Defining Scales and Goals of Sustainability

Eliot Kersgaard
17 min readNov 12, 2019

Written as a senior research project at CU Boulder. Advised by Prof. Wil Srubar. Incomplete. See this article with citations.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash


Ecosystems across the world are faced with increasing pressure from climate change, nutrient-induced eutrophication, land use, resource extraction, and many other consequences of human activity. A 2007 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences came to the astonishing conclusion that in 2000, compared to a scenario free of human disturbance, global Net Primary Production (NPP), essentially a measure of carbon fixation and therefore ecosystem productivity, decreases by an average of 6 kg per person per day. This is equivalent to 20% of the Earth’s biomass over the course of a year (15.6 Pg). Increasing industrialization and globalization is likely to continue exacerbating these stresses in the coming decades. As early as 1972, the Limits to Growth report predicted a collapse of global economic and ecological systems in the middle of this century. However, the thermodynamic limits of the Earth system have yet to impose significant constraints for global behavior. If we are to succeed as a species, we would do best to self-impose constraints before the finitude of the world catches up to us. However, due to the linkages in the global system, it is not often straightforward to determine the best course of action. For instance, in an effort to transition to biofuels as a renewable energy source, the European Union and beyond have created an increase in the global demand for palm oil. Meanwhile, peat fires caused by illegal slash and burn practices by palm oil plantations in Indonesia are producing more greenhouse gas (GHG) output on a daily basis than the United States and will exceed the total GHG output of Germany in 2015. This only touches on the net impact of palm oil consumption, other costs of which include damage to human health from poor air quality, poor working conditions, and the costs of litigation that some of Indonesia’s neighbors are pursuing. It is a common trend that industrialized nations reduce their energy consumption through importing products, while industrializing nations see an increase in energy use as their exports rise. Thus we need to look beyond border-specific analyses in order to understand sustainability at large scales.