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What is Global Sustainability?

M. McGee
M. McGee

Global sustainability comes down to the study of the use of resources over time. There are many facets to this science, mostly relating technology and research advancement. Typically, sustainability is a measurement of how long something will last, often in the terms of a specific business or environment. Global sustainability focuses on the worlds as a whole and how individual resources are being exploited globally. In this case, rather than focus on one area, the world’s people are viewed as a collective sharing the finite resources available to them.

All issues of sustainability address one basic issue; how long a specific resource will last. In some cases, this resource is natural. Sustainability studies of mines, oilfields or water tables are quite common. In other cases, these studies focus man-made systems or markets. For example, how long a market for a product will persist or whether an older hotel has the price point and amenities to remain competitive.

Using resources sustainably is not just beneficial to humans, but helps to preserve biodiversity and protect resources and land for the future.
Using resources sustainably is not just beneficial to humans, but helps to preserve biodiversity and protect resources and land for the future.

When the focus is on global sustainability, the systems viewed are almost always natural. This science focuses on how long specific natural resource pockets will last or how current practices are influencing the future of an area. This could be as simple as estimating the amount of oil left untapped globally or as complex as charting water usage along hundreds of miles or kilometers of rivers and tributaries.

Global sustainability draws heavily on multiple sciences and areas of study. The most prevalent portion is the business aspect of the companies and governments using natural resources. This portion of the science attempts to understand the means, methods and motivations for business practices involving a studied resource. It is believed that by understanding the business aspect of the system, it will be easier to understand the rest.

Secondary to business are mathematics and anthropology. The mathematical portion of global sustainability works out the hard numbers, such as how much of a resource is left or how much of a resource is being used daily. These numbers are the framework that studies are built upon.

The anthropological aspect of global sustainability is less obvious. In order to understand how a resource is used and why it is exploited the way it is, it is important to understand the culture of the people using it. It is unlikely that three people from three parts of the world have the exact same views on how and why to exploit a natural system. By understanding the people, it is easier to divine what is happening currently and what will happen in the future.

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Discussion Comments


@GenevaMech- there have been a number of graduates from these types of interdisciplinary programs who hold important and prestigious positions around the world. I am graduating from a similar program and I am in the process of applying to UC Berkley's Energy Resource Group (ERG). The program has been around for almost 40 years, and has graduated leaders in this type of field. ERG alumni include the environmental adviser to the president of Argentina, numerous top officials at the World Bank, top government officials in the DOE and EPA, and a number of other professionals.

Other schools that have similar programs dealing with global sustainable development include Stanford, Duke, Yale, Middlebury College, Montana State, and Cornell to name a few. Many of these schools have programs ranked as top in the country. There are also foreign institutes that are very prestigious including the Masdar Institute, which partnered with MIT.


@alchemy- that sounds like an interesting program. I have heard of other sustainability and environmental science programs at various schools that sound equally interesting. I am glad to see that global sustainability issues are being addressed in the education system. Environmental sciences and studies are becoming more and more important as the environment affects more segments of the economy. I could see a sustainability approach being important for almost any industry and sector.

Are there any graduate programs that deal with sustainability related issues? How successful are these programs at developing future leaders? I have a bachelor's degree in geology, but I would consider a graduate degree in an environmental science.


I am a student at Arizona State's Global Institute of Sustainability and I study energy materials science and technology. One of the best global sustainability definitions I have heard is the process of working towards measurable goals that will move society form its current state to a state where humanity is able to live within the carrying capacity of the earth.

Essentially, there are three main components of a sustainability issue. The current state is the status quo...what is happening at the moment. The next component is the outcome. This is the ideological and practical state that a person or group look to progress toward. The last component is the transition strategies that are used to move a person, organization or group towards the desired outcome.

To reach an outcome successfully, an interdisciplinary approach is needed to fully understand the current state and future outcome. Once these two components are understood, transition strategies can be implemented to move from the current state to the outcome.

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    • Using resources sustainably is not just beneficial to humans, but helps to preserve biodiversity and protect resources and land for the future.
      By: JohanSwanepoel
      Using resources sustainably is not just beneficial to humans, but helps to preserve biodiversity and protect resources and land for the future.