Sustainable Living In The 21st Century Environmental Sciences Essay

4834 words (19 pages) Essay in Environmental Sciences

5/12/16 Environmental Sciences Reference this

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Sustainable living is about a lifestyle that reduces an individual’s or society’s use of global natural resources (Ainoa et al. 2009). For sustainable living, we should conduct our lives in ways that are consistent with the core principles of sustainability, in natural balance and respectful of humanity’s symbiotic relationship with the Earth’s natural ecology and biological cycles (CELL, 2010?). Such a living style requires that we make serious attempts to reduce our carbon footprint by altering diet, energy consumption and transportation methods (Winter, 2007). Brown (???) has described sustainable living in the 21st century as shifting to a renewable energy-based, reuse/recycle economy with a diversified transport system.

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It is generally recognized that education is the most important factor in improving the quality of life and for enhancing opportunities for individual development. However, it has only recently been realized that education is the decisive factor in addressing the present crisis related to environmental instability. The extent of the global environmental degradation crisis has only come into focus because of the multiple and repeated alarms being raised over the effects of climate change. However, addressing the multiple threats to the sustainability of humanity within the 21st century is an enormous challenge involving educating and re-educating people on a multitude of complex and inter-related concepts. Education must have a dominant role in moving towards sustainable living since it is the single most important factor in improving the quality of life. Science education is essential in achieving social development through environmental awareness. Education must be the advocate for environmental sustainability being a moral obligation for all. Moving towards environmental sustainability involves educating communities on the intensity of present environmental degradation and motivating them to reduce their ecological footprint based on acquired knowledge and experience. Higher education is particularly relevant to solving the crisis of climate change (Hales, 2008). It is timely that higher education should focus on science and engineering for the development of new technologies for conservation of water and energy supplied and teach communities how to live and work sustainably. Specially structured educational programs are needed. These should be multidisciplinary to cover all aspects that relate to sustainable living, must holistically address the total energy, water and carbon footprints of lifestyle choices, and explain how these choices, decisions and behaviours affect natural resources, social equity and economic development. Further, extension programs must act as models for others to follow and help communities ‘walk the talk’ (Crosby et al., 2008).

This chapter is an attempt to emphasize the most significant aspects of education associated with moving toward sustainability.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability has different meanings for different people and has only recently come into sharp focus following concerns on ‘climate change’ and the consequences for sustainability of humanity. Unfortunately, the climate change debate has overshadowed the more important debate on the sustainability of the environment. Over the last two centuries, the environment has been seen as self-sustaining and a resource to be exploited and consumed. Only in recent decades has the environment been acknowledged as being seriously stressed and threatened, and in urgent need for conservation and regeneration.

Despite the present widespread recognition of global environmental degradation being caused by human neglect, there is intense debate on how environmental conservation and regeneration can be achieved both now and in the future. This debate is frustrated by a lack of a pragmatic definition of ‘sustainability’, particularly in relation to sustainable environmental development.

The much quoted Brundtlund Report definition published in 1987 was the first to link ‘sustainable development’ to ‘social responsibility’: ‘sustainable development means maintaining the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. However, the ‘needs of the present generation’ are many and diverse and include food, water, energy and money among others. These needs have already exceeded the resources on which they depend and so the ability of future generations to meet their needs is already compromised.

Following such a loose definition of sustainability, there has been continuing alarm on the disparity of the needs of the rich compared to those of the poor and on ‘what’ should be sustained and priorities of sustaining. The reality is that present population growth, exotic lifestyles and excessive consumption of resources are not sustainable but to create sustainability remains an elusive objective.

It is obvious that there is an urgent need to move towards sustainability based on major changes to the present dominant social and community values. The extreme dedication of communities to consume resources must change to conservation of resources coupled with wealth accumulation changing to wealth distribution to assist in closing the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Hence, sustainability should be driven by ‘people power’.

Sustainability also implies changes of attitude and emphasis on perceptions of the meaning of ‘economic growth’. This has long been associated with increased trade and industrial development which have produced a downward spiral of increased poverty and progressive environmental degradation. Economic growth has to be measured in terms of meeting the essential needs of humanity without enhancing environmental degradation together with greater equity in the distribution of economic benefits. Social justice is a crucial component of sustainability.

