to equilibrium of the planets life support systems, governments and experts must rely on backcasting to find their solutions. That is, starting with the end in mind and devising strategies that will actually help achieve the goal, opposed to band-aid fixes that only serve short term interests and ends up wasting more money than what made it worthwhile to begin with.

Backcasting, another model commonly used by the Natural Step, is a method of visioning the ideal outcome of an objective, and setting our goals inline with how to achieve it. Sounds common sense, doesn’t it? Well, the current band-aid fixes surely are not aligned with the end-goal in mind.


Earlier this year President Obama, announced that by 2015 all cars on the road must meet fuel efficiency standards of 35 Miles per gallon(MPG), as opposed to the current rate of 25MPG. Hailed as a positive step in the right direction; however if we consider backcasting to our ultimate goal of not emitting GHG’s greater than the earth can absorb, we see that the money and time that will be put into enhancing fuel efficiency standards doesn’t add up to the need to overhaul the transportation industry to end heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption.

There are many smaller examples in our homes or work places where backcasting makes sense. The food we eat is a cause of alarm, as every day science is linking the foods we’ve loved growing, to an ever increasing risk of cancer. If we want healthy bodies and population we need to consider the fact that with an increasing rate of cancer, we will have an increasing rate and demand for healthcare, so not only should solutions be found to ensure our food is healthy for health alone, but also for our future financial security and access to quality healthcare.

There are many initiatives out there that help educate us on doing better simple actions, like turning the tap off when we are brushing our teeth, or turning the engine off when we are sitting idle in the car. These simple actions become an introduction to more actions.

That is why events like Earth Hour, even though have very little impact on energy saving for that hour, is building in momentum, and as a result, more people are getting more conscious about what appliances they leave on, and what lights they turn off when they leave a room. So such events do have a rippling effect in spreading awareness about sustainability.

Today’s environmentalists are much different than 10 years ago. The idea of hippies giving up modern convenience, strapping themselves to trees and barrica-ding trade ships in harbour fronts are now the minority of a growing population of the conscious consumer who buys local, fair trade, organic food; who chooses their meat based on healthy and ethical treatment standards of animals; who evaluates their ecological impacts in their heads before purchasing any consumer goods; who carpools, takes public transit, or enjoys riding their bike; who chooses to reduce their energy and water consumption and recycle as much as possible; and, who treats one another with respect, tolerance and dignity.

Finally, there are many opportunists who claim what they are doing is sustainable in someway, when in reality it is not actually helping the planet in anyway. This is called Greenwashing, and it is a symptom of when people try to satisfy themselves by doing their part, when in actuality it never was helping to begin with. The only way to avoid this, and not fall victim yourself is to learn the literacy of sustainability, and play an active role as a leader to start moving change along. The best tool for seeing through these opportunists is to ask yourself if what they are offering fits in with your vision of a sustainable future.

A vision for a sustainable future, the essence of backcasting, the goal which, like a war cry, can rally your family, friends and community behind to move the world in a more positive direction.

To end, I will quote Paul Hawken again as he describes the movement that is happening right now, and how each one of us is doing our part in the grand mosaic of renewal: “It is my belief that we are part of a movement that is greater and deeper and broader than we ourselves know or can know. It flies under the radar of the media by and large. It is nonviolent, it is grassroots. It has no cluster bombs, no armies, no helicopters. It has no central ideology. A male vertebrae is not in charge…it is growing and spreading worldwide, with no exception.”

    Author Information

    Kurt Archer, currently living in Calgary, Canada, has spent 2 years working on inter-cultural dialogue and leadership development with young people in Pakistan. Kurt has travelled extensively throughout Asia documenting grassroots environmental projects, and is a founding member of Pakistan Sustainability Network and has launched a youth sustainability program called my world, my choice!

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