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Chapter One: Towards a Sustainable Future

1.1 The Global Environmental Picture

I. For global trends are particularly concerning: 1) population growth and economic
development 2) a decline of vital life-support ecosystems, 3) global atmospheric
changes, and 4) a loss of biodiversity.
Population Growth and Economic Development
I. The population is expected to grow the most in developing countries, which is also where
the most people are in poverty.
A. The Millennium Development Goals aimed to reduce extreme poverty and its
effects on human wellbeing.
II. Global economic production continues to rise and per capita income in developing
countries has improved. However, income in most developing countries is falling
further behind the developed countries because of the existing great inequalities in
A. Stabilizing population growth in the developing countries is essential for closing
the economic gap between those nations and the industrialized countries.
The Decline of Ecosystems
I. Natural and managed ecosystems support human life and economies with a range of
goods and services. These vitals resources are not being managed well.
A. Around the world human societies are depleting groundwater supplies, degrading
agricultural soils, over fishing oceans, and cutting forests faster than they can
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
I. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has taken more than 4 years to gather available
data on the state of ecosystems across the globe. The project focuses especially on the
linkages between ecosystem goods and services and human wellbeing, working at
global, regional, and local scales.
A. The most prominent finding of the MA scientists was the widespread abuse and
overexploitation of ecosystem resources.
B. The overall intent of the project is to build a knowledge base for sound policy
decisions and management interventions; it remains for policymakers to managers
to act on that knowledge.
Global Atmospheric Changes
I. Concern about the depletion of the stratosphere has led to international action—the
Montreal Protocol of 1987—aimed at curbing pollution from the release of
chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants into the atmosphere.
II. Carbon dioxide is a natural component of the lower atmosphere, along with nitrogen and
oxygen. It is required by plants for photosynthesis and is important to the Earth-
atmosphere energy system.
A. Carbon dioxide gas absorbs infrared energy radiated from Earth’s surface, thus
slowing the loss of this energy to space. The absorption of infrared energy by
carbon dioxide warms the lower atmosphere in a phenomenon known as the
greenhouse effect.
B. Increases in the volume of the gas affects temperatures.
The Kyoto Protocol
I. A commitment to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases to below their 1990 levels by
II. Levels of greenhouse gases will continue to rise indefinetly.
A. At issue for many countries are the conflicting concerns between the short term
economic impacts of reducing the use of fossil fuels and the long term
consequences of climate change for the planet.
B. The future climate changes are likely to disrupt the ecosystem goods and services
essential to human well-being, and since the extreme poor depend especially on
natural ecosystems, they will suffer disproportionately.
Loss of Biodiversity
I. The MA defines biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms and the
ecological complexes of which they are part.”
A. The growing human population is accelerating the conversion of forests,
grasslands, and wetlands to agricultural and urban development. The inevitable
result is the loss of most of the wild plants and animals that occupy those natural
B. Pollution also degrades habitats, destroying the species they support. Hundreds of
species are also exploited for their commercial value.
Risks of Losing Biodiversity
I. Biodiversity is the mainstay of agricultural crops and of many medicines. The loss of
biodiversity can only curtail development in these areas.
A. Biodiversity is also a critical factor in maintaining the stability of natural systems
and enabling them to recover after disturbances such as fires or volcanic
B. Most of the essential goods and services provided by natural systems are derived
directly from various living organisms, and we threaten our own wellbeing when
diminish the biodiversity of those natural systems.
C. There are also aesthetic and moral arguments for maintaining biodiversity.

