Sustainability has been on the forefront of innovation of scientific research for generations. An economy cannot thrive unless it can sustain itself, and many of us think that the things we use in our daily life must be made to sustain the health of our environment with greener technologies, but how do you determine the sustainability of a society, a culture, and a civilization? That is what Dr. Nicole Peterson is trying to figure out through a grant that allows her to further research this field.
On January 24th, I sat in on a talk by Dr. Peterson in which she talked about an idea called “Social Sustainability.”
Dr. Peterson explained to us her definition of sustainability, which was maintaining “the world in which we continue to live as humans without sacrificing the ability of allowing future inhabitants to exist.” Her idea of sustainability was split into three “legs” of a stool, in which two legs were Economic and Environmental sustainability. Dr. Peterson identifies the last leg to be the Social leg, or the leg that deals with the social aspect of sustainability.
She then used the example of a fishing village in Mexico and how this fishing village was affected by a changing global economy and climate. Fishermen in this village were starting to see a decrease in fish stocks in the surrounding ocean. Fisherman blamed many things from the Colorado River no longer reaching the Gulf of California, tourism, different fishing techniques, and large industrial fishing. She points out the fact that the things affecting this fishing village were both economic and environmental issues.
The three “legs” of sustainability, she argues, are interrelated. The vitality of an economy is reliant on healthy ecosystems, and as the recent recession illustrated, economic and social integrity are also linked.
Despite its interconnectedness, social sustainability is the least understood and defined. If one were to try and explain it, it might be best explained as the relationships, interactions, and institutions that affect and are affected by social development. For example, the way a social protest can affect the place it is focused on; a government can be hurt by a social protest, its stability then loses integrity, and its economy takes a blow.
Dr. Peterson also took her research home here to Charlotte, NC, with her project of understanding food systems within the city. A project she was involved in and studied, Mobile Markets, takes fresh produce from the gardens and other places and sells it at the transit hub in uptown. This provides a place for people to buy fresh produce in a location that wouldn’t originally have it.
This research, however, is just touching the beginning of understanding social sustainability… if it can be understood at all.
In the global community we live in, the means to achieve sustainability is dependent on many different aspects. Geography, political systems, and culture can all directly affect what a certain country may need to sustain itself.
In my opinion, social sustainability should instead be used as a measure of overall sustainability, and instead of seeing sustainability in three separate segments, it can be be concluded that they are all, in fact, the same. Economic sustainability IS environmental sustainability and ALSO social sustainability. They are all interdependent and therefore wouldn’t exist without the other.
If we hope to perfect one, we must perfect the other. So is perfection ever really possible at all? What, then, is considered perfect sustainability, and can it be really viewed as a blanket statement for all involved?
These are the kind of questions that Dr. Peterson and the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) are trying to answer. You can even get updates from their page at http://clas-pages.uncc.edu/inss/.