Each of us has a role to play as a global citizen contributing to the improved management of planet Earth. We can minimize our environmental impact by being discerning consumers and by trying to understand the environmenta impacts of the goods and services that we use. The chart showing the average individual resource consumption in Australia gives a breakdown of those consumer products that contribute to individual emissions, water consumption, and Ecological Footprint.
Key sustainability criteria & finite resources
Articles on this web site attempt to assess sustainability through history, a difficult task as we have seen, with so much depending on scale and context. The creation of any taxonomy of sustainability (which encampasses all physical human activity as well as the mental component of welllbeing) will be extremely difficult and contentious. For example, Living Planet Report of 2014 suggests nine key limiting planetary boundaries that must not be crossed while at the same time they must meet the human desire for health, wealth, power, and participation (general well-being) on the path to inclusive and sustainable economic development: climate change, land use change, phosphorus and nitrogen, freshwater use, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading. At the chemical level there are the vital constituents of life itself and their place within global biogeochemical cycles: water, oxygen, carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen.
However, in assessing sustainability I have placed emphasis on the following key criteria for sustainability analysis: social organization, Ecosystem Services, The reasons for this selection are discussed in following articles.
See social organization
The formula I = PAT provides a simple static mathematization of consumption but it lacks a social and temporal dimension: it does not explain how, over time, societies became organised in a way that facilitated population growth, new and more efficient technologies, and increasing affluence – this is a question for historians.
Social organisation (social development) can be measured using a social development index that allows us to compare one society with another: it can be loosely defined as ‘the capacity to get things done’ (this does not necessarily imply that ‘getting things done’ is a good thing) whether intellectually, physically, technologically or in any other way. Although this capacity can be attributed to a host of factors (see social organisation) the point is simply made here that, over the course of history societies have tended to get more done, at an ever increasing rate, and with increasing environmental impact.
We know that every human places an additional burden on the world’s resources. By recycling and careful management of consumption this burden can be minimized but never eliminated. Population size impacts sustainability in many ways that cannot be ignored.
Consumption of biophysical resources
The quantitative use of biophysical resources by any society can be described as the total ‘throughput’; a measure of economic activity. For simplicity global biophysical resources have been divided into five categories: materials, energy, food, water an biodiversity (animals and plants, their ecology and [ecosystem services] to humanity). These categories are not mutually exclusive but each is critical to human existence and therefore warrants special consideration. Of course the many ways in which these basic biophysical resources are used by any particular society depends on the social organisation of that society. In theory by careful sustainability accounting it is possible to relate expenditure (national, institutional, individual) to resource use and environmental impact. In practice this is complex, costly, and impractical but there are many ways in which it can be applied. For example, energy (or water) intensity is the amount of energy needed to produce a particular product, provide a particular service, or perform a particular task. We can measure and reduce the energy and water (and other) intensities of our activities.
Transport & communication
About 10,000 years ago at the time of the Neolithic Revolution humans and their domesticated animals made up about 1% of the world’s vertebrate biomass. Today, after about 500 generations, this has risen to 98%, mostly as cattle and livestock.
To understand how social development has resulted in the aggregation of people into populations and how their use of technology for the consumption of resources (expressed in the simplest terms as water, food, materials, energy, and biodiversity as ecosystem services) and facilitated by transport and communication systems and this has in turn affected human impact on the physical environment.