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Sustainability is a broad discipline, giving you insights into most aspects of the human world from business to technology to the environment and the social sciences. Sustainability is the study of how natural systems function, remain diverse, and produce everything it needs for the ecology to remain in balance. It also acknowledges that human civilization takes resources to sustain our modern way of life.

Significant Ideas

  • All systems can be viewed through the lens of sustainability.

  • Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

  • Environmental indicators and ecological footprints can be used to assess sustainability.

  • Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) play an important role in sustainable development.​

Big questions:

  • What strengths and weaknesses of the systems approach and the use of models have been through this topic?

  • What have you learned about sustainability and sustainable development in this chapter?

  • What are the differences between sustainability and sustainable development?

  • Ecological Footprint is a model used to estimate the demands that human populations place on the environment; what are the limitations and benefits of these models

  • How do EIAs ensure that development is sustainable?

Knowledge and Understanding

1.4.U1 Sustainability is the use and management of resources that allows full natural replacement of the resources exploited and full recovery of the ecosystems affected by their extraction and use

  • ​Define sustainability

Environmental sustainability involves making decisions and taking action that is in the interest of protecting the natural world, with particular emphasis on preserving the capability of the environment to support human life. It is an important topic at the present time, as people are realizing the full impact that businesses and individuals can have on the environment.


Environmental sustainability is about making responsible decisions that will reduce the negative impact on the environment. It is not simply about reducing the amount of waste you produce or using less energy but is concerned with developing processes that will lead to  becoming completely sustainable in the future

Sustainability is the use of global resources at a rate that allows natural regeneration and minimizes damage to the environment. for example, a system of harvesting resources at a rate that allows replacement by natural growth

Some economists may view sustainable development as a stable annual return on investment regardless of the environmental impact, whereas some environmentalists may view it as a stable return without environmental degradation. Consider the development of changing attitudes to sustainability and economic growth, since the Rio Earth Summit (1992) leading to Agenda 21.

Sustainability can be encouraged by:

  • ecological land-use to maintain habitat quality and connectivity for all species.

  • sustainable material cycles, (ex carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles).

  • social systems that contribute to a culture of sufficiency that eases the consumption pressures on natural capital.

International summits on sustainable development have highlighted the issues involved in economic development across the globe, yet the viewpoints of environmentalists and economists may be very different.

Natural capital is a term used for natural resources that can produce a sustainable natural income of goods or services

  • Define natural capital

There are three broad classes of natural capital.

  • Renewable natural capital - living species and ecosystems. They are self-producing and self-maintaining. They use solar energy and photosynthesis. This natural capital can yield marketable goods such as wood fiber, but may also provide unaccounted essential services when left in place, for example, climate regulation.

  • Replenishable natural capital - groundwater and the ozone layer, is nonliving but is also often dependent on the solar “engine” for renewal.

  • Non-renewable capital - fossil fuel and minerals, are analogous to inventories: any use implies liquidating part of the stock.

Renewable: solar energy, biomass energy, wind energy, hydropower energy, and geothermal energy.

Non-renewable: fossil fuel oils, coal, nuclear, and natural gas

Natural income is the yield obtained from natural resources

  • Define natural income

  • Distinguish between natural capital and natural income.​

Any society that supports itself in part by depleting essential forms of natural capital is unsustainable. If human well-being is dependent on the goods and services provided by certain forms of natural capital, then long-term harvest (or pollution) rates should not exceed rates of capital renewal. Sustainability means living, within the means of nature, on the “interest” or sustainable income generated by natural capital.

This can be encouraged by:

  • Ecological land-use to maintain habitat quality and connectivity for all species.

  • Sustainable material cycles, (ex carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles).

  • Social systems that contribute to a culture of sufficiency that eases the consumption pressures on natural capital.

Organisms or ecosystems have value:

  • Intrinsic values: values that are not determined by their potential use to humans, their value is given vary by culture, religion, etc. E.g. a statue

  • Economic value-: the value that is determined from the market price of the goods and services resources produce.

  • Ecological Value: the value that has no formed market price but is essential to human e.g. photosynthesis

  • Aesthetic Value: no market price, similar to ecological value,(basically things that look good). E.g. landscape

Ecosystems may provide life-supporting services such as water replenishment, flood and erosion protection, and goods such as timber, fisheries, and agricultural crops.

  • ​Use examples to distinguish between goods and services.

