Sustainability 101: Confronting Trade-offs to Create Multiple Reinforcing Gains

As we aim to address and solve the complex local and global problems – climate change, poverty, overpopulation, water access, loss of arable land, etc. – it becomes clear that these (and many other) issues are intimately intertwined. It will not be possible to isolate one problem and attempt to fix it. Chances for multiple reinforcing gains will present themselves and decisions that force ‘trade-offs’ will appear. Our history is already ripe with such examples. For the former, look no further than Teach For America, where the mission is to eliminate educational inequity and provide an excellent education for all. However, as the organization started to gather data and organize its operations, it realized that low educational attainment often correlated with impoverished regions and with certain ethnicities. All of a sudden, educational equity was racial/class equality ... a chance for multiple reinforcing gains. 

SevernHowever, some issues will not go hand-in-hand, and trade-offs will emerge. For example, this past January 2009, the United Kingdom announced its intention to install a giant 16 kilometer tidal barrage across the Severn estuary, generating enough energy to replace eight coal fired power plants (see full article here). While the news might delight the climate scientist and renewable energy aficionados, such a large installment does not satisfy the preservationist, as the $14 billion project will undoubtedly alter the habitat, tidal flow, existing wildlife, and for many the aesthetic, intrinsic value of the landscape. Thus, the confrontation between clean, large-scale engineering projects and small, nature preserved solutions has arisen in the UK. Or to put it another way, do I want my local resources (economic and aesthetic) sacrificed to help solve a global problem? The millions of people who were unduly removed from the Three Gorges Dam area (clean energy in place of human property rights) in China know this problem all too well, although their voices were not effectively considered.   

So is the Severn estuary tidal barrage a sustainable solution? It depends on more information and analysis. No one really knows how much energy the project would generate due to the undergoing development of the technology, and its remoteness from the transmission grids further complicates things. Nor can we predict correctly the effect such a project would have on the ecosystem and whether alternative habitats could be created for the wildlife that uses the habitat (such as birds). Oh, and the economics of the project . . . where to even start with that? And will any of the projects operations, construction or economic financing place an inequitable burden on any slice of the UK population? In essence, to boil down the Severn estuary tidal barrage to a simple clean energy vs. environmental preservation tradeoff would be an inaccurate representation of the issues.  

So as we (the upcoming generation of youth and innovative thinkers) encounter such conflicts, we need to try to avoid binary thinking or a list of pros and cons and really start to consider the system in which the problem is situated and how certain actions may or may not affect other ‘systems’. To ensure that we do not invest significant resources in a particular solution only to find out that that solution presents other problems, this ‘bigger picture’ systems thinking is a necessity for a sustainable future. We are currently learning the repercussions of taking action without such forward thinkers, and have also witnessed the success of such entities that do analyze problems systematically (recall Teach For America, above).  We all desire action on pressing problems . . . but let’s make sure we are not acting in haste so that we actually generate sustainable solutions.

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We have been gifted an amazingly productive and fertile planet, one that solves it's own problems if left to it's own devices. It is the arrogance that we know best exemplified in the efforts discussed here that have thrown things out of balance

Written in August 2010

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  • Posted on July 17, 2009. Listed in:

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