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Science & NatureGreen TalkThriving – Sustainably – in the long term

Thriving – Sustainably – in the long term

by Theresa Peluso

Gemmill Park Forest 5
Photo © Neil Carleton

Part 1: The big picture, as painted by Dr. Mark Roseland

Why are we constantly being given an ultimatum when it comes to preserving the natural environment and having a strong economy? We’re told that you can either have clean air, soil and water and a thriving ecosystem, or you can have jobs, but you can’t have both. This is a misconception, promulgated by corporations wanting to exploit our resources for their gain. Another big misconception is that the air, water, soil and vegetation on our planet are in unlimited supply, and that we can continue exploiting these resources indefinitely.

What’s more, we’re constantly reminded that the GDP (the monetary value of all goods and services produced within a country during a specified period of time) is the be-all and end-all. Little attention is paid to the planet’s ecosystem services, which are what make our life both possible and worth living: food; clean water; clean air; shelter; energy; medicines; regulation of floods, soil erosion, and disease outbreaks; waste decomposition; and recreational and spiritual benefits. In 2011 global ecosystem services were valued at $125 trillion. Although this is a huge number, it represents a cumulative loss of about $25 trillion since 1997. Despite this decrease, “ecoservices contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP”. (taken from

Globally, humans today are consuming a year’s supply of the world’s natural resources in less than eight months, according to an article by Emma Howard on the latest Global Footprint Network report, which compared demands by the world’s people with respect to carbon emissions, cropland, fish stocks, and the use of forests for timber, with the ability of the Earth to regenerate these resources and naturally absorb the carbon emitted. This ecological imbalance was first observed in the 1970s, and continues to worsen with each passing year. This year our “overshoot day” has occurred six days earlier than last year. In effect, we are now consuming the equivalent of 1.6 planets, and if we continue at this rate, by 2030 we’ll be consuming the equivalent of 2 planets!


Clearly, our current way of life is unsustainable. If nothing is done to correct this trend, it will be worse for our children. Not only will they have to deal with Canada’s economic debt, but also its environmental debt, which, in addition to resource depletion, also includes the increasing incidence of severe weather events as a result of climate change; and soil, air and water contamination as people try to extract resources and produce goods quickly and cheaply without concerning themselves about the environmental impacts of these activities. We need to divorce ourselves from the current emphasis on material goods as determinants of our well-being and success, and see how we could be happy – thrive – in a sustainable society.

Here are some ideas about how to develop a sustainable community, taken from a report written 15 years ago titled Sustainable Community Development: Integrating Environmental, Economic and Social Objectives, by Dr. Mark Roseland, of Simon Fraser University, B.C. I have quoted extensively from this lengthy report, which clearly and cogently explains his concept of sustainable community development:

Our communities as presently planned and developed are not sustainable in a global ecological sense. A typical North American city of 100 000 inhabitants imports 200 tons of food, 1000 tons of fuel, and 62 000 tons of water every day; it exports 100 000 tons of garbage and 40 000 tons of human waste each year. Indeed, it is these unsustainably “developed” cities of the world that produce most of the world’s solid and liquid wastes, consume most of the world’s fossil fuels, emit the majority of ozone-depleting compounds and toxic gases, and give economic incentive to the clearing of the world’s forests and agricultural lands.

According to Dr. Roseland, local governments are where the move to sustainability needs to start because, collectively, their decisions on community planning and development have a huge impact on environmental sustainability.

Dr. Roseland stresses that, for sustainable development to work, governments must ensure that human activities don’t deplete what he calls ‘natural capital’. As he defines it, natural capital “refers to any stock of natural assets that yields a flow of valuable goods and services into the future. For example, a forest, a fish stock or an aquifer can provide a harvest or flow that is potentially sustainable year after year. The forest or fish stock is ‘natural capital’ and the sustainable harvest is ‘natural income.’ ”

He classifies natural capital as follows:

“The total stock of environmental assets that comprise this natural capital may usefully be divided into three categories:

  •  non-renewable resources, such as minerals and fossil fuels;
  •  the finite capacity of natural systems to produce “renewable resources” such as food crops, forestry products and water supplies – which are renewable only if the natural systems from which they are drawn are not overexploited; and
  •  the capacity of natural systems to absorb the emissions and pollutants which arise from human actions without side effects which imply heavy costs passed onto future generations….”

In addition, natural capital “also provides such critical ecological services as waste assimilation, erosion and flood control, and protection from ultraviolet radiation (the ozone layer is a form of natural capital). These life support systems are counted as natural income. Since the flow of services from ecosystems often requires that they function as intact systems, the structure and diversity of the system may be an important component of natural capital. ”

So the first important component of sustainable development is natural capital. The second, equally important component, is social capital, which Dr. Roseland describes as:

the shared knowledge, understandings, and patterns of interactions that a group of people bring to any productive activity….Social capital refers to the organizations, structures and social relations which people build-up themselves, independently of the state or large corporations. It contributes to stronger community fabric, and, often as a by-product of other activities, builds bonds of information, trust, and inter-personal solidarity.… social capital substantially enhances returns to investments in physical capital (the stock of material resources that can be used to produce a flow of future income) and human capital (the acquired knowledge and skills that individuals bring to productive activity).

