Guidelines for Sustainability Literacy

Toward a stewardship of the Global Commons:

engaging “my neighbor” in the issue of sustainability

By members of the Critical Issues Committee, Geological Society of America

E-an Zen and Allison R. (Pete) Palmer
For the ad hoc Committee on Critical issues, Geological Society of America



Humanity has a problem: learning to live within its means.  Continuing human population growth and increasing demand on Earth resources will severely test the Earth's ability to concurrently maintain a viable human habitat and a healthy ecosystem.  The crunch could come as soon as the middle of the twenty-first century; if the Earth fails as a viable habitat, human suffering, societal disruption, and ecosystem deterioration will increase.  We humans, however, are more than just prolific procreators and consumers; we are also endowed with intelligence, imagination, the capacity to look forward, and the power to choose.  We could change things. 


Sustainability embodies the concept that humans can consciously choose to live in balance with the ecosystem, within the limits posed by natural resources, for generations to come.  To achieve successful transition to sustainability, however, we humans, here and elsewhere, must change the way we live our lives.  To initiate that change, we need a constructive dialogue to achieve better understanding among all participants about how we humans affect the viability of our habitat.  We need to communicate with one another in a shared language.


These “Guidelines for Sustainability Literacy” are intended to be a step toward better public understanding of the connected web of sustainability issues.  We disturb that web every time we make choices.  The scales and dimensions of our collective daily activities and decisions directly and indirectly affect the prospect for a future in which the Earth remains as a place for civil and just living in balance with the rest of the ecosystem.  We owe to future generations both timely warnings and active measures that can anticipate and mitigate the problems we bequeath to them through our styles of living.  Today’s children, and their children, will be the beneficiaries of our caring.


The Guidelines can become effective if the ideas they represent are introduced into the education programs, formal and informal, for all of the stakeholders of the first half of the 21st century – primarily young people of high school and college age.  This is true because understanding of the issues at the grass-roots level will be necessary to support the tough political decisions needed to mitigate the consequences of our profligate ways of living, and return the human enterprise of the mid-21st century to a humane balance with the global ecosystem.  It can be done, and we in the United States have much responsibility; we can lead the way.


Guidelines for Sustainability Literacy

I.  What is sustainability?

            A.  A human challenge: humanity is a force to balance or upset the dynamics

        of the global habitat.

            B.  What is to be sustained and what is to be changed?

            C.  A sustainability regime needs stability and continuity

            D.  Who are the stakeholders?

II.  Why should we care now?

            A.  Concerns about projections into the future

                        1.  Overcrowding

                        2.  Resource depletion

                        3.  Environmental degradation

                        4.  Loss of biodiversity

            B.  Potential for violent and disruptive social and political competition for access

        to limited resources and amenities

            C.  Increasingly reduced future options

            D.  Need for assumption of stewardship responsibility toward the global commons

1.  Atmosphere

2.  Biosphere

3. Hydrosphere

4. Lithosphere

III.  Basic background for discussion of sustainability

            A.  Earth history and the human context

            B.  Spaceship Earth: a materially closed system

            C.  The implications of growth

                        1.  Exponential growth and doubling time

                        2.  Various meanings of “growth” or “development”

                        3.  Distinction between “bigger” and “better”

                        4.  Equity and quality of life and environment

            D.  Global feedback systems

1.  Everything is interconnected

2.  The unintended consequences of tunnel vision

            E.  Application and validity of models

1.  Probabilistic forecasts

2.   Contingency planning

            F.  Scales: spatial and temporal

            G.  Rates: natural recharge, etc.

            H.  The nature of ecosystems

                        1.  Humans are an intergal part of the ecosystem

                        2.  Not all ecospace can be subsumed by humans

3.  The global commons (atmosphere, oceans, etc) are system buffers and

        are non-renewable ecological niches.

            I.  The nature of resources

1.  Renewable resources are effectively replenished at rates that depend on

        rates of use

2.  Non-renewable resources will eventually be used up and need careful


3.  Public vs. private ownership of common resources raises issues of


4.  Resources and ecosystems are neither free nor inexhaustible

5.  Resource utilization, from raw  materials through to final disposal of

        products and wastes, should be conservative and environmentally benign: the

        paradigm of industrial ecology

            J.  Recognition of human capacity to make large, long-lasting impacts on the

        global ecosystem

1.  Population size and growth

2.  Environmental and resource demands

3.  Technology

4.  National and social strifes and competitions

5.  Power of visioning, and implementing our imagination

        (the “human spirit”).

