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Science Wednesday: Sustainability Is Our True North

2010 March 10

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Our universe are mysteries. But more better than before. I think the True North like as we are running, step to the front. If we are to the back, maybe “wrong south”….

  2. Mark Prebilic permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Great analogy! The idea that short-term gains could disrupt long-term ones is very apropos to today’s short-term view society.

    The word “sustainability” has a long-term connotation to it. That kind of thinking doesn’t sit well with the Type A mind-set. Nonetheless, I’m encouraged by the increasing view within the business community that sustainability does matter and does make a difference to the bottom line.

  3. armansyahardanis permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Is sustainability = evolution ? If somebody ask to someone about that sustainability is the same with evolution, then, excuse me, I more willingness is acceleration. But Acceleration is not Revolution, it is just sustainability more speed action. Sustainability has the basic elements, but now evolution just only the time circularly.

  4. Lavinia Gene Weissman permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Glad to find this blog I am glad to know you and your view. I write about Exercising Precaution and activity tied that has grown out of the work of the Brundtland Commission, extensively at my blog.

    Fundamental to my work is what Barbara stated here:

    “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.”

    If we could just form a community that surrounded health care that also shares in environmental concerns and science, I know we can impact the cost of health care in this country and improve the quality for all now ill from toxins created by chemical and environmental hazards.

    This has to grow into a movement of education rather than a crowd of debate and indecision.

    That is the basis for any project I chose to work on in health, professional development and education that serves us in the US to have a competent and health workforce, who are the ones that often care for those who cannot work from cradle to death.

    I am glad to see what you posted here and now subscribing to your blog through twitter.

  5. Al Bannet permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Dr. Karn:

    How do you know what is sustainable and what isn’t? Have any scientists made a study of how many people and how much economic growth the Earth can support? No, of course not, just a few vague estimates. But regardless of such ignorance everyone wants to grow the economy and their personal wealth on and on forever and the Earth will just have to adjust to human needs (!)
    But that instinctive myopia won’t work. As the industrial economy grows to feed the growing population, the garbage piles up in landfills and in the oceans and the toxins accumulate in the air and water and in our bodies. But “Grow we must for a ……..”?

    Recently, the History Channel showed “How The Earth Was Made” and it was very clear that since the beginning all planets start out as huge balls of hot gasses ans slowly cool and shrink — and with each volcano and earthquake our planet is shrinking still, now, today. So, where is humanity’s precious growing economy going to grow to?! Nowhere, that’s where, because there are no more living planets anywhere within reach of our telescopes, and even if one turned up it would be hundreds of light years away and impossible to reach. So who is kidding who? Planet Earth is all we have or will ever have, so we had better take care of it if we want our children and grandchildren to have any kind of life at all!

  6. armansyahardanis permalink
    March 10, 2010

    This is out of the context. Dr. Barbara and Mom Lavinia are the women. Everywhere, the debates is rarely be dominated by the women. Whereas they are have full of responsibility almost our life. Wife, born and have baby, home and maybe work, etc. Personality, I salute for them, and so fully forgiveness for my complaint above.

  7. Linda permalink
    March 11, 2010

    Sounds like a self-correcting problem to me.

  8. Al Bannet permalink
    March 12, 2010

    If you mean self-extinction, yes, but we have the technology to instead manage the environment to our long term advantage. We can promote family planning to bring the human population back into balance with the biosphere that supports us, and we can safely recycle 100% of all waste and garbage, and we can create a social safety net for such a smaller and wiser population, and thus create a virtual paradise on Earth, IF ONLY we can restrain our fearful greed and jealousy against each other. We can choose to live in peace and balance on the Earth if we THINK about what we are doing!

  9. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    March 13, 2010

    Everything needs to move to the sustainability track if humanity is to have a chance. That is not what a few people in Congress or state legislatures or big national and multinational corporations want to hear, but it is so. We will need a comittment to environmental science, using renewable energy and recycled water, creating and making economical alternative forms of fuel for transportation like hydrogen, supporting new generation roads that give more support to and safety for pedestrians, bicycle riders and transit users. WE also need to end urban sprawl development and create a new kind of development where housing, jobs, transportation, schools, and recreation are all within walking distance of each other or short bus ride away. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  10. Al Bannet permalink
    March 16, 2010

    Oh how I WISH that could happen! Even now.

  11. tabitha permalink
    September 15, 2010

    good to read that people spend their valuable time on studying how Mother Earth can somehow he helped.

  12. GPS permalink
    November 11, 2010

    OK! Let’s Do It

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