  • With the use of examples discuss the importance of ecosystems services

Ecosystems may provide life-supporting services such as water replenishment, flood and erosion protection, and goods such as timber, fisheries, and agricultural crops.

Ecologically minded economists describe resources as “natural capital”. If properly managed, renewable and replenishable resources are forms of wealth that can produce “natural income” indefinitely in the form of valuable goods and services. 

  • marketable commodities such as timber and grain (goods)

  • ecological services such as the flood and erosion protection provided by forests (services).

  • non-renewable resources cannot generate wealth without liquidation of the estate.

EIAs incorporate baseline studies before a development project is undertaken. They assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project, predicting and evaluating possible impacts and suggesting mitigation strategies for the project. They are usually followed by an audit and continued monitoring. Each country or region has different guidance on the use of EIAs

  • Define baseline

  • Use an example to explain the purpose of an EIA.​

  • Use a named example of a countries EIA

EIA involves the production of a baseline study before any environmental development, assessment of possible impacts, and monitoring of change during and after the development.

Process for identifying the likely consequence for the biophysical environment and for man’s health and welfare of implementing particular activities and for conveying information at a stage where it can materially affect the decision, to those for sanctioning the proposals. (long definition).

The developments that need EIA’s differ from country to country, but certain types of developments tend to be included in the EIA process in most parts of the world.

Purpose of the EIA:
Helps the decision-making process by providing information about the consequences of the environment. Promotes sustainable development by identifying environmentally sound practices and migration measures for development.

Used for: 
The planning process that governments set out in law when large developments are considered. They provide a documented way of examining environmental impacts that can be used as evidence in the decision-making process of any new development.

What developments used in the EIA:

  • Major new road networks

  • Airport/port developments

  • Building power stations

  • Building dams and reservoirs

  • Quarrying

  • Large scale housing projects.

EIAs provide decision-makers with information in order to consider the environmental impact of a project. There is not necessarily a requirement to implement an EIA’s proposals, and many socio-economic factors may influence the decisions made.

  • Explain the stages that are involved in an EIA.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a planning tool that provides decision-makers with an understanding of the potential effects that human actions, especially technological ones, may have on the environment. By understanding the potential environmental effects of an action, policymakers can choose which should proceed and which should not. Governments from around the world perform environmental impact assessments at the national, state or provincial, and local levels. The underlying assumption of all environmental impact assessments is that all human activity has the potential to affect the environment and that knowledge concerning the environmental impact of a major decision will improve that decision

An ecological footprint (EF) is the area of land and water required to sustainably provide all resources at the rate at which they are being consumed by a given population. If the EF is greater than the area available to the population, this is an indication of unsustainability

  • Explain what the ecological footprint is and how it is linked to sustainability.​

The ecological footprint of a population is the area of land, in the same vicinity as the population, that would be required to provide all the population’s resources and assimilate all its wastes. As a model, it is able to provide a quantitative estimate of human carrying capacity. It is, in fact, the inverse of carrying capacity. It refers to the area required to sustainably support a given population rather than the population that a given area can sustainably support.

Ecological footprints are the hypothetical area of land required by society, group, or individual to fulfill all their resources needs and assimilation of wastes.

As a model, it is able to provide a quantitative estimate of human carrying capacity. It is, in fact, the inverse of carrying capacity. It refers to the area required to sustainability support a given population rather than the population that a given area can sustainably support.

Ecological footprints can be increased by:

  • greater reliance on fossil fuels

  • increased use of technology and energy (but technology can also reduce the footprint)

  • high levels of imported resources (which have high transport costs)

  • large per capita production of carbon waste (high energy use, fossil fuel use)

  • large per capita consumption of food

  • a meat-rich diet

Ecological footprints can be reduced by:

  • reducing the use of resources

  • recycling resources

  • reusing resources

  • improving the efficiency of resource use

  • reducing the amount of pollution produced

  • transporting waste to other countries to deal with

  • improving the country to increase carrying capacity

  • importing resources from other countries

  • reducing the population to reduce resource use

  • using technology to increase carrying capacity

  • using technology to intensify land


Explain the relationship between natural capital, natural income, and sustainability

Natural capital refers to the source or supply of resources and services that are derived from nature. Forests, mineral deposits, fisheries, and fertile soil are some examples of natural capital. Air and water purification are just two of many services.
Natural Income is the annual yield from such sources of natural capital - timber, ores, fish, and plants, respectively, relative to the examples above. The point at which the amount of natural income used up reduces the capacity of natural capital to continue providing the same amount of natural income in the future is the point at which a sustainable scale has been exceeded.
Natural resources are not the only type of natural income that flows from ecosystems. A variety of ecosystem functions are also provided. Forests, for example, are not simply wood production units. They also prevent soil erosion, absorb rainwater and provide flood control, they provide habitat for a diversity of plant and animal species which may serve as foods or medicines for other species, they absorb the natural wastes of these diverse life forms, they generate oxygen and sequester carbon from the atmosphere, they affect the microclimate of their area, they are a key component of the hydrologic cycle, as well as providing aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual inspiration.


