Letter from the Director

What on Earth is environmental sustainability?

As the director of the newly formed Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability, or EICES (pronounced eye-sees), I’m excited to have the opportunity to introduce you to our center.

One of the first questions I am always asked is, “What is environmental sustainability?”

Environmental sustainability is often described as the central pillar of sustainable development, but it is not easy to define. Robert Goodland, a senior advisor to the World Bank in an extensive review of the issue, defined it as follows:

“Environmental sustainability is a set of constraints on the four major activities regulating the scale of the human economic subsystem: the use of renewable and nonrenewable resources on the source side, and pollution and waste assimilation on the sink side.”*

If you find that a little hard to follow, you’re in good company!

On the other hand, I would argue we all sort of know what environmental sustainability means, even if we cannot define it precisely. It’s not easy, for example, to define what justice, health or well-being are, but everyone has an idea of what it looks like, or can recognize a lack of it. Likewise, it’s not easy to explain what environmental sustainability is, but everyone can comprehend that if our environment isn’t sustainable, then sometime down the road, perhaps sooner than later, our natural habitats, our farms, our cities and the well-being of people everywhere are at risk. In fact, though environmental sustainability is one of the hardest things to define, one could argue that it is of the greatest importance because all of life depends on it. Whether it is people, wildlife, cattle, fish, honey bees, flowering plants, crops, mushrooms or all those trillions of beneficial microorganisms in our soil, every species needs a sustainable environment.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that when the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals, they recognized environmental sustainability as a key objective for addressing critical issues such as poverty, hunger, water, health, education and gender equity (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/environ.shtml). They also recognized that the most important step in achieving environmental sustainability was to sustain the diversity of life on Earth.

So while it may be hard to define environmental sustainability, we know its importance and we know how to achieve it. More importantly, we know that if our environment is sustainable, we can continue to pursue justice, health, well-being and many other things we value, even if none of them are easy to define.

The Broad Scope of EICES

Environmental sustainability is the solution to all those environmental problems we hear about – climate change; emerging diseases; declining food, energy and water security; mass extinction. Thus, what we do is broader in scope than most environmental institutions. Whether it is helping to improve agricultural practices in rural areas in Africa, helping to devise programs to better manage forests, understanding why species are facing extinction, figuring out how to prevent biodiversity loss, assessing the state of our natural resources, or understanding why new diseases are emerging and spreading across the globe, why hunger is so prevalent, what to make of the rising demand for biofuels, the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability studies, trains and teaches about the science underlying all the leading environmental issues in today’s world. Our goal is to make environmental sustainability a way of thinking, a way of doing business, a way of promoting economic development without incurring environmental damage, in essence, a way of life that insures our well-being and that of all the generations to come.

The center will accomplish this goal through research, teaching, training, public outreach, and much more. The center will become one of the best places to conduct or sponsor research in environmental sustainability because it brings together some of the best researchers and environmental research institutions in the world to tackle problems in environmental sustainability. Whether in grade school, high school, college, business, industry or media, whether a financier, artist or homemaker, whether a top scientist or citizen scientist, if someone is looking for information on environmental sustainability, EICES will be the place to go for the most up-to-date and reliable information on the issue.

Find out more about EICES

We are excited about becoming the go-to place for environmental sustainability, and we look forward to you joining us.  Whether you are interested in taking courses, learning about our partnership institutions, or are interested in our help for conducting research, assessments and analyses, designing curricula or executive training programs, or if you would like to sponsor research, faculty or students, please feel free to contact us. Our mission is to achieve environmental sustainability in our lifetimes through research and education, and we can do this if we join together to build and sustain the robust environment needed to secure a bright and bold future for life on Earth.

Shahid Naeem

Professor of Ecology, E3B and Director, EICES