Sustainability is primarily dependent on the preservation of the diverse and complex ecosystems which make up the global ecosphere. These fragile systems are under unprecedented stress as a consequence of the relentless demands for cleared land for housing and industry, the increasing demands for fossil fuels for energy generation and the burgeoning demand for food from grain crops and for fish from the oceans. It is only because of the comparatively recent alarm bells sounded by the onslaught of climate change that irreversible environmental degradation has been fully recognized and appreciated but alas, not fully understood. In order to emphasize the scale of degradation and its correlation with human impact, a new jargon has emerged that of ‘ecological footprint’ which is a measure of the ecological capacity of individuals. At present, even the crudest estimates of ecological footprints indicate that the developed nations of the world are living beyond their ecological capacity and are thus living on borrowed time.

Sustainability inevitably involves ‘government’ at all levels and requires democratic revitalization to produce sustainable, accountable and equitable forms of capitalism which activate social reforms and promote ecological awareness.

There is a common perception that technology will solve the sustainability issue but this is a misconception since although technology can assist moving towards sustainability, it is not the unilateral antidote. Further, achieving sustainability is not a ‘quick fix’ phenomenon but a prolonged and uncertain journey involving dedicated commitment of people and resources. It is already clear that the rate of technological development in mitigating climate change is not consistent with the magnitude of problem. Put simply, to reduce ‘carbon emissions’ means ‘capturing carbon dioxide and diverting it from the atmosphere’. These two operations need to be both technologically and economically feasible and require time consuming research coupled with innovative strategies to commercialize new scientific discoveries.

Although a tangible definition of sustainability is elusive, it does have many facets all related to sustaining the environment as the top priority.  Thus, education for moving toward sustainability also has many facets which are best illustrated by the cluster chart shown in Figure 1 and a brief discussion of each component of this cluster follows.

Fig. 1 Cluster diagram to describe the components of education associated with sustainability.

Education for sustainable environments

Sustaining humanity in the 21st century depends on sustaining the environment as the top priority so as to preserve its resources. In simple terms, preserving these resources means that sustainable consumable yields are provided but that the consumption rate does not exceed the regeneration rate. Similarly, non-renewable resources must be preserved which means that the consumption rate is balanced by the production rate of renewable resources. In conjunction with these balancing strategies, it is necessary to ensure that waste generation does not exceed the assimilation rate of the environment. Clearly the present crisis of acute and widespread environmental degradation is the result of these three factors being ignored over many decades.

The environment in all its dimensions is degrading globally. Atmospheric pollution has been of major concern for many decades but has now reached new heights of concern following the widespread concern on the effects of climate change. The main cause of climate change is believed to be due to the excessive build up of carbon dioxide in the lower atmosphere caused mainly by the excessive combustion of fossil fuels for the production of energy. However, carbon dioxide is not the only known greenhouse gas, methane is also a potent heat storage gas along with water vapor. This fact alone is sufficient for much complacency within the climate change debate and poses additional challenges for climate change educators. Whether or not climate change is a reality is irrelevant in the context of environmental sustainability since all factors which disturb the equilibrium of the environment which has been established over millennia have to be considered and addressed.

Loss of biodiversity from the land arises largely from habitat loss and fragmentation produced by overuse of land for development, forestry and agriculture. This is blatant conversion of natural capital to investment capital and although there has been widespread condemnation of destruction of the rain-forests of the world for decades,  the realities of such devastation are only now becoming fully apparent as are the effects of ‘intensive agriculture’ which reduces soil quality at alarming rates. It is ironic that forests conserve biodiversity, preserve water and soil quality, provide a wide variety of products and, above all, produce atmospheric oxygen by photosynthesis and yet these provisions still have no tangible market value as compared with the economic benefits of logging and land clearing which directly increase atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.  Such are the challenges for sustainability education, since the mindsets of developers and economists clearly have to change and natural resources need to be ‘priced’ sufficiently high to ensure their preservation.

Similarly, water resources globally are at crisis point. Freshwater is essential for human life but at best, it is less than 5% of the global resource. Excessive use of freshwater supplies for irrigation has markedly affected the health of river systems mainly by reducing flow rates which in turn places stress on wetland systems. Further, natural flooding of river flood plains has been curtailed by the construction of dams and weirs which further control river flow rates and hence place severe stress on vital river ecosystem resources. It is again ironic that many of these aquatic ecosystems have been studied in detail over several decades but it is only comparatively recently that inter-dependence of these ecosystems has been appreciated and value of biodiversity as a realistic measure of environmental health realized. Further, the marine environment is also undergoing rapid degradation which is most apparent from the decline in the number of fish species as a result of over-fishing with the advent of trawl technology and unsustainable fishing practices. Although the recent increase in success of aquaculture has and will continue to address this imbalance, it is clear that more severe international statutory controls on fishing are required together with the implementation of sustainable fishing practices- both of which depend on international agreements and treaties which are difficult to achieve and implement.

