7 Perspectives on Sustainability

Talk about a sustainable, green economy is everywhere. People are being urged to find new green jobs to replace the jobs that are being lost in the current recession. But what does it mean to be green? Can it be measured? How will we really know if our economic development is sustainable?

The answers are given in 7 Perspectives on Sustainability: Understand What a Sustainable Future Really Means. It provides a short, no-nonsense introduction to seven different ways of understanding sustainability, and points out the measurements that will tell us when we are following sustainable practices.

Some people think of sustainability as another term for "environmentally friendly": we want to preserve the splendours of nature for our children and grandchildren. That's right as far as it goes - but sustainability also means "economically viable". This, too, is key.

We want to preserve profitable businesses for our children and our grandchildren, too. Profits forever!  The seven perspectives show the challenges that businesses must meet to get to that goal.

The UN has called for "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". That means finding a way to lift millions of people out of poverty today, and still keep an equal richness of the world's resources intact for generations to come.

There is enough productive land in the world for every person to enjoy the benefits that 1.8 hectares can produce. But under current technologies and practices, the average Canadian has an ecological footprint of 7.6 hectares, over 4 times his or her fair share. To be sustainable, more efficient practices must be used so that everyone can share the earth.

More than 1300 experts around the world worked together on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project. They found that over 60% of the ecosystem services that support human life are being degraded or used unsustainably, including nature's ability to provide people with fresh water and  clean air, to regulate the climate and to keep natural hazards in check. Ecology shows the crucial importance of protecting the natural life support systems that allow human life to flourish.

With the backing of the King of Sweden, every Swedish household has been given information about The Natural Step. It is a scientific approach about how to protect ecosystems into the future.

People are putting so many greenhouse gases into the air that the world's average temperature is rising. A further rise of as little as  2° C will increase the intensity of storms, cause droughts for millions of people in the interiors of continents, floods for millions more at the coastlines, and will put up to 30% of all species at risk.

To avoid the worst outcomes, people have to reduce their use of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas, and they need to get energy from renewable sources like sunlight, wind and flowing water.

As much as people need financial capital to thrive into the future, they also need natural capital  - the stock of natural resources and the services of nature that enrich us.

People must preserve this natural capital instead of squandering it through habits like cutting down more trees each year than are replanted, catching fish at a rate faster than they can reproduce, or taking over so much space that nature has nowhere left to generate the services that support us. Renewable resources should be used at a rate that allows them time to renew.

Corporations like Nike are learning to measure a triple bottom-line - their financial, environmental and social performance. They are looking to a combination of high labour and environmental standards, respect for human rights and strong community relations to ensure they stay profitable over the long run. Do the right thing and get richer - how's that for great motivation!

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Biodiversity and business: the economics of nature
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