Sustainability Dilemmas

By Keith Kloor | March 7, 2010 8:19 am

The social/ecological relationship is one that fascinates me. It seems to have been the theme of this year’s annual Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) symposium, which Piper Corp reports on at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) blog. For those unfamiliar with LTER’s, this gem of a program is in its third decade and is overseen by the National Science Foundation. In 1999, I wrote in Science magazine about some surprising findings from the Phoenix LTER–one of two urban study sites.

The ESA post interested me because of a thorny dilemma highlighted by new research from the Phoenix LTER, which Corp lays out here:

Ecologists frequently consider how to preserve the resilience of ecosystems””how to make sure that they will continue to produce important services as they face stresses like climate change and water shortages. But we can’t have it all. At some point, said Kelli Larson (Central Arizona– Phoenix LTER), we’ll have to make some tough tradeoffs, depending on which services we value the most. Larson’s work looks at residential landscaping in the Southwest, where traditional lawns use more water but homes with pebble-covered yards use more energy to keep cool and more chemicals to control pests artificially. Sustainable living, it seems, begins not with a to-do list but rather with a question: what do we most want to sustain? (And, importantly, what do we need to sustain?)

As recent controversial developments involving renewable energy suggest, the path to sustainability will require us to make all kinds of uncomfortable tradeoffs. Inevitably, those last two questions–what do we most want to sustain and what do we need to sustain will be decided by human values.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ecology, sustainability
MORE ABOUT: ecology, sustainability
  • hunter

    I think the idea of what is sustainable be radically and properly redefined.
    Wind and solar, which are only offered at steep direct price subsidies, are not sustainable. As soon as the public subsidy for them ends, they are shut down.
    Oil and coal are sustainable- when a known reserve depletes, producers use new technology and capital and go get more of those reserves, sustaining the production.
    If you want sustainable energy that also produces a small CO2 emission, then go with what we should have committed heavily to decades ago- nuclear fission.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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