Education for sustainable economies

The supreme challenge for sustainable living in the 21st century is to curb excessive consumption in the developed world whilst raising living standards in the developing world without a net increase in consumption of natural resources and environmental impact. Historically, living standards have correlated with economic growth and environmental degradation, and so moving towards sustainable living is at best challenging and at worst, impossible. Again, education is required to change the mindset on what constitutes a ‘sustainable economy’, firstly by understanding why present national economies are not sustainable.

Contemporary economics is based on economic growth and efficient allocation of resources, and multiple strategies are put in place to achieve pre-determined economic objectives upon which the wealth of nations is based. Conversely, the so-called ‘new economics’ or ‘ecological economics’ is based on sustainable growth and fair and efficient distribution of resources. The first time that the latter became a reality rather than a theory was at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change summit when developing world nations argued very convincingly that the developed world should financially assist the developing world in reducing global green house gas emissions. The failure of the summit to reach a unilateral agreement on greenhouse gas emissions was largely due to a lack of agreement on the basic principle of wealth distribution which underwrites ecological economics.

Conventional economics puts a price on natural resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, water and foodstuffs and these are regarded as the main drivers of national economies. However, equally important natural resources such as national parks, marine parks, wetlands, coral reefs, mangrove swamps and many others are regarded as ‘economic externalities’ which ‘need not be priced’ and therefore are ripe for exploitation, particularly through tourism. Ecological economics is based on realistic pricing of all natural resources which are subject to consumption by humans, either directly or indirectly and in addition, is committed to the belief that sustainable economics is based on a unilateral greening of industry such that manufacturing processes are energy and waste efficient, consume less resources and provide clean, safe working environments. Ecological economics is the fundamental platform of the emerging carbon economy. However, it is already evident that there is much opposition to a ‘carbon tax’ and skepticism of the effectiveness of ‘carbon emission trading schemes’ in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so public education on the basic science and economics underpinning these schemes is obviously urgently required.

Education for sustainable communities

There is no doubt that the overwhelming threat to sustainability of humanity in the 21st century is that the present global population of about 6.8 billion is consuming 40% more resources that the Earth is producing per annum and so with a projected global population of 9 billion by 2050, 5.4 Earth’s worth of resources will be required to achieve human sustainability. Even to move towards sustainability on such a scale obviously requires a massive psyche change of humanity and   extreme urgency in the implementation of sustainable living practices.

Building sustainable communities essentially involves ‘people power’ but communities require educating in order to develop the knowledge, values and skills required for informed decision-making that will improve quality of life now without damaging the environment in the future. Achieving sustainable living is a journey of indefinite duration but with a clearly defined destination. It is a journey taken both by individuals and by communities simultaneously to the benefit of all. The foundation of sustainable communities is the development of sustainability literacy within communities which involves an understanding of the present imbalance between consumption and regeneration of essential natural resources – energy, water and food. It is somewhat ironic and humbling to witness that the indigenous communities of the world have been far more sustainability literate over the last two centuries than the so-called modern communities over the last two decades.

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Sustainable communities are resilient communities which have changed life-style behavior and habits which depend on excessive consumerism to those which embrace waste reduction, reuse and recycle strategies all of which harmonize living standards with environmental demands. These changes take time to implement but result in community social well-being, strong economies and flourishing environments, the benefits of which become obvious to all.

Sustainable communities vary enormously with respect to size and character but traditionally form two groups – urban and rural. In the past, it has been much more difficult to sustain rural communities due largely to the one-way migration from country to town/city to obtain employment. However, this trend can be at least partially reversed with the wider implementation of ‘eco-development’ which has been responsible for the so-called ‘new urbanism’ philosophy but is only just becoming apparent in rural and regional centre infrastructure planning. Eco-development is based on a clean, green living philosophy which incorporates consumption of renewable energies, conservation of water and living off the land using smart ways to grow food. Sustainable literacy only becomes effective when communities understand and appreciate that sustainable living not only gives rise to better, healthier lifestyles but also is cost effective both in the short and long terms. By virtue of their sustainable life-styles, sustainable communities are resilient to the effects of climate change and are well suited to benefit from future carbon-based economies.

Education for sustainable energy supplies

Sustaining humanity in the 21st century requires sustaining energy resources and supplies which creates the dilemma which has become known as the global energy crisis. Coal, oil and natural gas combined provide about 80% of global energy needs mainly in the form of electricity and transport fuels but at the same time produce the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions which are believed to be responsible for global warming. It is estimated that global energy demand could jump by 50% by 2030, consistent with a global population increase of 1.5 billion over the next two decades and this translates to a global warming estimate of the order of 6oC if fossil fuels continue to be the primary energy resource.  