… Social capital differs from other forms of capital in several significant ways, one of which is that it is not limited by material scarcity, meaning that its creative capacity is limited only by imagination. …It can take several forms, some of which are mutually recognized bonds, channels of information, and norms and sanctions…. Examples are churches, ethnic associations, trade unions, associations, sports associations, theatre societies or environmental groups….Informal groups can be regular customers of a shop, users of a park, sports fans, music fans, mothers of children who play together, or groups of street youth who mutually protect each other. “

Having defined the forms of capital, Dr. Roseland then defines the ‘development’ component of sustainable development as the process of using social change to fulfill human needs, enhance social equity, improve organizational effectiveness, with the goal of increasing sustainability. In this context, human needs are basic material needs (sufficient food, water and shelter), and non-material, quality-of-life needs (health; political and spiritual freedom; human rights; clean, healthy and accessible natural environments; and meaningful work).

Then Dr. Roseland shows how natural and social capital combine to provide sustainable development:

First, the term “sustainable development” acquires tangible meaning when understood in terms of natural capital and natural income. The bottom line for sustainability is that we must learn to live on our natural income rather than deplete our natural capital. …

Second, natural capital and social equity demand that North Americans…find ways of living more lightly on the planet. At a minimum, we will have to increase the efficiency of our resource and energy use. More likely, we will also have to reduce our …levels of materials and energy consumption.

Third, reducing our materials and energy consumption need not diminish and, in fact,would likely enhance our quality of life and the public domain – in other words, our social capital. It is important to distinguish between “quality of life” and “standard of living”

…. “Standard of living” generally refers to disposable income for things we purchase individually, whereas “quality of life” can be considered as the sum of all things which people purchase collectively (e.g. the health care system, public education, policing), or those things which are not purchased at all (e.g. air quality). …

Fourth, the critical resource for enhancing social capital is not money – rather, the critical resources are trust, imagination, the relations between individuals and groups, and time, the literal currency of life. Many of the social issues that people relate to most intimately – family, neighbourhood, community, decompression from work, recreation,culture, etc. – depend on these resources at least as much as money. This is not to saythat economic security isn’t important – it is – but focusing solely on money to provide security is using 19th century thinking to address 21st century challenges…. Programs and policies need to be effected at every level to insure that natural and social capitals are considered properly.”

Dr. Roseland conceives of a community as an ecosystem, similar to a natural ecosystem. It transforms energy and materials into products, which are used, and into by-products. In a natural ecosystem, the by-products are recycled, whereas in our communities most of these by-products end up as wastes. By analyzing the routes along which energy and pollution move, we can redirect these activities to increase the efficiency of resources, and find new uses for these by-products. One example of this is the use of cow manure by dairy farms to generate electricity and heat for agricultural operations. Another example is making transportation less costly and less polluting by re-orienting transport infrastructure away from the automobile. It requires fewer materials to build one bus rather than 40 cars and the additional roads and pollution the cars entail.

Dr. Roseland then explains that, in order for sustainable community development to work, all community members need to participate in the decision-making process. Collaboration is key, and all perspectives need to be considered before arriving at a solution. It is not necessary for all members to be in full agreement, but it is necessary to ensure that there is no substantial disagreement regarding the final decision.

For this to work, the traditional compartmentalized approach to managing a municipality needs to be replaced with a more holistic, decentralized, flexible approach that would address both environmental and community issues. Of course, this new approach would need to mesh with regional, provincial and federal policies and programs. Here are several sustainability issues that the author has identified as important for local governments:

infrastructure that results in environmentally respectful use of resources; minimization of waste and proper management of residues; energy-efficient transportation; compact land-use patterns; integrated transportation and land-use planning; local environmental assessments and audits; cooperation with non-governmental organizations in the implementation of environmental programs; reducing economic and social polarization; and integration of marginalized people into efforts towards sustainable development.

Given these general concerns for local governments, some broad policy goals might include the following: reducing per capita car use; reducing per capita water consumption; increasing the percentage of local land contained in parks; improving cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, etc.”

Let’s give Dr. Roseland the last word:

Sustainable communities do not mean settling for less, but rather thinking of new opportunities along a different, and likely more satisfying, dimension.… Sustainable communities require unprecedented and simultaneous emphasis on the efficient use of urban space, on minimizing the consumption of essential natural capital, on multiplying social capital, and on mobilizing citizens and their governments toward these ends. This synergistic approach will enable our communities to be cleaner, healthier, and less expensive; to have greater accessibility and cohesion; and to be more self-reliant in energy, food and economic security than they are now. Sustainable communities will not, therefore, merely “sustain” the quality of our lives – they will dramatically improve it.




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