I.2 Three Strategic Themes: Sustainability, Stewardship, and Science

I. Strategic themes deal with how we should conceptualize our task of forging a sustainable
A. These themes are sustainability—the practical goal that our interactions with the
natural world should be working toward; stewardship—the ethical and moral
framework that informs our public and private actions; and science—the basis for
our understanding of the world and how human systems interact with it.
II. Integrative themes deal with the current status of interactions between human systems
and the natural world.
A. These themes are ecosystems capital—the natural and managed ecosystems that
provide essential goods and services to human enterprises; policy and politics—
the human decisions that determine what happens to the natural world, and
political processes that lead to those decisions; and globalization—the
accelerating interconnectedness of human economies, ideas, and cultures.
Sustainable Systems
I. A system or process is sustainable if it can be continued indefinitely, without depleting
any of the material or energy resources required to keep it running.
A. The term was first applied to the idea of sustainable yields in human endeavors
such as forestry and fisheries.
B. Biological species normally grow and reproduce at rates faster than that required
to just keep their population stable. This built-in capacity allows every species to
increase or replace a population following a natural disaster. Thus, it is possible to
harvest a certain percentage of trees or fish every year without depleting the forest
or reducing the fish population below a certain base number.
C. As long as the number harvested stays within the capacity of the population to
grow and replace itself, the practice can be continued indefinitely. The harvest
then represents a sustainable yield.
D. It becomes unsustainable only when trees are cut or fish are caught at a rate that
exceeds the capacity of their present population to reproduce and grow.
II. The notion of sustainability can also be extended to include ecosystems.
A. Sustainable ecosystems are entire natural systems that persist and thrive over time
by recycling nutrients and maintaining a diversity of species in balance and by
using the Sun as a source of sustainable energy.
Sustainable Societies
I. A sustainable society is one that is in balance with the natural world, continuing
generation after generation, neither depleting its resource base by exceeding
sustainable yields nor producing pollutants in excess of nature’s capacity to absorb
Sustainable Development
I. Sustainable development is a term that was first brought into common use by the World
Commission on Environment and Development, a group appointed by the United
Nations. They defined the term as development or progress that “meets the needs of
the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own
A. Both developed and developing countries have embraced the idea of sustainable
development, although the industrialized countries are usually more concerned
about environmental sustainability, while the developing countries are more
concerned about economic development.
B. The basic idea is to maintain and improve the well-being of both humans and
II. The concept of sustainable development is now so well-entrenched in international
circles that it has become almost an article of faith. It appears to incorporate some
ideas that are sorely needed, such as equity—whereby the needs of the present are
actually met and where future generations are seen as equally deserving as those
living now.
A. Sustainable development means different things to different people, however.
Economists are concerned mainly with growth, efficiency, and the optimum use
of resources. Sociologists mainly focus on human needs and on concepts like
equity, empowerment, social cohesion, and cultural identity. Ecologists show
their greatest concern for preserving the integrity of natural systems, for living
within the carrying capacity of the environment, and for dealing effectively with
III. There are many dimensions to sustainable development—environmental, social,
economic, political—and no societies today have achieved anything resembling it.
nevertheless, it is important to uphold sustainable development as an ideal.
An Essential Transition
I. The transition to a truly sustainable civilization requires achieving a stable human
population that recognizes the finite limits of Earth’s systems to produce resources
and absorb wastes and that acts accordingly.
A. To achieve sustainability will require a special level of dedication and
commitment to care for the natural world and to act with justice and equity toward
one another. Changes that are required for sustainability:
B. A demographic transition from a continually increasing human population to one
that is stable.
C. A resource transition to an economy that relies on nature’s income and protects
ecosystem capital from depletion.
D. A technology transition from pollution-intensive economic production to
environmentally benign processes.
E. A political/sociological transition to societies that embrace a stewardly and just
approach to people’s needs and in which large-scale poverty is eliminated.
F. A community transition from the present car-dominated urban sprawl of
developed countries to the “smart growth” concepts of smaller, functional
settlements and more livable cities.
I. Stewardship is the ethical and moral framework that should inform out public and private
actions. Stewards are those who care for something that is not theirs and that they will
one day pass on to the next generation.
A. Stewardship is an ethic that guides actions taken to benefit the natural world and
other people.
B. Stewardily care is compatible with the goal of sustainability, but it is different
from it, too, because stewardship deals more directly with how sustainability is to
be achieved.
Who Are the Stewards?
I. Oftentimes, stewardship is a matter of everyday people caring enough for each other and
for the natural world that they do the things that are compatible with that care.
Justice and Equity
I. The stewardship ethic is concerned not only with the care of the natural world, but also
with establishing just relationships among humans.
A. This concern for justice has been applied to the US in what is called the
environmental justice movement. The major problem addressed by the movement
is environmental racism—the placement of waste sites and other hazardous
industries in towns and neighborhoods in which most of the residents are
