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May 21st, 2013
Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013 Explores New Ways to Measure Sustainability

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As the world continues down the path of unmitigated and unsustainable development, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have successfully pushed ourselves out of the stable geological era of the Holocene and into the more volatile and unpredictable Anthropocene. Nevertheless, many remain blissfully unaware of this truth due to the fact that ecosystem thresholds are not always marked with warning signs of impending danger. Unfortunately, this means that we may actually pass through a tipping point unaware because it is quite possible that nothing significant will happen at first.

In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, the Worldwatch Institute ( discusses the need to collectively stay within our planetary boundaries if we wish to achieve environmental sustainability and return to a stabler, Holocene-like era.

According to Ecological Footprint studies, humans have already overshot the planet’s ecological capability by about 50 percent. State of the World 2013 contributing author and Senior Researcher at Oxfam, Kate Raworth, notes that the high consumption levels of the wealthiest 10 percent of people in the world and the resource-intensive production practices of companies are the biggest sources of stress on the planet today.

“If ‘one-planet’ living is the goal, then lifestyle choices will obviously have to entail more than recycling programs and stay-at-home vacations,” said Jennie Moore, Director of Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and also a contributing author. “For success, the world’s nations will have to commit to whole new development strategies with elements ranging from public re-education to ecological fiscal reform, all within a negotiated global sustainability treaty.”

Although it is critical that we reduce our total resource use to a level below the natural threshold, it is equally important that every person has access to the resources they need to lead a life of dignity and opportunity. In State of the World 2013, contributing authors suggest taking into account both our planetary and social boundaries when measuring sustainability:

Examining Planetary Boundaries. Nine planetary boundaries have been identified that together describe an envelope for a safe operating space for humanity, and we may be able to achieve environmental sustainability if we collectively live within these boundaries. These include : climate change, biodiversity loss, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric ozone, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, land use changes, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.

 Incorporating Social Boundaries. Living within our planet’s natural boundaries is essential, but taking into consideration social boundaries, such as access to fresh water, education, health care, and other basic needs is as important. Between the social foundation of human rights and the environmental ceiling of planetary boundaries lies a space that is both environmentally safe and socially just, and we must work to move in to that space.

Living Within Our Means. In order to live within the ecological carrying capacity of our planet, there must be a more equitable distribution of Earth’s resources. This means that significant and widespread lifestyle changes will need to take place. The emphasis is on each individual living within their “Fair Earth-share” which amounts to 1.7 global hectares per capita, according to Moore and contributing author William E. Rees, Professor Emeritus in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.

Transforming Social Norms. The concept of environmental sustainability must permeate both the social and cultural domains. Until society can shift away from its blind commitment to unconstrained economic growth, progress will not be made. Global action is needed to stimulate corporations and consumers to shift gears toward living within their Fair Earth-shares.

In a world where humans are inextricably intertwined with their environment, a method for measuring society’s degree of sustainability could be just what people need to begin to shift their way of thinking and embrace a truly sustainable lifestyle.

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013, released in April 2013, addresses how sustainability should be measured, how we can attain it, and how we can prepare if we fall short. The opening section, to which the above-mentioned authors contributed, also includes deeper explorations of how to measure sustainability of energy use, freshwater, fisheries, and nonrenewable resources.

Authors of the book’s opening section include :
Carl Folke, Professor at and Director of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and author of Chapter 2, “Respecting Planetary Boundaries and Reconnecting to the Biosphere.”
Kate Raworth, Senior Researcher at Oxfam and a teacher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, author of Chapter 3, “Defining a Safe and Just Space for Humanity.”
Jennie Moore, Director of Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship in the School of Construction and the Environment at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, co-author of Chapter 4, “Getting to One-Planet Living.”  
William E. Rees, Professor Emeritus in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, co-author of Chapter 4, “Getting to One-Planet Living.” 

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