The Impact of TechnologyThe real difference between viability and sustainability is in the how those societies use their irreplaceable resources, and the impact of technology. Technology is the key to a viable and sustainable society because it is the agent of forced change. A viable society embraces technology and it’s changes. A non-viable society, non sustainability society, rejects technology without adequate replacements, and quickly falls into decline, and may disappear. Technology has advantages and drawbacks, and its management is not without challenge. Medical technology has eradicated smallpox, almost eliminated polio, and eradicated major diseases and increased longevity. It also brought us thalidomide babies, and other medical mistakes. Nuclear technology gave us the promise of cheap power but also gave us Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Chemical technology gave us rubber, plastics, pesticides, computers etc., but it also brought us Sovesto, Italy, Bophal, India, and the Love Canal. Society, once having adopted a technology, is extremely reluctant to abandon it. How many of us would return our laptops? (One hand in the audience went up, but then said, “Only for a newer one.”) Technology is a forcing issue and it changes the basic definitions of viability and sustainability by making advances that are almost impossible to relinquish. Consider the Plains Indians, the Mayan’s and the Incas. They each had sustainable societies by our current definitions. They were each defeated by technology. The Plains Indians’ society was largely eliminated by the mouldeboard plow, the rifle and the Colt .45. The Incas were defeated by the Spanish conquistadors, and the disease they brought. Their technology was not in the medical area and the disease decimated the society. The Mayan society largely disappeared when drought struck and their technology could not support the population of their cities.
How We Measure SustainabilitySimply put, a sustainable society must make a measurable profit. That profit may or not be measured in economic terms but must be measurable. The profit must be able to be measured and accumulated if the organism is to weather lean times and survive. The profit tells the society what it can or cannot do in terms that can be defined. Example: We do not choose to recycle ALL the spent electronics we use—despite the use of underpaid child labor in third world countries. Triple Bottom Line is people, planet, profit as one proposed measure. The problem with this technique is in the metrics for planet and people. Those measures tend to be “squishy”, and can be measured only indirectly in relationship to profit. Again, I cite the 37 different definitions for the Corporate Social Responsbility. There is a newly promoted Quadruple Bottom Line, and it is people, planet, profit, and a spiritual and/or a cultural dimension where worker satisfaction is somehow included in the metric. According to a recent definition, businesses using QBL reporting must:
“engage in sustainable environmental practices, focus on recycling, waste reduction, reduced energy consumption, and avoid production of harmful chemicals.”The spiritual aspect of QBL seeks spiritual or cultural fulfillment of employees who dedicate their lives and activities to along with corporate goals. That’s just plain wrong! We have enough trouble defining harmul chemicals, let alone the cultural goals. If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it. If we can’t measure or control it, then what are we promoting? Each company or society is free to make up its own definition of QBL and engage in “greenwashing” its image.
A Different ApproachI would propose a different approach. Measure energy use in Giga Joules (Gj) or Kwh for all your activities. Carbon footprinting, waste recycling, etc. are interesting activities but because of differences in products and processes even between similar companies, you can’t compare similar companies. As a brief aside, I would like to point out that companies who use landfill methane as an energy source are not really greener than others, just using a different source.
- Compare your energy use irrespective of sources; there is a reliable database that will enable measurement.
- Report your social accomplishments, and societal activities separately and blow your own horn about these activities as much as you want to.
sustainability diagram: By Andrew, Sunray, based on "File:Sustainable development.svg" by Johann Dréo (created in Photoshop) [CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons rainbow image: Kevin Dean via Creative Commons License Scale Image: Sustainable Advantage
- Symposium on Sustainability and the Environment
- ICOSSE 2011: Magdy Abdelrahman and the Importance of Integrating Infrastructure Sustainability into Civil Engineering Programs
- YCOSST Focus on Sustainability Professionals: Deborah Grubbe
- ICOSSE 2011: Yosef Manik of the University of Maine Assesses the Sustainability of Bio-product Supply Chains
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