Justice for the Developing World
I. Justice is especially crucial for the developing world, where unjust relationships have
often left people without land, with inadequate food, and in poor health. Extreme
poverty is the condition of at least 1.1 billion people, whose poverty is often brought
on by injustices within societies where wealthy elites maintain political power and,
through corruption and nepotism, steal money and create corporations that receive
preferential treatment.
II. Some the poverty in the developing world can be attributed to unjust economic practices
of the wealthy industrialized countries.
A. By imposing restrictive tariffs and import quotas, and subsidizing their
agricultural commodities, industrialized countries have maintained inequities that
discriminate against the developing countries. Such barriers deprive people in
developing countries of jobs and money that would go far to improve their living
Science and the Scientific Method
I. Science is simply a way of gaining knowledge called the scientific method. The term
science refers to all information gained through that method.
II. Data consist of information gathered from observations and measurements drawn from
the natural world or from human interactions with it and from testing ideas through
A. Data must be acquired through the senses, directly through the use of instruments,
and data and observations must be recorded with the highest possible degree of
B. An important aspect of science, and a trait of scientists, is to be skeptical of any
new report until it is confirmed. Such confirmation usually means that other
investigators must repeat and check out the data of the first investigator and
validate their accuracy.
C. As observations are confirmed by more and more investigators, they gain the
status of factual data.
III. Theories are the major objective of scientific reasoning—the explanations of how things
work in the natural world. Theories are models that are intended to represent how a
system works.
A. When scientists construct theories, they must be objective and rational.
Objectivity is achieved when all data and observations are considered, not just
those which conform to the current model. Rationality refers to the need to make
clear, logical connections between data and theory. Often, those connections will
take the form of mathematical relationships.
IV. Shaping principles are those conscious and unconscious values and assumptions scientists
bring to their work. They can profoundly influence the course of scientific
investigations, both in gathering data and forming theories.
A. One of the most important shaping principles is the worldview a scientist brings
to his or her field of study. A person’s worldview is a set of assumptions and
values that the person believes to be true about how the world works and about
their place in it.
B. Worldviews involve both crucial and trivial issues and often determine the
direction of a person’s work and their choices.
C. One shaping principle is the assumption of the uniformity of nature—that the
natural world obeys certain fundamental laws and does so without exception.
Many scientists believe that quantifiability is a requirement for data. Prior
commitment to a particular theory or paradigm can also be a powerful shaping
The Scientific Community
I. Our confidence in scientific knowledge should be proportional to the evidence supporting
II. It is important to understand that science and its outcomes take place in the context of a
scientific community and a larger society. There is no single authoritative source that
makes judgments on the validity of scientific theories. Instead, it is a collective body
of scientists working in a given field, who, because of their competence and
experience, establish what is authentic science and what is not.
Controversies in Science
I. New Information—we are continually confronted by new observations—the hole in
ozone layer, or the dieback of certain forests. It takes some time before all the
hypotheses regarding the cause of what we have observed can be adequately tested.
During this time, there may be honest disagreement as to which hypothesis is most
likely. Such controversies are gradually settled by further observations and testing,
but the process lead into the second reason for continuing controversy.
II. Complex Phenomena—certain phenomena, such as the hole in the ozone layer or the loss
of forests, do not lend themselves to simple tests or experiments. Therefore, it is
difficult and time consuming to prove the causative role of one factor or to rule out
the involvement of another. Gradually, different lines of evidence come to support
one hypothesis and exclude another, enabling the issue to be resolved. When is there
enough evidence to say unequivocally that one hypothesis is right and another is
wrong? At some point, the scientists working in the appropriate field will reach a
consensus in making the judgment.
III. Bias—the third reason for controversy is that there are many vested interests which wish
to maintain and promote disagreement, because they stand to profit by doing so. For
example, tobacco interests argued for years that the connection between smoking and
illness had not been proved and that more studies were necessary. By harping on the
absence of absolute proof and downplaying the overwhelming body of evidence
supporting the connection between smoking and illness, the tobacco lobby succeeded
in keeping the issue controversial and thereby delayed regulatory restrictions on
IV. Subjective Values—the fourth reason for controversy is that subjective value judgments
may be involved. This is particularly true in environmental science because the
discipline deals with the human response to environmental issues.
V. Some controversy is the inevitable outcome of the scientific process itself, but much of it
is attributable to less noble causes. Unfortunately, the media and the public may be
unaware of the true nature of the information and will often give equal credibility to
opposing views on an issue.
Evaluating Science
I. When judging the validity of different viewpoints, we must ask:
A. What are the observations underlying the conclusion. Can they be satisfactorily
B. Do the explanations and theories follow logically from the data?
C. Does the explanation account for all of the observations?
D. Are there reasons a particular explanation is favored? Who profits from having
that explanation adopted broadly?
E. Is the conclusion supported by the community of scientists with the greatest
competence to judge the work?

