Human enterprise, whether it be business, government or science has evolved in the direction of super-specialization since the dawn of agriculture and permanent human settlements. Super-specialists provide essential expertise in their individual arenas, however the challenge of sustainability as a profession lies in its ability to see the connections across traditional disciplines and understand the environmental impacts of human activities at all levels.
The scale of human activity today is unique in history for its pace and breadth. It is widely recognized that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in earth’s history (http://bit.ly/gB4HMA), and our impacts are so great that geologists debate whether we have left the Holocene to enter the Antrhopocene (http://bit.ly/bInWHX, http://econ.st/lTNR4c – see video at bottom). In this period of global transition, for the first time sentient life can influence the direction of change. To do so, we must rely upon our ability to understand the scale of our impacts, from the international level down to the individual.
There is an old adage in business that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Thanks to investments in satellite and communications technology, the genomics revolution, as well as the creation and growth of the internet, today humanity is increasingly able to amass large-scale datasets on almost all aspects of life and geochemical processes on Earth. Examples include:
- Environmental monitoring (e.g. EPA’s PM2.5 air quality data at the Census Tract level for the entire US – http://1.usa.gov/14fEFUl)
- Web-based data of human behavior (e.g. Google with over 1 billion unique users per month – http://bit.ly/mBMjel)
- Mobile-based data of human locations (20+ mobile phone giants have over 100 million users each http://bit.ly/K97XR)
- Electronic Health Records (http://1.usa.gov/gk3BO) and Biological databases of multiple species and diseases (http://bit.ly/VaP1iA)
We are literally floating in a sea of data. Multinational scientific reports, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, are examples of science using the power of distributed scholarly expertise in a collaborative manner to analyze the plethora of data on how humans are impacting the environment. One of the challenges and opportunities for Sustainability Professionals will be the ability to harness existing datasets through the power of analytics and informatics. Given our multi-disciplinary nature, Sustainability Professionals are ideally situated to understand, monitor, measure and manage our impacts as a species at all scales of social organization, from multinational corporations using the Global Reporting Initiative’s Guidelines, to individuals using a smartphone apps to measure their carbon footprint.
The analysis of already existing datasets, together with strategic augmentation in monitoring, will allow us to realize the goals of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to price externalities of our current economic activity, starting with carbon and then expanding to biodiversity and ecosystem services. The OECD Environmental Outlook 2050 also called for an improvement in our knowledge base for sustainability decision making. They gave examples of hydrological monitoring networks, data/indicators for biodiversity, and greater studies into the human/natural physiological impacts of chemical products. The Exposome ( http://1.usa.gov/JrSBhD) is one example of how we can use these new datasets and analytical tools to understand human-environment interactions.
To promote Sustainability, either at home, work, or in your networks, one must first collect and analyze any available data regarding current environmental impacts. This can seem to be a daunting task, but breaking down our impacts into categories, such as food consumption, energy, water use, transportation etc., can make things more manageable – and there are many available toolsets to measure these impacts. Every day we vote with our dollars, on transportation, food, energy and communications, by being conscientious of our collective purchasing power we can drive sustainable change.