An increase of 6oC corresponds to about 3 times the global warming which has occurred over the last century and would have catastrophic environmental, economic and social effects. It is this type of horror scenario which is driving the so-called ‘global energy revolution’ which dictates that there has to be a move away from fossil fuels as the primary energy resource towards the use of clean green renewable energy resources. These are receiving increasing attention but all have significant technological, development, economic and ethical problems associated with them. The dilemma is that at present, all known renewable energy resources combined including nuclear, solar, wind and biofuels account for less than 10% of global energy requirements and although considerable technological advances are occurring with respect to the commercial development of renewable energy resources, this situation is unlikely to change significantly within the next decade. Similarly, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power stations, collectively known as ‘clean coal technology’, are at least 10 -15 years away from commercial reality. It is conservatively estimated that fossil fuels will remain as the primary global energy resource for at least the next 30 – 50 years and that phasing out of existing coal-fired power stations will take at least 10 – 15 years. Thus, the energy crisis is essentially how are sustainable energy supplies to be provided exclusively from renewable energy resources over the next half century?

Although, it is generally agreed that the transition to renewable energy resources is inevitable, the time scale for such a transition is very unclear since there are not only major technological problems to be overcome but also major social and economic issues to be addressed along the way which involve significant educational strategies to be unilaterally implemented. Given that it is already abundantly clear that we live by an ‘energy economy’ it is unlikely that the extra costs associated with abatement of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion coupled with the costs of developing alternatives to fossil fuels will be readily accepted by communities, given that the present escalating costs of electricity and transport fuels are a source of despair globally.

Then there are ethical issues to be resolved in the transition to clean energy resources. It has been extensively argued that nuclear power is the only realistic alternative to coal and oil as a primary energy resource but the general population is very concerned about the degree of fail-safe operation of nuclear power stations and is very concerned about safe disposal of nuclear waste. Similarly, biofuels which rely on food crops such as corn products as the primary energy resource are competing with the desperate need to increase grain production globally to address malnutrition in some 23% of the global population.

It is clear that the global energy revolution will only succeed if viable education strategies are introduced and available to the general population which address the widespread lack of understanding of climate change and, in particular, its causes and also address the pros and cons of renewable energy resources. The immediate future has to involve a blend of old and new energy generation technologies coupled with a widespread recognition that energy has to be conserved and not wasted. It is practical education programs which will promote this ethic at all levels within communities.

Education for sustainable water supplies

Sustainable living also means having access to sustainable water supplies. At present, it is estimated that some 15% of the global population do not have access to safe water and the majority of these are in developing countries. It is well-known that many of the life threatening diseases, so common in the developing world, are spread by drinking contaminated water. Further, it is estimated that agricultural irrigation consumes some 65% of global freshwater supplies and already many countries and regions are experiencing water scarcity at alarming levels due to prolonged periods of drought. Droughts are predicted to become more prolonged as a result of the consequences of climate change and so demand for freshwater will inevitably rise – predicted to be by some 30% over the next two decades and thus it is clear that urgent strategies are necessary to educate communities to use less water more efficiently.

Unfortunately, increase in freshwater use is driven by numerous factors which are difficult to assess and control. These factors include population increase and distribution, lifestyles, economies and, most particularly, by increasing demands for food which drives increases in irrigated agriculture. There is also a political factor which influences freshwater usage in that many of the world’s major freshwater resources are shared since major rivers often flow through several countries. For example, the Danube passes through 12 countries that use its water and the Nile flows through 9 countries which are totally dependent on its waters. Agreement between countries that share freshwater resources can be difficult to achieve and sustain but are generally associated with demands for more effective water usage and strict management programs.

Since freshwater is such a valuable resource, water pricing is a highly contentious issue at all levels – domestic, industrial and agricultural. Agriculture is linked directly to food production and hence farmers believe that they have the right to sufficient water to produce sufficient crops to provide a sustainable income for themselves and their families. Some governments however believe that such water rights should be controlled by license in view of the scarcity of the commodity and this explains the conflict that is evident between primary producers and water licensing authorities. It is inevitable that sustainable agriculture depends on a major reduction in water used for irrigation by progressive use of drip-irrigation technology in conjunction with installation of improved drainage and recycling systems. Also, during the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s, new strains of many species of crops resulted in large increases in productivity and this technology is now focused on strains of grain crops which require less irrigation.

