(21) Environmental Science

Principles of sustainability


What’s the use of a house if you don’t have a decent planet to put it on?

Henry David Thoreau

What Are Four Scientific Principles of Sustainability?

CONCEPT 1-6 Nature has sustained itself for billions of years by using solar energy, biodiversity, population regulation, and nutrient cycling-lessons from nature that we can apply to our lifestyles and economies.

Studying Nature Reveals Four Scientific Principles of Sustainability

How can we live more sustainably? According to environmental scientists, we should study how life on the earth has survived and adapted to major changes in environmental conditions for billions of years. We could make the transition to more sustainable societies by applying these lessons from nature to our lifestyles and economies (Concept 1-6).

• Reliance on Solar Energy: the sun warms the planet and supports photosynthesis used by plants to provide food for themselves and for us and other animals.

• Biodiversity (short for biological diversity): the astounding variety of life forms, the genes they contain, the ecosystems in which they exist, and the natural services they provide have yielded countless ways for life to adapt to changing environmental conditions throughout the earth’s history.

• Population Control: competition for limited resources among different life forms places a limit on how much their populations can grow.

• Nutrient Cycling: natural processes recycle chemicals that plants and animals need to stay alive and reproduce.

Four scientific principles of sustainability: these four interconnected principles of sustainability are derived from learning how nature has sustained a variety of life on the earth for about 3.7 billion years. If we consider an oval we can see the top left oval shows sunlight stimulating the production of vegetation in the Arctic tundra during its brief summer (solar energy) and the top right oval shows some of the diversity of species found there during the summer (biodiversity). The bottom right oval shows Arctic gray wolves stalking a caribou during the long cold winter (population control). The bottom left oval shows Arctic gray wolves feeding on their kill. This, plus huge numbers of tiny decomposers that convert dead matter to soil nutrients, recycle all materials needed to support the plant growth shown in the top left and right ovals (nutrient cycling).

Current Emphasis    -          Sustainable Emphasis

Pollution cleanup – Pollution prevention

Waste disposal – Waste prevention

(bury or burn)

Protecting Species – Protecting habitat

Environmental degradation – Environmental restoration

Increasing resource use – Less resource waste

Population growth – Population stabilization

Depleting and degrading natural capital – Protection natural capital

Using the four scientific principles of sustainability to guide our lifestyles and economies can help us bring about an environmental or sustainability revolution during your lifetime more sustainably.

Scientific evidence indicates that we have perhaps 50 years and no more than 100 years to make such acrucial cultural change. If this is correct, sometime during this century, we could come to a historical fork in the road, at which point we will choose a path toward sustainability or continue on our current unsustainable course. Everything you do, or do not do, will play a role in our collective choice of which path we will take.

One of the goals of this book is to provide a realistic environmental vision of the future that, instead of immobilizing you with fear, gloom, and doom, will energize you by inspiring realistic hope.

Exponential Growth and Sustainability

We face an array of serious environmental problems. Making the transition to more sustainable societies and economies challenges us to devise ways to slow down the harmful effects of exponential growth (Core Case Study) and to use the same power of exponential growth to implement more sustainable lifestyles and economies.

The key is to apply the four scientific principles of sustainability (Concept 1-6) to the design of our economic and social systems and to our individual lifestyles. We can use such information to help slow human population growth, sharply reduce poverty, curb the unsustainable forms of resource use that are eating away at the earth’s natural capital, build social capital, and create a better world for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and beyond. Exponential growth is a double-edged sword. It can cause environmental harm. But we can also use it positively to amplify beneficial changes in our lifestyles and economies by applying the four scientific principles of sustainability. Through our individual and collective actions or inactions, we choose which side of that sword to use.

We are rapidly altering the planet that is our only home. If we make the right choices during this century, we can create an extraordinary and sustainable future on our planetary home. If we get it wrong, we face irreversible ecological disruption that could set humanity back for centuries and wipe out as many as half of the world’s species.

You have the good fortune to be a member of the 21st century transition generation that will decide which path humanity takes. What a challenging and exciting time to be alive!


1. What is exponential growth? Why is living in an exponential age a cause for concern for everyone living on the planet?

2. Discuss the environmental factors that keep us alive. Explain the term natural capital. Describe the ultimate goal of an environmentally sustainable society.

3. What is the difference between economic growth and economic development? Discuss the key economic characteristics of developed versus developing countries.

4. What are the earth’s main types of resources and how are they being degraded? What is an ecological footprint?

What is a per capita ecological footprint? How do these compare and contrast on a global scale?

5. Describe the cultural changes that have occurred since humans arrived on the earth which have led to more environmental degradation as our ecological footprints have increased.

6. Define pollution. What are the two main sources of pollution? Describe two different ways that we can deal with pollution.

7. Identify the five basic causes of the environmental problems that we face today. In what ways do poverty and affluence affect the environment?

8. Discuss the lessons we can learn from the environmental transformation of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

9. List the four scientific principles of environmental sustainability. Explain how each is affected by exponential growth.

10. Describe the different types of environmental worldviews that are held by people on the planet. How are these linked to environmental ethics? What is social capital?


1. List three ways in which you could apply Concepts 1-5A and 1-6 to making your lifestyle more environmentally sustainable.

2. Describe two environmentally beneficial forms of exponential growth (Core Case Study).

3. Explain why you agree or disagree with the following propositions: a. stabilizing population is not desirable, because without more consumers, economic growth would stop. b. The world will never run out of resources because we can use technology to find substitutes and to help us reduce resource waste.

4. Suppose the world’s population stopped growing today. What environmental problems might this help solve? What environmental problems would remain? What economic problems might population stabilization make worse?

5. When you read that at least 19,200 people die prematurely each day (13 per minute) from preventable malnutrition and infectious disease, do you (a) doubt that it is true, (b) not want to think about it, (c) feel hopeless, (d) feel sad, (e) feel guilty, or (f) want to do something about this problem?

6. What do you think when you read that (a) the average American consumes 30 times more resources than the average citizen of India, and (b) human activities are projected to make the earth’s climate warmer? Are you skeptical, indifferent, sad, helpless, guilty, concerned, or outraged? Which of these feelings help perpetuate such problems, and which can help solve them?

7. Which one or more of the four scientific principles of sustainability are involved in each of the following actions: (a) recycling soda cans; (b) using a rake instead of leaf blower; (c) choosing to have no more than one child; (d) walking to class instead of driving; (e) taking your own reusable bags to the grocery store to carry things home in; (f) volunteering in a prairie restoration project; and (g) lobbying elected officials to require that 20% of your country’s electricity be produced by renewable wind power by 2020?

8. Explain why you agree or disagree with each of the following statements: (a) humans are superior to other forms of life, (b) humans are in charge of the earth, (c) all economic growth is good, (d) the value of other forms of life depends only on whether they are useful to us, (e) because all forms of life eventually become extinct, we should not worry about whether our activities cause their premature extinction, (f) all forms of life have an inherent right to exist, (g) nature has an almost unlimited storehouse of resources for human use, (h) technology can solve our environmental problems, (i) I do not believe I have any obligation to future generations, and (j) I do not believe I have any obligation to other forms of life.

9. What are the basic beliefs of your environmental worldview? Record your answer. Then at the end return to your answer to see if your environmental worldview has changed. Are the beliefs of your environmental worldview consistent with your answers to question? Are your daily choices consistent with your environmental worldview?

10. List two questions that you would like to have answered. 

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