3.3 Core Ideas and Metaconcepts

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the roles of carrying capacity and equity in the four key metaconcepts of sustainability.
  2. Compare and contrast the four key metaconcepts, including their assumptions, emphases, and implications.
  3. Apply the metaconcepts to identify sustainable business practices.

An educated entrepreneur or business leader interested in sustainability innovation should understand two core ideas. The first is that sustainability innovation ultimately contributes to preservation and restoration of nature’s carrying capacity. Carrying capacityThe ability of the natural system to sustain demands placed upon it while still retaining the self-regenerative and self-renewing processes that preserve those systems indefinitely. refers to the ability of the natural system to sustain demands placed upon it while still retaining the self-regenerative processes that preserve the system’s viability indefinitely. Note that human bodies have carrying capacities, and thus we are included in this notion of natural carrying capacities. For example, similarly to groundwater supplies or coastal estuaries, children’s bodies can be burdened with pollutants only up to a point, beyond which the system collapses into dysfunction and disease.

The second core idea is equityA fair distribution of risks and resources among classes, ethnicities, current and future generations, and so forth along with an appreciation of personal and cultural distinctions., leading to our discussion of environmental justice as the second metaconcept category. Prosperity achieved by preserving and restoring natural system carrying capacities that structurally exclude many people from realizing the benefits of that prosperity is not sustainable, practically or morally. Sustainability scholars have suggested that a “fortress” future lies ahead if equity issues are not considered core to sustainability goals. The wealthy will need to defend their wealth from gated communities, while the poor live with illness, pollution, and resource scarcity.

Sustainability innovations guided by the following approaches aim to sustain biological carrying capacities and healthy human communities that strive toward equity. The ideal is that we tap into every person’s creativity and bring it to bear on how we learn to live on what scientists now call our “full Earth.”

Each of our four key metaconcepts—sustainable development, environmental justice, earth systems engineering and management, and sustainability science—addresses ideas of equity and carrying capacity in a slightly different way. Earth Systems Engineering and management and sustainability science focus on technology and carrying capacity, while sustainable development and environmental justice emphasize social structures and equity. Yet each metaconcept realizes equity and carrying capacity are linked; humans have both social and material aspirations that must be met within the finite resources of the environment.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable developmentA socioeconomic development paradigm that achieves more widespread human prosperity while sustaining nature’s life-support systems. refers to a socioeconomic development paradigm that achieves more widespread human prosperity while sustaining nature’s life-support systems. Under sustainable development, the next generation’s choices are extended rather than attenuated; therefore, sustainable development addresses equity issues across generations to not impoverish those generations that follow. Introduced in the Brundtland Commission’s 1983 report, which focused attention on the interrelated and deteriorating environmental and social conditions worldwide, sustainable development would balance the carrying capacities of natural systems (environmental sustainability) with sociopolitical well-being. While debate continues on the challenges’ details and possible solutions, there is widespread scientific consensus that continued escalation in scale and scope of resource and energy consumption cannot be maintained without significant risk of ecological degradation accompanied by potentially severe economic and sociopolitical disruption. In 1992, the Economic Commission for Europe described societal transformation toward sustainable development moving through stages, from ignorance (problems are not widely known or understood) and lack of concern, to hope in technology-based fixes (“technology will solve our problems”), to eventual conversion of economic activities from their current separation from ecological and human health goals of society to new forms appropriately adapted to ecological laws and the promotion of community well-being. The goal of sustainable development, though perhaps impossible to reach, would be a smooth transition to a stable carrying capacity and leveling of population growth. Societies would evolve toward more compatible integration and coevolution of natural systems with industrial activity. Because corporations are among the most powerful institutions in the world today, they are viewed as instrumental in creating the transition from the current unsustainable growth trajectory to sustainable development.

