a stewardship of the Global Commons:
engaging “my neighbor” in the issue of sustainability
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
GUIDELINES FOR SUSTAINABILITY LITERACY:
THE INTRICACIES OF LIVING IN AN INTERACTIVE WORLD
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.
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
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
D. Who are the stakeholders?
should we care now?
A. Concerns about projections into the future
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
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
Exponential growth and doubling time
Various meanings of “growth” or “development”
Distinction between “bigger” and “better”
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
Humans are an intergal part of the ecosystem
Not all ecospace can be subsumed by humans
3. The global commons (atmosphere, oceans, etc) are system buffers
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
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
1. Population size and growth
2. Environmental and resource demands
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
of any civil and equitable human society
A. Clean air and clean water
B. Food that meets nutritional needs
C. Shelter and clothing
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.
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,
Potable and fresh water
Materials for housing, transportation, etc.
C. Adequate, dependable, and renewable energy
D. Distinguishing needs from desires
E. Consumption in balance with supply
F. Education in the context of a sustainable global
G. Mechanisms to ensure institutional continuity
and to monitor compliance
resources that are essential to a sustainable world
C. Water, especially fresh and potable water
Renewable energy sources
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.
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
D. Limits to Nature’s ability to cleanse and to
E. Contrast between passive use and active modification
F. Appreciation of long-term natural trends and
ranges of natural variability
Ability to distinguish natural vs. human-induced changes
Limits to feasible remediation.
Human factors that affect sustainability
A. Population size
C. Magnitude of temporal, spatial and material
D. Per capita consumption and waste generation
E. Problems posed by urban growth and urbanization:
the geography of
F. Growth of knowledge and understanding
G. The power to choose
Need to value and conserve future options
Need for set-asides for the future
Understanding the values and limits of traditional conservation
of culture, justice and politics that affect sustainability
A. Ethics, social justice, and religious perceptions
Discrepancies between our proclaimed values and our practices
Equity in land and resource use
The exportation of the environmental burden
Education; goals, contents, value systems
Externally induced perception of a “good life” in light of shifting
different causes and stimuli for demands on consumer goods
6. Leadership of many faith communities
regarding stewardship of the land
its life systems
recognition of different sustainability challenges in different
Different styles and concepts of legitimacy of governance
Effective and accountable governance
National and ethnic perceptions of value, equity, freedom of
Desirable systems that are not predicated on terror or on survival
issues that affect sustainability
A. What are the ultimate bottlenecks that control
the Earth’s carrying capacity for
(by extension, steady per-capita supply that allows sustainability).
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.
2. Limitations to its benefits
over which we have some limited control
A. Earth’s physical environment
Surface- and ground-water quality and availability
Arable and pasture land
Soil productivity and loss
B. Biosphere health
Habitat protection, esp. environmentally sensitive ecosystems
Proliferation of exotic species (“weeds”)
Overfishing, overtimbering, overgrazing, etc.
Preservation of biodiversity and robust gene pools
C. Human health
Disease distribution and transmission
Adequate nutrition on low ecological-footprint diets
D. Systems of governance
Choice of civil yet sustainable systems
2. Accountable decision-making processes
E. The human ability to choose, for which we need:
Better understanding of the role of humans in the Earth system
as potent geologic agents
Better recognition of the limits of scientific and technological
to material and energy supply, including recycling
Keener appreciation of our responsibility to other life forms
we share the ecosystem.
Keener definition, accounting, and monitoring of the effects
policies on sustainability; e.g. by some index of
Means to measure, monitor, and anticipate our impacts
A. Appropriate and effective methods and tools
2. The concept of “ecological footprints”
Materials flow; accounting for recycling and wastes
B. Better scientific, predictive understanding.
C. Cross-cultural and trans-national communication
and collaboration to ensure
equity, and mutual consent.