I.3 Three Integrative Themes: Ecosystem Capital, Policy/Politics, and Globalization

I. Integrative themes describe some of the dimensions of what we are dealing with
as humans draw their sustenance from the natural world and inevitably affect it.
Ecosystem Capital
Good and Services
I. The stock of ecosystem capital in a nation and its income-generating capacity represents
a major form of wealth of the nation.
I. Ecosystem capital is exploited to support essential human activities. Just because
ecosystem capital is renewable, however, does not necessarily mean that it will be
exploited sustainably.
A. In addition, there are many threats to ecosystem capital that come from human
II. Unsustainable exploitation and other damaging impacts represent a reduction of the
goods and services provided by these ecosystems. Far too often, the people most
affected by this loss are the poor.
Protecting Ecosystem Capital
I. Many of the factors that drive changes in ecosystem capital are related to exploitation.
Policy and Politics
I. The purpose of environmental public policy is to promote the common good. Two goals
stand out: the improvement of human welfare and the protection of the natural world.
A. Environmental public policy addresses two sets of environmental issues: 1) the
prevention or reduction of air, water, and land pollution and 2) the use of natural
resources like forests, fisheries, oil, land, and so forth.
Local Level
I. Some policies are developed at local levels to solve local problems. None of this happens
in a political vacuum, however, and there is always some sort of political battle.
Broader Levels
I. It becomes the responsibility of national governments to address broader problems. As
with local policies, however, there are political battles at the national level
surrounding almost every environmental issue. The result is often a compromise that
leaves everyone unhappy.
Current Politics
I. Politics always accompanies policy.
I. Globalization—the accelerating interconnectedness of human activities, ideas, and
cultures—is the third integrative theme.
A. The intensity, speed, and extend of connectedness are rapidly increasing, to the
point where their consequences are profoundly changing many human enterprises.
These changes are most evident in the globalization of economies, cultural
patterns, political arrangements, environmental resources, and pollution.
B. For many in the world, globalization has brought undeniable improvements in
well-being and health, as economic exchanges have improved public-health
practices, and agricultural research has improved crop yields.
C. For some, however, globalization has brought the dilution and even destruction of
cultural and religious ideals and norms and has done little to improve economic
Economic Changes
I. The major element of globalization may be the economic reorganization of the world.
The transformation had been facilitated by the globalization of communication,
whereby people are instantly linked.
A. Other components of reorganization are the relative ease of transportation and
financial transactions; the dominance of transnational corporations with
unprecedented wealth and power; trade arrangements between major economic
players; and the power of the World Trade Organization.
B. Economic changes bring cultural, environmental, and technological changes in
their wake.
Environmental Changes
I. Globalization has contributed to some notoriously harmful outcomes, such as the spread
of worldwide diseases; the global dispersion of exotic species, the trade in hazardous
wastes; the spread of persistent organic pollutants; the radioactive fallout from
nuclear accidents; the exploitation of oceanic fisheries; the destruction of the ozone
layer; and global climate change.
I. The foregoing and other perceived negative impacts of globalization have led to a
significant protest movement.
A. Many who criticize globalization cite its ideological commitment to unfettered
economic growth and its accompanying resource consumption. They are
concerned that globalization is often promoted as an unquestionable good yet
does not seem to be at all capable of promoting other goods, such as a safe
environment, financial stability, sustainable development, or social justice.

I.4 The Environment in the 21st Century

WSSD: Johannesburg, 2002
I. The WSSD meeting attempted to address the undeniable fact that most of the agreements
made at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development were implemented
weakly. Preparation for the WSSD summit focused on issues vital to the process of
sustainable development, such as generating clean water and sanitation, providing
energy services, reversing the deterioration of agricultural lands, protecting marine
fisheries, addressing toxic chemicals and human health, and protecting biodiversity.
II. Unfortunately, the WSSD did very little of what was hoped for. The resulting Plan of
Implementation bore little resemblance to that of the UNCED, with only weak
statements of support for crucial issues.
A New Commitment
I. Many global trends are on a collision course with the fundamental systems that maintain
our planet as a tolerable place to live. The current degradation of ecosystems,
atmospheric changes, losses of species, and depletion of water resources inevitably
lead to a point where resources are no longer adequate to support the human
population as where, consequently, civil order will break down.
Good News
I. Food production has improved the nutrition of millions in the developing world, life
expectancy continues to rise, and the percentage of individuals who are
undernourished continues to decline. Population growth rates continue to fall in many
of the developing countries.
A. A rising tide of environmental awareness in the industrialized countries has led to
the establishment of policies, laws, and treaties that have improved the protection
of natural resources and significantly reduced the pollution load.