Environmental Justice

Environmental justice emerged as a mainstream concept in the 1980s. Broad population segments in the United States and elsewhere increasingly acknowledged that racial and ethnic minorities and the poor (groups that often overlap) suffered greater exposure to environmental hazards and environmental degradation than the general population. Following pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) incorporated environmental justice into its program goals in the early 1990s. The EPA defined environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The EPA also stated that environmental justice “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”US Environmental Protection Agency, “Compliance and Enforcement: Environmental Justice,” last updated November 24, 2010, accessed December 3, 2010, http://www.epa.gov/oecaerth/environmentaljustice. Other definitions of environmental justice similarly include an emphasis on stakeholder participation in decisions and an equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits.

Environmental justice in the United States grew out of a civil rights framework that guarantees equal protection under the law, which globally translated into the framework of universal human rights. It crystallized as a movement in the years 1982–83, when hundreds of people were jailed for protesting the location of a hazardous waste dump in a predominantly black community in North Carolina.April Mosley, “Why Blacks Should Be Concerned about the Environment: An Interview with Dr. Robert Bullard,” November 1999, Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, accessed July 2, 2009, http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/nov99interv.htm. In 1991, the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit first convened and drafted the “Principles of Environmental Justice,” which were later circulated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.United Church of Christ, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007 (Cleveland, OH: United Church of Christ, 2007), 2. The 2002 UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance also embraced environmental justice in its final report.United Nations, United Nations Report of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (Durban, South Africa: United Nations, 2001), accessed December 3, 2010, http://www.un.org/WCAR/aconf189_12.pdf.

Although the placement of hazardous waste dumps and heavily polluting industries in areas predominantly inhabited by minorities, such as incinerators in the Bronx in New York City and petrochemical plants along Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, remains the most glaring example of environmental injustice, the concept encompasses myriad problems. For instance, housing in which minorities and the poor are concentrated may have lead paint (now a known neurotoxin) and proximity to the diesel exhaust of freeways and shipping terminals.David Pace, “More Blacks Live with Pollution,” Associated Press, December 13, 2005, accessed December 1, 2010, http://www.precaution.org/lib/05/more_blacks_live_with_pollution.051213.htm; American Lung Association, “Comments to the Environmental Protection Agency re: Ocean Going Vessels,” September 28, 2009, accessed April 19, 2011, http://www.lungusa.org/get-involved/advocate/advocacy-documents/Comments-to-the-Environmental-Protection-Agency -re-Ocean-Going-Vessels.pdf. Migrant agricultural laborers are regularly exposed to higher concentrations of pesticides. As heavy industries relocate to areas where labor is cheaper, those regions and countries must shoulder more of the environmental and health burdens, even though most of their products are exported. For instance, demand for bananas and biodiesel in the Northern Hemisphere may accelerate deforestation in the tropics.

Climate change has also broadened the scope of environmental justice. Poor and indigenous people will suffer more from global warming: rising waters in the Pacific Ocean could eliminate island societies and inundate countries such as Bangladesh, cause warming in the Arctic, or cause droughts in Africa. Hurricane Katrina, which some scientists saw as a signal of the growing force of storms, was a dramatic reminder of how poor people have more limited access to assistance during “natural” disasters. In addition, those groups least able to avoid the consequences of pollution often enjoy less of the lifestyle that caused that pollution in the first place.

Spotting environmental injustice can sometimes be simple. However, to quantify environmental justice or its opposite, often called environmental racism, demographic variables frequently are correlated to health outcomes and environmental risk factors with an accepted degree of statistical significance. Rates of asthma, cancer, and absence from work and school are common health indicators. Information from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory or Air Quality Index can be combined with census data to suggest disproportionate exposure to pollution. For example, children attending schools close to major highways (often found in low-income neighborhoods) experience decreased lung health and capacity.

Higher Exposure to Pollution

For 2007, host neighborhoods with commercial hazardous waste facilities are 56% people of color whereas non-host areas are 30% people of color. Thus, percentages of people of color as a whole are 1.9 times greater in host neighborhoods than in non-host neighborhoods.…Poverty rates in the host neighborhoods are 1.5 times greater than non-host areas (18% vs. 12%) and mean annual household incomes in host neighborhoods are 15% lower ($48,234 vs. $56, 912). Mean owner-occupied housing values are also disproportionately low in neighborhoods with hazardous waste facilities.United Church of Christ, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007 (Cleveland, OH: United Church of Christ, 2007), 143.

