Science Wednesday: Sustainability Is Our True North

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

A week ago at the Keck Center of the National Academies,  I heard Paul Anastas, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, speak about sustainability. He said, “sustainability is our true north.”

That started my thinking about both sustainability and true north.

I work with sustainability (and nanotechnology) most of the time and am comfortable with the 1987 Brundtland commission’s statement: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But what does this have to do with true north? …and is there an “un-true” north?

If you are a sailor or wilderness hiker, you are aware that your compass does not point to “true” north, but rather is influenced by the magnetism surrounding the earth (remember the big iron core from 9th grade geology?). Compasses follow magnets. As the core shifts (planet earth and its core materials are moving, after all), the poles of the earth’s magnet shift, and the compasses follow. We read a magnetic north, not true north, on these compasses.

To get to true north from a compass reading, it depends on where you use it and when you read it. Today in Washington DC, we subtract about 10.5 degrees from the compass reading. This means that if the magnetic compass in DC says I am heading due north, and I want to vacation on Lake Ontario, I might end up staying on Lake Erie instead if I don’t make the proper corrections to my compass. Using the magnetic compass, we have to make these corrections as we travel. If we don’t, the longer we travel, the further off course we get. Of course, in these days of GPS, this scenario is highly unlikely.

For sustainability, we need to set a course for the true north that allows humans to live a healthy life while supporting our ecosystems and our social and economic activities without compromising future generations. We need to correct our compasses as we move toward sustainability and not be thrown off course by a magnetic pull of short term goals that cause shortages and suffering in the long term. …and the sooner we head for true north, the better our course will be.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular Science Wednesday contributor.