Can Sustainability be Defined?


This is a cross-post from the original post that I made on my element14 Blog on 3/14/2011

Sustainability is a loaded topic. Nobody really knows what it means – there are definitions, ideas, and opinions, but as far as I can tell, there is no single way to identify what it truly means and how we can achieve it. As an Electrical Engineer (in training), the thing I hear most commonly associated with being more sustainable involves new, more efficient means of renewable energy generation and storage. If there is anything I’ve learned in my past 3 years of dealing with Sustainability-related projects and teams at my university, it’s that renewable energy is NOT the only way to achieve a more sustainable future. In fact, it’s only a small part of it.

I’ve fallen into this trap myself – as an engineer I’m always looking for opportunities to build the next big thing; In the case of sustainability, that next big thing is the latest, greatest form of efficient renewable energy generation. Here’s the unfortunate truth – it’s next to impossible for our society to become energy independent in the near future. In fact, the world’s dependency on fossil fuels will not be broken for at least 30-50 years (Bryce, 2009). It’s not hard to deduce this fact if we look at the world’s energy consumption over the last 200 years (Figure 1). It’s increasing exponentially as a result of increased population, increased availability of high technology, and the industrial revolution. While developing new means of energy production is important, it’s equally as important that we consider the other ways in which we can contribute to reducing our impact on the environment helping others to do the same.

Global Energy Consumption

Figure 1 – Global Energy Consumption in Exajoules

So, as engineers and citizens of the world, how can we move towards developing a greener planet? The first step is to consider sustainability on several levels. While energy sustainability is an important component of becoming more sustainable, there are other important aspects of sustainability, as I hinted earlier. When designing new products, conceiving exciting new ideas, or thinking of ways that we can “engineer” our way to a greener planet, it’s critical to consider the social, economic, and (unfortunately) political sides of sustainability.

For those of you who read my blog or follow me on twitter (@sciguy14), you might know that during my freshman and sophomore years at school I was a team leader on Cornell’s Solar Decathlon Project. At the bi-annual Solar Decathlon Competition hosted by the Department of Energy, teams from across the world design and build solar-powered homes to display on the National Mall in Washington, DC (Figure 2). These homes do an enormous amount to promote renewable energy research, and the competition certainly taught me a tremendous amount about what it really means to “go green”. But, my most important realization was, “It’s not enough”.

Cornell Silo House
Figure 2 – Cornell University’s “Silo House” Entry into the 2009 Solar Decathlon Competition (Credit: Chris Goodney)

After completing the competition, and planning with my fellow team leaders for the 2011 competition, it dawned on us that Solar Decathlon was not enough – Solar energy alone cannot free us from our oil dependence, and it’s totally impossible to plop an energy-neural solar-powered house onto everybody’s property. It was time to approach sustainability in a more complete fashion. That approach is something that we’ve been developing over the past year and a half with the reformation of Cornell’s Solar Decathlon Team into “Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD)”. We have yet come up with a concrete definition of Sustainability, and I doubt we ever will, but we have developed projects that we believe will allow us to better comprehend, and therefore tackle, the broad issue of “being sustainable”. We administer two projects right now, “Schoolhouse: South Africa”, and “The Sustainability Research Facility”. The first project is designing and building an early-childhood education center/community center which will foster local collaboration, educate children, and provide for community engagement within the town of Cosmo City, South Africa. The second project focuses on the development and construction of a “living laboratory” on Cornell’s Ithaca campus that will foster cross-disciplinary sustainability education and research.

So how does this all relate back to being a sustainable engineer? As engineers, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that best way for us to contribute to the green movement is to design more efficient electronics, use greener materials, et cetera. But what I would argue is that we need to take a step back and consider how our decisions as engineers impact the global community, both socially and economically. Our goal with these CUSD projects is to expand sustainability into realms where it ordinarily does not venture – a course that I would encourage all engineers to explore. While it’s still important that we design products with minimal environmental impact, and that use little energy, it’s just as important that we consider how products promote (or discourage) their users to decrease their impact on their environment. Take the Tata Nano for example, the world’s most affordable car. It offers mobility to an entirely new class of people in India, but simultaneously lends itself to becoming a perpetuator of fossil fuel consumption. Viewed from another angle however, the increase of passenger cars in India may encourage the subsidized creation of improved travel infrastructure, and a move by other car manufacturers towards the exceptionally low emissions and high MPGs that a car like the Nano offers – an obvious gain for the environment.

Long story, short? Renewable energy is not synonymous with being more sustainable, it’s just a part of it. We need to accept the fact that no single breakthrough in renewable energy is suddenly going to save us from ourselves. Our energy demand will continue to rise over the coming decades, and the best way to handle it will be approach the problem with the knowledge that all actions we take need to be socially responsible, economically feasible, and will need to incorporate a plethora of technologies and ideas from a great swath of professionals, companies, and governments. Engineers alone cannot eliminate our oil dependence, but they can develop the products, ideas, and movements that will allow the rest of the world the unanimously pursue the goal of global sustainability.


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