Chapter 2 The Science of Sustainability


Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss the key interrelationships among human, earth, and natural systems and why these are important for sustainable businesses.
  2. Explain the main ways that businesses and individuals affect ecosystems and the environment.
  3. Understand the energy use by businesses in modern society and why this is relevant for sustainable businesses.

Sustainability involves having an understanding of the relationship between business, humanity, and nature. Clean air, drinkable water, food, clean environment, and shelter are fundamental to human survival and to business existence. Natural resources are often taken as a given and not appreciated for how essential they are to human well-being and survival and to business operations. Think for a moment, what life would be like if we did not have clean air to breathe, clean drinking water, or food to eat. And what would businesses do without all these resources and without healthy and productive people and workers. These are all resources originating from natural systems.

Sustainable businesses are concerned about the impact of their organizations on the environment, society, and future generations. To ascertain how humans and business operations impact the natural environment, it is important to understand basic concepts of earth, atmospheric, and ecological systems as well as social and political systems.

Sustainability has evolved into a broad science integrating earth system (e.g., air, water, agriculture) disciplines with social sciences, including economics and sociology, to understand the complex cultural, environmental, and economic interrelationships that exist among humans, human organizations, and natural systems. Intergenerational equity, or the concept of fairness and justice between different societal groups and future generations, is a key area of concern in the societal component of sustainability.

This chapter integrates discussion of the environment, society, and economics. It begins by discussing two contrasting perspectives of human economic interaction with the environment. One view highlights the ecological limits to growth, and the other highlights how human invention and ingenuity seeks to remove limits to growth. We suggest that these two views are not mutually exclusive—that there are limits to growth but that some of these limits can be addressed and overcome through human and business innovation and adaptation.

The chapter then gives an overview of how earth and natural systems work. This will include descriptions of earth system components and then a focus on threats to well-functioning earth systems. The chapter concludes with a discussion of sustainability science areas that are particularly relevant to business, including how sustainability concepts are being integrated into the economy.