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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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what is sustainability

What is Sustainability?

Norman W. Garrick

Lecture 5

Sustainable Transportation

mobility freedom and sustainability
Mobility, Freedom and Sustainability
  • Low argues that personal mobility is a freedom bestowed by modernity.
  • He also points out that in freight transportation profits are up and costs are down - mobility is essential in supplying the consuming city.
  • But like Good, Low points out that this freedom and flexibility can be illusionary if the opportunity cost of providing unending mobility is never considered.
  • He suggests that we need to protect the real benefits of mobility, and contain and allocate the costs properly.
  • Low implies that the concept of ‘sustainability’ is a framework for clarifying the real benefits, to develop the mechanism needed to protect these benefits and to appropriately contain and allocate costs.
the three legged stool
The Three-Legged Stool

Low introduces the common model of sustainability made up of a triad of economical, social, and environment sustainability.

Sustainability

Economy

Environment

Society

the three legged stool model
The Three-Legged Stool Model

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.

the paradox of the three legged stool
The Paradox of The Three-Legged Stool
  • Fundamentally the triad model is based on a triangle of forces in balance.
  • According to Low, to achieve environmental sustainability we need to change both the society and the economy. We cannot have a stable triangle where we are trying to sustain all three systems in their existing state.
  • The paradox we face is that we need to find ways to

“curb consumption while spreading the capacity to consume”.

  • This is the paradox at the heart of our attempt to achieve ‘environmental sustainability’ that is glossed over with the idea of the ‘three-legged stool’.
consumption and sustainability
Consumption and Sustainability

The three-legged stool model does not help us address hard questions like

  • How do we improve people’s quality of life without necessarily increasing consumption to levels that might cause environmental degradation?
  • Can we have a sustainable economy without the need for constantly increasing levels of consumption?
  • Can we satisfy people’s desire for access without environmentally damaging levels of mobility?
talking the talk
Talking the Talk

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.

the goal should be growth that is compatible with environmental sustainability
The Goal Should be Growth that is Compatible with Environmental Sustainability

As Low pointed out, we cannot trade-off environmentally unsustainable growth against environmental sustainability.

“Growth is either sustainable or it is not”

starting place for conceptualizing sustainability
Starting Place for Conceptualizing Sustainability

Source: http://www.spacetoday.org/images/SolSys/Earth/EarthBlueMarbleWestTerra.jpg

the difficulty of protecting the biosphere
The Difficulty of Protecting the Biosphere

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.

change a light bulb save the biosphere
Change a Light Bulb, Save the Biosphere

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 role of society in affecting the biosphere
The Role of Society in Affecting the Biosphere

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. 

society and transportation patterns
Society and Transportation Patterns

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.

changing society
Changing Society

As Low points out, the key to understanding sustainability is two fold:

  • Individuals can only have a significant effect on the biosphere through social institutions and mechanisms.
  • Individuals are capable of changing society and it institutions.
the three legged stool15
The Three-Legged Stool

Sustainability

Economy

Environment

Society

the problem with the three legged stool
The Problem with the Three-Legged Stool

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 appropriate order for the three domains
The Appropriate Order for the Three Domains

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 environmental constraint on growth
The Environmental Constraint on Growth

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.

the environmental constraint on growth19
The Environmental Constraint on Growth

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.

the nested box model of sustainability
The Nested Box Model of Sustainability

(LOW AND GLEESON 2003, HART 2006)