These forest ecosystem functions evolved to maintain the overall health of the forest environment and the creatures in it. Ecosystem functions are another form of natural income derived from the same natural capital of the forest ecosystem that generates timber for economic use. Ecosystem functions that have particular value to humans are called ecosystem services 

Sustainability is the rate at which a resource depletion reduces the capacity of natural capital to provide future natural income. As long as the drawdown exceeds the rate of replenishment, the amount available will eventually shrink to zero - sustainability is destroyed. Sustainability allows you to focus at least as much on ecosystem services, and the natural income they provide, as on resources. Because natural capital is excluded from economic theory and practice, these vital, life-supporting sources of natural income essential for sustainability, are considered to have no market value and are therefore ignored.

Discuss the value of ecosystem services to society.

Ecosystems have value because they maintain life on Earth and the services needed to satisfy human material and nonmaterial needs. In addition, many people ascribe ecological, sociocultural, or intrinsic values to the existence of ecosystems and species. The Millennium Assessment recognizes these different paradigms, based on various motivations and concepts of value, along with the many valuation methods connected with them. Ecosystems and the provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services they provide have economic value to human societies because people derive utility from their actual or potential use, either directly or indirectly (known as use-values).

People also value ecosystem services they are not currently using (non-use values). This paradigm of value is known as the utilitarian (anthropocentric) concept and is based on the principles of humans’ preference satisfaction (welfare).

Discuss how environmental indicators such as MA can be used to evaluate the progress of a project to increase sustainability

Presented at UN Millennium Summit in 2000
189 Nations signed the Declaration
8 Goals to be achieved by 2015:

  • Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty & Hunger

  • Goal 2: Universal Primary Education 

  • Goal 3: Gender Equality and Empower Women

  • Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality

  • Goal 5: Improve Maternal Healthcare

  • Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

  • Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability

  • Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Evaluate the use of EIAs.

EIA is not the only tool to achieve sustainability, the EIA process is still a very effective tool in evaluating the sustainability of development proposals. However, to measure the extent to which EIAs substantially address “sustainability”, the sustainability criteria must go beyond adherence to procedural requirements and address substantive considerations such as the sustainable use of resources, poverty, and inequality.

  • EIA often focuses on biophysical issues (often a fault of poor terms of reference);

  • Where environment, social and economic aspects are addressed, they are not always addressed in an integrated way (EIA reports tend to present as separate chapters)

  • EIA provides an opportunity to learn from the experience of similar projects and avoids the (often high) costs of subsequently mitigating unforeseen negative and damaging impacts.

  • EIA Improves the long-term viability of many projects 

Explain the relationship between EFs and sustainability.

When humanity's ecological resource demands exceed what nature can supply, we reach ecological overshoot
The effects:  carbon-induced climate change, species extinction, deforestation, dead coral reefs and the loss of groundwater 

The human footprint has more than tripled since 19

Classroom Material

  1. The San Francisco Indicator Project

  2. Sustainability Awareness Project

  3. Reading AssignmentNatural Capital and Income 

  4. Reading QuestionsNatural Capital and Income

  5. articleIntrinsic Value

  6. activity attractive Solutions

  7. activityMillennium Ecosystem Assessment 


  1. Guide to EIAs worksheet

  2. in class activityNorthern Michigan Mining Background Information

  3.  in class activityNorthern Michigan Mining Maps

  4. in class activityNorthern Michigan Website Information

  5. Sample EIA - Mekong River Dam

  6. Comparing Environmental Impact Assessments

Useful Links
Science Sauce Topic 1.4 Sustainability, Natural Capital and Natural Income
Science Sauce Topic 1.4 Ecological Footprint
Science Sauce Topic 1.4 Environmental Impact Assessment