At the industrial level and as a major part of ‘industrial greening’ strategies, industry is adopting water recycling initiatives which may include partial treatment of waste water. These initiatives are complementary to the energy consumption reduction strategies and are consistent with the ‘3R’s’ of clean, green industry – reuse, recycle, reduce.

At the domestic level, a ‘user pays’ system is usually applied to water consumption and during periods of drought, restrictions are placed on water usage which are enforced by water management authorities. It is becoming increasingly apparent that due to the escalating cost of water, communities and individuals are becoming more aware of the need for water conservation and are taking appropriate steps to initiate the ‘3R’ rule both individually and collectively.

These initiatives include the installation of water tanks in homes to collect rain water and the recycling of non-sewage waste water for external use. No longer can it be taken for granted that the right to water means simply turning a tap on.

Education for sustainable food supplies

Food security, in conjunction with sustainable energy and water supplies, are the essential components of sustaining humanity. At present, food security is not a reality since at least 15% of the global population is undernourished and with a projected surging population increase, it is a daunting challenge to reduce world hunger, especially since this is directly linked with poverty and exacerbated by global warming.

The Green Revolution, which partially achieved food security over the period 1960 to mid-1980, was the dawn of ‘intensive agriculture’ which has resulted in serious environmental problems. Widespread deep tilling of land together with excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides coupled with intensive irrigation has caused degradation of soil quality and texture in addition to dry land salinity. The additional threat of climate change will inevitably further threaten the achievement of food security in coming decades unless urgent steps are taken now to move towards sustainable agriculture.

Science, technology and innovation are essential drivers of sustainable agriculture and hence food security. Improved mechanization of agriculture using efficient harvesting machines which reduce soil compaction are already increasing productivity and use of geographical positioning system (GPS) technology to monitor and control the position of such machinery enables precisely measured amounts of seed, fertilizer and pesticides in addition to the determination of soil and plant quality, which enables early detection of diseases. Further, development of improved crop varieties and marker assisted plant breeding combine to reduce losses due to pests and diseases. These biotechnologies lead to strains which are tolerant of drought, heat and saline conditions in addition to improved pest and disease resistance. Further, drip irrigation coupled with micro-nutrient addition is becoming increasingly effective in increasing production of staple crops such as sweet potato.

In the quest to find alternative, clean, green energy resources, bio-fuels have come into prominence.  Biofuels are currently produced from starch, sugar cane, wheat, maize and palm oil. Biofuel production is currently somewhat controversial since the required raw material is derived from land that should be used for food production. In addition, sugar cane and palm oil plantations contribute to deforestation of tropical rain forests.  ‘Second  generation’  biofuels are currently being investigated which use crop residues, grasses and willows as base materials and these have much promise as future commercial biofuels and are free of the food related controversies.

The last decade has seen massive exploitation of marine resources in the quest to achieve food security. The application of modern technology to commercialization of fishing operations has led to a global overfishing crisis such that sustainable fisheries thresholds have been exceeded. Many of the coastal commercial fisheries have collapsed as a result of declining catches and the global industry is facing further threats from seawater warming and increasing acidification caused by climate change. Thus, the seafood industry is not sustainable. The solution involves harvesting methods that capture fish selectively and within specified limits so as to allow regeneration. However, such strategies are difficult to implement on an international scale.

Aquaculture is becoming increasingly important in addressing the challenge of food security. Total fish capture in 2010 amounted to some 145 million tonnes of which aquaculture contributed 54 million tonnes – representing an increase of some 20 million tonnes compared to a decade ago. Aquaculture meets at least three objectives: provides seafood and hence income for coastal communities, reduces fishing pressure on wild populations and maintains fish supply to sustain commercial, subsistence and recreational demands. Aquaculture can be sustainable provided that quality seawater, dependable supplies of seed and feed-stocks are available together with application of strategies to ensure disease free hatcheries and grow-out systems.  The next generation of aquaculture may involve introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMO’s have already been introduced into agriculture and genetically modified crop strains have been shown to give higher yields with lower fertilizer support. The transgenic animal products are controversial and early attempts to market GMO salmon have faced stiff resistance. However, the potential for GMOs to be a force in combating food shortages is significant and cannot be overlooked.

Food security is clearly based on a combination of sustainable agriculture, sustainable fisheries and sustainable aquaculture together with a paradigm shift in the extent to which natural food resources are exploited. Fundamentally, more food has to be produced with less energy, less water, less chemicals and by methods which allow environmental regeneration.

Education in sustainability science and technology

Sustainability science is the science associated wi

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