What is Sustainability?. Norman W. Garrick Lecture 5 Sustainable Transportation. Mobility, Freedom and Sustainability. Low argues that personal mobility is a freedom bestowed by modernity.
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Norman W. Garrick
Low introduces the common model of sustainability made up of a triad of economical, social, and environment sustainability.
This model suggests that for sustainability three simultaneous goals must be achieved: economic profitability, social responsibility and environmental conservation.
Some refer to this as the ‘three-legged stool’.
Low calls it the ‘triple bottom line’ perspective and states that this model might be a good accounting tool but not an effective or realistic way of characterizing sustainability.
“curb consumption while spreading the capacity to consume”.
The three-legged stool model does not help us address hard questions like
As we saw in the first class, politicians Jamaica and many other third world countries are very aware of the need to ‘talk’ sustainability but the policies often don’t add up to changes that support environmental sustainability. Environmental and health sustainability is often traded off in the interest of economic growth. This is a huge barrier to overcome.
The calculus in the USA is slightly different – often technological fixes are offered up as the solution that will cause us to achieve environmental sustainability without changing any of the economic or social issues that impact on environmental sustainability.
As Low pointed out, we cannot trade-off environmentally unsustainable growth against environmental sustainability.
“Growth is either sustainable or it is not”
The growing recognition that the action of man is causing catastrophic changes to the environment supports the need for change in both society and the environment.
The environment in question is the global biosphere with one energy input and no output for waste. This biosphere consists of natural ecosystems at different scales.
Low points out that one of the dilemmas we face in trying to move towards an environmentally sustainable existence is the scale of these ecosystems, which dwarf a single human actor.
He points out that a single human cannot directly act to influence the biosphere but it is the collective action of society – through its institutions and market economy – that is important here.
The example he gives is of a single drive making a single trip – that driver perceives correctly that his individual action has minimal impact.
However, when that trip is multiplied by millions we begin to see a noticeable effect on the biosphere. However, this drivers one trip and the millions by his peer are only possible because they are facilitated by society.
He points out that transportation patterns feeds into socially created patterns including land use, distribution of goods, distribution of social opportunities, health and diseases.
And some of these patterns including the production of goods and services and the distribution of land use feedback into transportation pattern.
Based on these relationship billions of trips are made in fossil burning vehicles each day leading to changes in the biosphere and affecting the fate of all species on the planet.
As Low points out, the key to understanding sustainability is two fold:
Low argues that the triad model of sustainability is flawed since it does not explicitly recognize that environmental sustainability requires changes to social and economic institutions.
However, he also points out that the idea of considering sustainability in terms of three dimensions - environment, social and economic – is a useful and valid way of conceptualizing the concept.
The order in which they are considered is important.
The important shift is to recognize that the economy is the creation of society, and not the other way around.
The economy is thus framed by the social context in which it occurs.
Further, both society and the environment operate within the context of a natural environment of limited capacity.
The problem is that conventional economic analysis does not account for this constraint on the economy of the limited capacity of the natural environment.
For example, there is no economic mechanism in place to put a value on the fact that oil is a finite resource. Market price react to the scarcity of oil at a given point in time but not to it’s over scarcity in an absolute sense.
From the point of view of the economy, Low is arguing that economy growth must be constrained by social and environmental considerations in turn.
Low defines ‘social sustainability’ as ‘progress of a society towards prosperity, freedom and justice for all and not just the entrenchment of class privilege”. He adds that environmental sustainability should not necessarily be conditional on such progress.
However, he also notes that environmental sustainable solution is often consistent with social improvement and long term economic security.
Based on Low’s analysis the most fundamental issue for sustainability is environmental sustainability.
(LOW AND GLEESON 2003, HART 2006)