Video Clip

Fight for Environmental Justice in Chester, Pennsylvania

(click to see video)

Earth Systems Engineering and Management

With discussion of earth systems engineering (ESE), we transition from social and community concerns to human impacts on large-scale natural systems. Sometimes referred to as Earth Systems Engineering and management, ESE is a broad concept that builds from these basic premises:

  1. People have altered the earth for millennia, often in unintended ways with enduring effects, such as the early deforestation of ancient Greece.
  2. The scale of that alteration has increased dramatically with industrialization and the population growth of the twentieth century.
  3. Our institutions, ethics, and other behaviors have yet to catch up to the power of our technology.
  4. Since the world has become increasingly less natural and more—or entirely—an artifact of human activity, we should use technology to help us understand the impact of our alterations in the long and short terms. Instead of desisting from current practice, we should continue to use technology to intervene in the environment albeit in more conscious, sustainable ways. However, the interactions of human and natural systems are complex, so we must improve our ability to manage each by better understanding the science of how they operate and interact, building better tools to manage them, and creating better policies to guide us.National Academy of Engineering, Engineering and Environmental Challenges: Technical Symposium on Earth Systems Engineering (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000), viii.

Defining ESE

The often unintended consequences of our technologies reflect our incomplete understanding of existing data and the inherent complexities of natural and human systems. earth systems engineering is a holistic approach to overcoming these shortcomings. The goals of ESE are to understand the complex interactions among natural and human systems, to predict and monitor more accurately the impacts of engineered systems, and to optimize those systems to provide maximum benefits for people and for the planet. Many of the science, engineering, and ethical tools we will need to meet this enormous challenge have yet to be developed. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Environmental Challenges: Technical Symposium on Earth Systems Engineering (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2000), viii.

In 2000, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen coined the term “anthropocene” to describe the intense impact of humanity upon the world. Anthropocene designates a new geological era with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. In this era, as opposed to the previous Holocene era, humans increasingly dominate the chemical and geologic processes of Earth, and they may continue to do so for tens of thousands of years as increased concentrations of GHGs linger in the atmosphere.

Professor Braden Allenby, a former vice president of AT&T who holds degrees in law, economics, and environmental science, argues we must embrace this anthropogenic (human-designed) world and make the most of it. An early and consistent proponent of ESE, he wrote in 2000, “The issue is not whether the earth will be engineered by the human species, it is whether humans will do so rationally, intelligently, and ethically.”Braden Allenby, “Earth Systems Engineering and Management,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 19, no. 4 (Winter 2000–2001): 10–24. Thus ESE differs from other sustainability concepts and frameworks that seek to reduce humanity’s impact on nature and to return nature to a more equal relationship with people. Allenby believes technology gives people options, and investing in new technologies to make human life sustainable will have a greater impact than trying to change people’s behaviors through laws or other social pressures.

Brad Allenby Discusses Earth Systems Engineering


ESE could be deployed at various scales. One of the more extreme is reengineering, which emerged in the 1970s and resurfaced after 2000 as efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions floundered and people reconsidered ways to arrest or reverse climate change. Geoengineering would manipulate the global climate directly and massively, either by injecting particles such as sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to block sunlight or by sowing oceans with iron to encourage the growth of algae that consume carbon dioxide (CO2). The potential for catastrophic consequences has often undermined geoengineering schemes, many of which are already technologically feasible and relatively cheap. On the scale of individual organisms, ESE could turn to genetic engineering, such as creating drought-resistant plants or trees that sequester more CO2.

Reflection on ESE

David Keith, an environmental scientist at the University of Calgary, talks about the moral hazard of ESE at the 2007 Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Conference.

Keith discusses the history of geoengineering since the 1950s and argues that more people must seriously discuss ESE because it would be cheap and easy for any one country to pursue unilaterally, for better or worse.