6.  Ability to affect the frequency, scale, impact, and location of natural


IV.  Requirements of any civil and equitable human society

            A.  Clean air and clean water

            B.  Food that meets nutritional needs

            C.  Shelter and clothing

            D  Health

            E.  Opportunities and imperatives for education

            F.  Gainful employment

            G.  Security and peace

            H.  Aesthetics, recreation, and spiritual aspirations

            I.  Personal mobility

            J.  Transportation as social infrastructure

            K.  Opportunity to make free choices for individual and communal well being.

V.  Essential components of a sustainable future

            A.  A human population in balance with a viable and sustainable global ecosystem

            B.  Material underpinnings for a civil society, including:

                        1.  Potable and fresh water

                        2.  Adequate food

                        3.  Materials for housing, transportation, etc.

            C.  Adequate, dependable, and renewable energy supply

            D.  Distinguishing needs from desires

            E.  Consumption in balance with supply

            F.  Education in the context of a sustainable global habitat

            G.  Mechanisms to ensure institutional continuity and to monitor compliance

VI.  Earth resources that are essential to a sustainable world

            A.  Atmosphere

            B.  Soil

            C.  Water, especially fresh and potable water

D.  Renewable energy sources

1.  Practicality

2.  Problem of fossil hydrocarbons as long-term energy and petrochemical


            E.  Other mineral and rock resources

            F.  Ecosystems and their components - livestock, fishstock, timber, grass. etc.

VII.  Relevance of knowledge about the Earth’s natural history

            A..  Rates of geologic processes

            B.  Spatial scales of geological processes

            C.  Validity of forward projection of the geological record

            D.  Limits to Nature’s ability to cleanse and to replenish

            E.  Contrast between passive use and active modification of Earth

            F.  Appreciation of long-term natural trends and ranges of natural variability

G.  Ability to distinguish natural vs. human-induced changes

H.  Limits to feasible remediation.

VIII.  Human factors that affect sustainability

            A.  Population size

            B.  Demographics

            C.  Magnitude of temporal, spatial and material activities

            D.  Per capita consumption and waste generation

            E.  Problems posed by urban growth and urbanization: the geography of

        concentrated consumption

            F.  Growth of knowledge and understanding

            G.  The power to choose

                        1.  Need to value and conserve future options

                        2.  Need for set-asides for the future

                        3.  Understanding the values and limits of traditional conservation measures

IX.  Issues of culture, justice and politics that affect sustainability

            A.  Ethics, social justice, and religious perceptions

                        1.  Discrepancies between our proclaimed values and our practices

                        2.  Equity in land and resource use

                        3.  The exportation of the environmental burden

                        4.  Education; goals, contents, value systems

                        5.  Externally induced perception of a “good life” in light of shifting social

goals; different causes and stimuli for demands on consumer goods

                        6. Leadership of many faith communities regarding stewardship of the land

and its life systems

                        7.  recognition of different sustainability challenges in different societies

and cultures

            B.  Politics

                        1.  Different styles and concepts of legitimacy of governance

                        2.  Effective and accountable governance

                        3.  National and ethnic perceptions of value, equity, freedom of action, and

threats to success

                        4.  Desirable systems that are not predicated on terror or on survival at

poverty level

X.  Economic issues that affect sustainability

            A.  What are the ultimate bottlenecks that control the Earth’s carrying capacity for

humans? (by extension, steady per-capita supply that allows sustainability).

B.  Recognition of the endangered “ecological middle consumer”

            C.  Economics of exhaustible resources

            D.  What is meant by “consumption”?

            E.  Understanding limits to and ethics of consumption

            F.  What does GDP measure?

1.  Need to adequately value our Commons

2.  Short-term market value vs. real cost

            G.  Implications of measuring the health of an economy by its rate of growth

            H.  Reckoning advantages and burdens of externalized benefits and costs.

            I.  Technology

                        1.  Opportunities

2.  Limitations to its benefits

XI.  Factors over which we have some limited control

            A.  Earth’s physical environment

                        1.  Air quality

                        2.  Surface- and ground-water quality and availability

                        3.  Arable and pasture land

                        4.  Soil productivity and loss

                        5.  Climate change.

            B.  Biosphere health

                        1.  Habitat protection, esp. environmentally sensitive ecosystems

                        2.  Proliferation of exotic species (“weeds”)

                        3.  Overfishing, overtimbering, overgrazing, etc.

                        4.  Preservation of biodiversity and robust gene pools

            C.  Human health

                        1.  Disease mitigation

                        2.  Disease distribution and transmission

                        3.  Adequate nutrition on low ecological-footprint diets

            D.  Systems of governance

                        1.  Choice of civil yet sustainable systems

2.  Accountable decision-making processes

            E.  The human ability to choose, for which we need:

                        1.  Better understanding of the role of humans in the Earth system

and as potent geologic agents

                        2.  Better recognition of the limits of scientific and technological

solutions to material and energy supply, including recycling

and substitution.

                        3.  Keener appreciation of our responsibility to other life forms with

whom we share the ecosystem.

                        4.  Keener definition, accounting, and monitoring of the effects of

economic policies on sustainability; e.g. by some index of

sustainable economic welfare

XII.  Means to measure, monitor, and anticipate our impacts

            A.  Appropriate and effective methods and tools

                        1.  Carrying capacity

2.  The concept of “ecological footprints”

                        3.  Materials flow; accounting for recycling and wastes

            B.  Better scientific, predictive understanding.

            C.  Cross-cultural and trans-national communication and collaboration to ensure

justice, equity, and mutual consent.


Revised 10/30/99

Return to Introduction
Part I: Global Commons
Part II: Understanding Deep Time
Part III: Doubling Time

Part IV: Sustainability and Resources
Part V: The Connectedness of Everything
Part VI: Ecological Footprints & Carrying Capacity

Part VII: Spaceship Earth: There's No Place Left to Go
Part VIII: Part of the Global Ecosystem
Part IX: We Live in a World of Change
Part X: What Do We Mean by Sustainable World?
Part XI: Cultural Context of Sustainability
Part XII: We Have The Option of Choice

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