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Larry Kapustka PhD: 250 words on sustainability
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12/18/2013 at 10:26:52 PM GMT
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Larry Kapustka PhD: 250 words on sustainability
The Contours of Sustainability
Larry Kapustka, Ph.D., LK ConsultancyThere is much intrigue and confusion about sustainability, both within and outside of SETAC.  A compelling force of life is the drive to survive and among species with social structures, this force extends to the society.  In that context, sustainability is nothing new.  In the 1980s, sustainability became a catchy phrase that spread like a wildfire through corporations and governments as a counter argument to pressures from environmentalists – it was presented as a challenge, how can we as a society continue to grow without destroying the base of our subsistence?  It was framed as sustainable development.  Almost immediately, this was condemned as an oxymoron and perhaps as a way around the criticisms, the concept has morphed into simply sustainability.Early efforts to define sustainability focussed on finite resources.  In a gloom and doom portrayal of the state of affairs, some predicted that we could not survive for long because the costs of materials would become prohibitive – the debate entered the purview of economics pitting the finite resource advocates against the believers in technological innovation.  It was a debate that resource advocates lost at least in the near term as commodity prices fell even in the face of documented scarcity – new efficiencies in exploration, extraction, processing, and use more than made up for the continual decline in the stock of finite resources.Meanwhile, that marketing cachet of declaring that one was operating sustainably was irresistible.  Framed in these normative terms, who would support anyone or any corporation that declared they were opposed to sustainability.  And so the countercyclical claims of sustainability and charges of greenwashing threatened to corrupt the larger concept.Whether or not the term sustainability survives is immaterial, the concept surely will.  A common statement of resignation about the whole concept is that "There is no common understanding of what sustainability is.  It is whatever people want it to be.”  That it seems is taking the easy way out.  Giving up without spending the time or the energy to undergo a rigorous academic pursuit of the concept.  Perhaps this level of resignation is grounded in the realization that there is not a formula, algorithm, model, accounting process, or other linear path to a correct answer; a decided frustration for engineers and old school scientist for whom there is always a correct answer.From the perspective of a biological/ecological foundation, sustainability is about extending the longevity of human societies.  It is not about saving the planet.  The planet will be around long after life is extinguished.  Rather, it is about nurturing/managing those aspects of ecological systems in a way that allows for predictable flows of goods and services upon which a society depends – rate of food production, the quantity and quality of accessible water, the rate of assimilating wastes, and so on.  In this context we can see that sustainability can be described in terms of systems ecology.  It then can be linked to social systems.  And together these lead to four questions that ought to be front and center of any discussion of sustainability: what do you wish to sustain?  For how long?  Who benefits? And who pays?  Goodwill among stakeholders engaged in such a dialogue leads to agreed actions that can work for the parties involved.  Under similar circumstances in different cultures, the agreed actions are likely to be different – none is right, none is wrong, but each can be appropriate in its own context.  This is the realm of wicked problems.  This is a signature feature of sustainability.

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