The Sustainable Scale Project
List of Natural Resources - Buzzle
A case study: The Peruvian Anchovy (Engraulis ringens) - Open Door
Rio Declaration on Environment and Development - UN


Environmental Indicators
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment - UN
Global Environment Outlook - UN
Global International Waters Assessment - UN


Ecological Footprint
Global Footprint Network
The Sustainability Scale Project
Ecological footprints for individual countries
Bird's Eye View of Changing Landscapes - Crossing Boundaries
Environmental Change - UNEP
Environmental  Protection Authority of Australia - This site has a searchable database of  real EIAs
Environmental Impact Assessment General Procedures - A paper by Pacifica F. Achieng Ogola of the Kenya Electricity Generating Company Ltd. (KenGen). 
Sumatra Tsunami - San Jose University
Environmental Impact Assessments - National Archives

EIA Case Study
Creating an Environmental Impact Assessment
This activity is designed to help you better understand the concept of an EIA and the process by which it is carried out.
Isua Iron Ore in Greenland - BBC News 24 October 2013
Three Gorges Dam - National Geographic

In The News


  • EIAs incorporate baseline studies before a development project is undertaken - to what extent should environmental concerns limit our pursuit of knowledge?


The Lorax (original cartoon)

We often hear the words 'sustainable' and 'sustainability' in our daily lives. But what does sustainability mean? And why is it so important? explains tries to shed some light on these questions


Jonathon Porritt, is an eminent writer, broadcaster, and commentator on sustainable development.  He is Co-Founder of Forum for the Future, the UK's leading sustainable development charity. He is Co-Director of The Prince of Wales's Business and Sustainability Programme was formerly Director of Friends of the Earth

It may be that we live in an age of hyper-connectivity and “big data,” but I contend that the fundamental reason why we’ve managed to construct the most highly unsustainable culture the Earth has ever seen is precisely because we have not been taught to see the connections.

In this video, Paul Andersen explains how the resources required for survival come from the Earth. The resources are not evenly distributed on the planet and neither are humans. According to the NGSS, we need to limit the use of nonrenewable resources (like oil and coal) through regulations and increase the use of renewable resources.

Every day, we use materials from the earth without thinking, for free. But what if we had to pay for their true value: would it make us more careful about what we use and what we waste? Think of Pavan Sukhdev as nature's banker -- assessing the value of the Earth's assets. Eye-opening charts will make you think differently about the cost of air, water, trees .







From its extraction through sale, use, and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world.

This is a spot created by CVF and sponsored by UNEP, to give visibility and make people understand what is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.



Ecological footprint: Do we fit on our planet?












Environmental Impact Assessment























Understanding Sustainability (1.4)

Sustainability Notes


Sustainability philosophy: 
"Sustainability is the ability to sustain (keep going) and contains the notion of responsibility towards the next generations and the acknowledgment that we don't inherit, but we borrow." - Building Environmental Performance Open Dialogue 
Economy: Supply and Demand, Cost and Benefits, Risk Factors + Developed vs. Developing Countries
Environment: Resource Depletion, Pollution, Loss of Biodiversity

Society: Defence of Human rights

Millennium Assessment Overview (UN Millennium Summit)


Natural Capital & Human Footprints

Natural Capital: Resources are described as "natural capital." If properly managed, renewable and replenished resources become forms of wealth that produce "natural income" to support the economy. 
    Renewable: self-producing and self-maintaining, dependent upon solar energy or photosynthesis (ex. living species and ecosystems)
    Replenishable: non-living but is dependent upon the solar "engine" for renewal, cyclical cycles (ex. ground water and ozone layer)
    Non-renewable: similar to inventory, using them implies liquidating part of the stock, can not be replaced once gone (ex. fossil fuels and minerals)

Nation Master- statistics on all things geography and resources
What is Natural Capital?

Ecological Footprint
Measure your ecological footprint or the WWF calculator (
      Reducing your Carbon Footprint
      12 simple ways to reduce your Carbon Footprint

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
What is an Environmental Impact Assessment?​
British Natural Gas Company EIA
Hong Kong International Airport Expansion EIA

ElectroCity- no longer works

Link to Game

Environment vs. Economy Debate


Some resources to get you started:
Develop or Die: Education in Bangladesh
Develop or Die: India - Part 1
Develop or Die: India- Part 2
The New Yorker: A look at Canada/ US with the Kyoto Policy
Subsidy and our dependence on the environment
Tradable pollution permits
pollution and economic toll

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