Following World War II (1939–1945), the United States and other developed countries experienced rapid economic growth while making significant technological advances. The global human population also increased dramatically, nearly tripling from 2.6 billion people in 1950 to more than 7.4 billion in 2017. During the same time, however, the natural environment was deteriorating and humans were making unprecedented demands on the Earth’s natural resources, leading to fears that unlimited economic growth could cause ecological catastrophes and threaten humans’ ability to live on the planet.
Public concern culminated in the first Earth Dayevent on April 22, 1970, a landmark in the modern environmental movement, during which an estimated twenty million people across the United States demonstrated for more stringent environmental protections. The first piece of major legislation related to the movement arrived in 1970, with the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act. The law requires all federal agencies to assess the environmental and related economic and social effects of any proposed actions. Before building highways, airports, or other infrastructure projects, and before making changes to the use of any federally managed lands, agencies are required to assess the potential environmental impact of their plans and consider alternatives.
In the decade that followed, economists observed that uncontrolled economic growth had not resolved the wealth gap between rich and poor, both within nations and between developed and developing nations. Wealth gaps, they maintained, could hinder further economic growth. They proposed a new model called sustainable development, integrated around the pillars of environmental protection, economic development, and social equity. The sustainable development model aims to encourage economic growth and stability, address social inequality and injustice, and minimize the harmful effects of human activity on the natural environment. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sustainability as “the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” Achieving sustainability goals depends on people of all ages committing to respect and consider each other’s needs and experiences—as well as the needs of their descendants.
Environmental sustainability focuses on protecting and restoring the health of the earth’s ecosystemsand natural habitats. Leaders in the field assert that governments, corporations, and individuals can work toward attaining environmental sustainability by reducing air and watercontamination, developing and using chemical products and processes that eliminate toxins in the environment, and minimizing environmental stressors such as greenhouse gas emissions, pesticides, and other pollutants. They also cite the importance of recycling, reusing resources, and reducing initial consumption of resources in ongoing sustainability efforts.
Environmental scientists distinguish between resources that are renewable, such as forests, pastureland, and solar energy, and those that are not, such as the earth’s minerals and fossil fuels. Renewable resources cannot be used up, or if they can, people can take measures to regenerate them within a reasonable timeframe. For example, if land becomes deforested due to timber overharvesting, foresters can encourage trees to grow back, providing timber again for future generations. Non-renewable resources such as petroleum, however, are generated only through geological processes that take millennia to complete. Despite the finite nature of non-renewable minerals and fossil fuels, some experts suggest that they can be used responsibly to generate financial capital that can be reinvested in social initiatives, environmental protection, and economic stimulus, furthering sustainability goals.
Environmentalists emphasize that nature has an intrinsic value apart from its ability to be of economic use. They assert that to be sustainable, resource removal should not compromise the health, resilience, and biodiversity of the ecosystem as a whole. There are various ways to achieve this. In forest management, for instance, sustainable logging practices seek to imitate natural disturbances, such as ice storms or forest fires. Foresters vary the sizes of cut areas and the frequency that logging takes place to best suit the forest they are cutting. Leaving legacy patches of older forest standing for wildlife helps to preserve the ecosystem’s biodiversity. Efforts to prevent soil erosion and waterway contamination include minimizing the density of logging roads and leaving wooded buffers along streambeds and around wetlands.
Economic development refers to conditions in which jobs are created, wealth increases, and people experience improvements in their quality of life. Economic development relies on economic growth, which is an increase in the output of goods and services in a given country or area. This growth comes at an environmental cost, however, because it results in more waste and the consumption of greater quantities of the earth’s raw materials. In addition, factors such as incomeinequality and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and gender can deny some members of society the full benefits of economic growth. Sustainability, therefore, seeks to balance economic growth with measures to protect the environment, conserve resources, and share social and financial benefits with disenfranchised segments of the population. This can be achieved through policymaking at the local, state, national, and international levels.
