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The Environmental, Economic, and Social Components of Sustainability

Chris is a registered professional civil engineer and has worked on a more than 300 public and private projects over the last decade.

Learn more about sustainability in this article.

Learn more about sustainability in this article.

What Is Sustainability?

It seems like every other day we hear someone talk about sustainability. Sustainability can be broadly defined as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” When it comes to describing sustainability in our world, we need to be concerned about three main areas of influence.

There are three interconnected spheres of sustainability that describe the relationships between the environmental, economic, and social aspects of our world. These spheres are a related set of concepts that, when taken together, can form a solid ground from which major decisions and actions can be made. Examples of such decisions could include land use planning, surface water management, building design and construction, and even law making.

When the concepts contained in the three spheres of sustainability are applied to real world situations, everybody wins. Natural resources are preserved, the environment is protected, the economy isn't harmed, and the quality of life for our people is improved or maintained. Below is a diagram showing the three spheres and how they are related.

The Three Spheres of Sustainability (Adapted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Others)

The Three Spheres of Sustainability (Adapted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Others)

Basically, what this is saying is that nearly everything we do or plan to do has an effect on the sustainability of the human race.

Environmental Sustainability

In a truly sustainable environment, an ecosystem would maintain populations, biodiversity, and overall functionality over an extended period of time. Ideally, decisions that are made should promote equilibrium within our natural systems and seek to encourage positive growth. Unnecessary disturbances to the environment should be avoided whenever possible. If there is a disturbance, it should be mitigated to the maximum practicable extent. When decisions are made, one part of the discussion should always be the environmental impacts of the proposed outcome or result.

There are several items that are directly related to environmental sustainability. One of the concepts that is of the utmost importance is the proper management of our natural resources. Using the Z-squared approach to sustainability, we can minimize our impacts to the environment. In some cases we can even promote habitat restoration and preservation as means to negotiate a successful solution to a problem.

Economic Sustainability is a balancing act.  Profitability and cost of a decision must be balanced with the environmental and social impacts of its results.

Economic Sustainability is a balancing act. Profitability and cost of a decision must be balanced with the environmental and social impacts of its results.

Economic Sustainability

Similar to environmental sustainability, economic sustainability involves creating economic value out of whatever project or decision you are undertaking. Economic sustainability means that decisions are made in the most equitable and fiscally sound way possible while considering the other aspects of sustainability. In most cases, projects and decisions must be made with the long term benefits in mind (rather than just the short term benefits). Keep in mind that when only the economic aspects of something are considered, it may not necessarily promote true sustainability.

For many people in the business world, economic sustainability or growth their main focal point. On the large scale (globally or even locally), this narrow-minded approach to management of a business can ultimately lead to unsatisfactory results. However, when good business practices are combined with the social and environmental aspects of sustainability, you can still have a positive result that is for the greater good of humanity.

There are several key ideas that make up economic sustainability. For example, governments should look to promoting "smart growth" through no-nonsense land use planning and subsidies or tax breaks for green development. Strong financial support for universities, education programs, and research & development is an important part of economic sustainability as well. In addition to this, an emphasis should also be placed on other areas such as reducing unnecessary spending and cutting red tape.

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability is based on the concept that a decision or project promotes the betterment of society. In general, future generations should have the same or greater quality of life benefits as the current generation do. This concept also encompasses many things such as human rights, environmental law, and public involvement & participation. Failing to put emphasis on the social part of decision or action can result in the slow collapse of the spheres of sustainability (and society as well).

One great example of social sustainability is the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972 (and amendments in 1977) and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Overall, these sets of laws were great pieces of legislation that set minimum water quality standards for both surface and drinking water. This had the effect of positively promoting the health and well-being of everyone in America. The Clean Water Act also served to protect our nation's water supply by making it essentially illegal to discharge pollutants in adjacent rivers, lakes, and streams. This period of time in our nation also saw many other improvements in our environmental laws. All of these laws (and other factors as well) lead to the overall betterment of society for Americans. The graph below illustrates the correlation between the passing of this kind of legislation and the average life expectancy for citizens of the United States.

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Most of the important health and environmental laws were passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Backup data compiled from various sources.

Most of the important health and environmental laws were passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Backup data compiled from various sources.

It's interesting to point out here that there seems to be a correlation between when these important environmental laws were passed and the average life expectancy of Americans.

Final Thoughts

For many people, the main concern in their lives is their overall well being and quality of life. Think about how this relates to the economy and the environment. In a poor economy, people experience a poor quality of life. The same also holds true for a poor environment. In a poor environment, the impacts on quality of life are not always easily observable. However, it doesn't take a trained individual to see how things such as polluted stormwater runoff, over-development of floodplains, and the poor management of our scarce resources can have an affect on our everyday quality of life. The three spheres of sustainability encompass many concepts which explain how decisions and actions can have an impact on the overall sustainability of our world.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: What are the various components of sustainable development?

Answer: Sustainable development must include a design that holistically accounts for and minimizes all aspects of environmental, economic, and anthropogenic impacts. In general, sustainable components for new development would fall under the same categories as sustainability in its overall context.

To be sustainable, new development and infrastructure should complement the landscape and the area. Its construction should add to what's already in the environment rather than taking away from it. New development should respect the natural laws of economics, the environment, and harmonize with societal values of users and residents.

Sustainable development requires the use of creative ideas and innovative design techniques. Regarding the environment, Low Impact Development Techniques should be employed to best manage available stormwater. Other Green components should be used as well to minimize the impact on air quality, electricity use, etc. Efficiently developed and eco-friendly materials local to the area should be utilized for construction whenever possible. The local labor pool should be tapped for development which will improve the local economy and give people a sense of ownership in the project.

Question: What are some environmental and social challenges of sustainability?

Answer: In the world that we live in today, there are plenty of challenges in these two areas. In the environmental area we have several big challenges such as 1) Deforestation, 2) Carbon emissions, 3) Unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels 4) Oceanic Pollution, and 5) Habitat destruction just to name a few. These issues are global issues and can only be solved by implementing a community-by-community approach to sustainability.

For social issues, there are plenty of issues as well. Here are perhaps five big ones 1) Hunger and access to clean water, 2) Poverty, 3) government and corporate corruption, 4) Persecution based on race/religion/etc, and 5) Vaccinations/Disease. No matter which of these (or others) that you look at, the issues affect millions of people.

Question: Can you describe what sustainability means in terms of today's society?

Answer: Sustainability is a set of conditions which results in an indefinite state of equilibrium between the human population and the resources that we rely upon for survival as well as the waste that we generate. In other words, sustainability a set of behaviors, policies, and actions that serve to strike a balance between the rates at which we use resources and the rates at which those resources are replenished or replaced in addition to striking a balance between the waste that we generate (pollution & emissions) and the environment's ability to absorb and decompose that waste. Therefore, waste and resource management is at the heart of the sustainability ideology.

The interesting thing is that I don't believe that this definition will change in the foreseeable future. Historically, the idea of "sustainability" was thought of in a short-sighted manner typically focusing on small issues and small solutions. However, today sustainability is thought of more as a "big picture" and "all encompassing" concept whereby all segments of society and all components of the resource cycle are considered. This new paradigm of "sustainable thinking" is not likely to change in the future.

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