Sustainability Science

Sustainability science was codified as a multidisciplinary academic field between 2000 and 2009 with the creation of a journal called Sustainability Science, a study section within the US National Academy of Sciences and the Forum on Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development, which links various sustainability efforts and individuals around the world. Sustainability science aims to bring scientific and technical knowledge to bear on problems of sustainability, including assessing the resilience of ecosystems, informing policy on poverty alleviation, and inventing technologies to sequester CO2 and purify drinking water. William C. Clark, associate editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, writes, “Like ‘agricultural science’ and ‘health science,’ sustainability science is a field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs. In particular, the field seeks to facilitate what the National Research Council has called a ‘transition toward sustainability,’ improving society’s capacity to use the earth in ways that simultaneously ‘meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population…sustain the life support systems of the planet, and…substantially reduce hunger and poverty.’”William C. Clark, “Sustainability Science: A Room of Its Own,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 6 (February 6, 2007): 1737–38.

Like ecological economics, sustainability science seeks to overcome the splintering of knowledge and perspectives by emphasizing a transdisciplinary, systems-level approach to sustainability. In contrast to ecological economics, sustainability science often brings together researchers from a broader base and focuses on devising practical solutions. Clark calls it the “use-inspired research” typified by Louis Pasteur.

Sustainability science arose largely in response to the increasing call for sustainable development in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The core question became how? The number of scholarly articles on sustainability science increased throughout the 1990s. In 1999, the National Research Council published Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability. The report investigated how science could assist “the reconciliation of society’s development goals with the planet’s environmental limits over the long term.” It set three main goals for sustainability science research: “Develop a research framework that integrates global and local perspectives to shape a ‘place-based’ understanding of the interactions between environment and society.…Initiate focused research programs on a small set of understudied questions that are central to a deeper understanding of interactions between society and the environment.…Promote better utilization of existing tools and processes for linking knowledge to action in pursuit of a transition to sustainability.”National Research Council, Our Common Journey: A Transition toward Sustainability (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 2, 10–11.

Shortly thereafter, an article in Science attempted to define the core questions of sustainability science, again focusing on themes of integrating research, policy, and practical action across a variety of geographic and temporal scales.Robert W. Kates, William C. Clark, Robert Corell, J. Michael Hall, Carlo C. Jaeger, Ian Lowe, James J. McCarthy, et al., “Sustainability Science,” Science 292, no. 5517 (April 27, 2000): 641–42.

At about the same time, groups such as the Alliance for Global Sustainability (AGS) formed. AGS is an academic collaboration among the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Tokyo, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. The alliance seeks to inject scientific information into largely political debates on sustainability. Members of the alliance also created the journal Sustainability Science. Writing in the inaugural edition, Hiroshi Komiyama and Kazuhiko Takeuchi described sustainability science as broadly addressing three levels of analysis and their interactions: (1) global, primarily the natural environment and its life-support systems; (2) social, primarily comprising human institutions and collective activities; and (3) human, largely addressing questions of individual health, happiness, and prosperity (Figure 3.1 "Levels of Analysis: Global, Social, and Human").Hiroshi Komiyama and Kazuhiko Takeuchi, “Sustainability Science: Building a New Discipline,” Sustainability Science 1, no. 1 (October 2006): 1–6.

Figure 3.1 Levels of Analysis: Global, Social, and Human

Key Takeaways

  • The broad metaconcepts in sustainability emphasize equity and maintenance of the earth’s carrying capacity, despite an increased human population.
  • Sustainability metaconcepts focus on balancing the needs of humans and their environment, present and future generations, and research and policy. These problems are complex, and the metaconcepts therefore tend to endorse an interdisciplinary, systems-level view.
  • Equity considerations as design criteria offer opportunities for novel approaches to product and business competitiveness while preserving socially and politically stable communities.


  1. Make a diagram comparing and contrasting the four metaconcepts, including their implications, assumptions, and past successes. Then present to others the framework you find most compelling and explain why. If you prefer, synthesize a fifth metaconcept to present.
  2. Select an industry and briefly research how the four metaconcepts have changed its practices and may guide future changes.