Businesses can also play a role through what is known as corporate sustainability. The United Nations Global Compact recommends several sustainability principles that companies involved in the supply chain can adopt. The supply chainrefers to the system that brings goods and services from suppliers through manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers to customers. These principles include protecting human rights, allowing employees to freely associate, prohibiting forced labor and child labor, abolishing discrimination in employment, practicing environmental responsibility, encouraging environmentally friendly technologies, and fighting corruption. By collaborating across the supply chain, companies that value sustainability can encourage suppliers and other stakeholders to adhere to sustainability principles. This can promote sustainability in countries where suppliers are not legally bound to stringent environmental or labor protections.
One example of a lauded supply-chain corporate-sustainability initiative is a partnership between American apparel-maker Levi Strauss and the International Finance Corporation. The program, established in 2014, provides $500 million worth of low-interest loans to garment industry and other suppliers. Suppliers are encouraged to use the financing to improve conditions for their workers and reduce their environmental impact. Suppliers are rated according to a sustainability scorecard, and those that score higher are offered lower interest rates on their loans, creating a financial incentive to improve sustainability. Some skeptics contend that corporate sustainability alone cannot solve global environmental and social issues, however. Even with large multinational companies such as Nike, Microsoft, and Starbucks committing to cutting their carbon footprint, global greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change, have continued to rise in the twenty-first century. Climate change activists recommend that governments play a greater role in enacting and enforcing policies to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Government or business policies that bring underserved populations greater access to opportunities and address other persistent problems in society characterize the social pillar of sustainability. Social concerns also play a role in environmental decision-making. Environmental justice, as defined by the EPA, refers to “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.” Environmental justice concerns in the United States came to national attention in 1982 as opposition formed around the siting of a toxic waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, a predominantly poor and black rural county. Despite residents’ concerns about toxins leaching into their drinking water, and following six weeks of nonviolent protests and more than five hundred arrests, the state went ahead with dumping the waste in the county. A year later, a study of four hazardous waste sites conducted by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) found that three of the four were located in counties or townships with majority black populations. The GAO also found that the African American populations in the counties and towns surrounding all four sites had lower mean incomes than the general population and represented the majority of households below the poverty level.
Evidence suggests that social practices can improve environmental and economic outcomes. A 2005 campaign launched by the Japanese government sought to reduce electricity consumption in office buildings by promoting lighter work attire, such as short sleeves, in the summer, and layered attire in the winter, allowing air conditioning and heating usage to be reduced. The program is estimated to have saved 1.4 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by its second year. Social sustainability policies can also improve public health. In 2014 the convenience store and pharmacy CVS opted to stop selling cigarettes out of a concern for the health of its customers, forgoing the company an estimated $2 billion in annual sales. A 2017 study revealed that cigarette purchases dropped nationwide as a result, including from other retailers.
Global and National Developments
According to estimates from the World Bank, 10.7 percent of the world’s population, about 767 million people, lived below the international poverty line of US$1.90 per person per day in 2013. In 2015 the United Nations (UN) agreed upon a plan to eradicate extreme poverty around the globe by 2030 and improve education, health care, and access to job opportunities. Known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the plan includes seventeen sustainable development goals focused on reducing inequality while also addressing climate change and environmental protection. While most UN member states agree that these goals are crucial to addressing the most pressing global issues, critics contend that the plan does not adequately address funding of the goals, which could cost trillions of dollars per year.
In his first year in office, President Donald Trump was criticized for a number of issues related to the environment, including his record on sustainability measures, his focus on fossil fuels over renewable energy sources, and his choice of Scott Pruitt, a vocal critic of climate change science and the EPA, as administrator of the agency. The president’s 2018 budget proposal included cuts for several climate change research programs as well as dozens of EPA programs amounting to 31 percent of the EPA’s budget. In August 2017 Trump signed an executive order reversing rules established under President Barack Obama that required new construction by federal agencies to take into account sea-level rise caused by climate change.
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Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition)
“Sustainability.” Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/PC3021900062/OVIC?u=lincclin_pbcc&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=142be188. Accessed 12 June 2021.
Gale Document Number: GALE|PC3021900062