2. Sustainability’s Path through History – Working DRAFT

Sample:  Early Human Migration Patterns

Early Human Migration through South Asia

Fossil and genetic evidence suggest that anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago.  Further evidence strongly suggests a bottleneck effect in early human populations.   It seems that our earliest ancestors were challenged continually to find their ecological niche, the stress from which effectively reduced or limited population growth.  Given the current evidence, there many have been as few as 2,000 individuals at one time.   By today’s standards, we would have been considered an endangered species.  Clearly, ecology had an overwhelming effect on the evolution and behavior of our earliest ancestors.      

Our ancestors subsisted on a diet of meat—hunted or scavenged—and gathering edible vegetation.  The land requirements for a hunter gatherer culture are heavily dependent on the surrounding ecosystem.  Hence, in an ecosystem that challenged its very existence, our early ancestors sustained themselves by moving frequently, which continually pushed them to adapt quickly to new environments, learn new survival skills, and to be flexible.      

Balancing Ecological Production and Human Consumption

Around 90,000 years ago, give or take 10,000 years, our ancestors began migrating out of Africa.  The Recent African Origin (RAO) is the prevailing model supported by several scientific disciplines, such as paleoanthropology and archeogenetics .  This model does not preclude earlier migrations out of Africa by other human groups, but so far there is no evidence that earlier migratory groups survived to the present day.      

Of course, our ancestors were searching for a more beneficial ecosystem, not discovering another continent.  Their focus was on survival, but migrating to new surroundings posed additional challenges:  deciphering which vegetation was edible or poisonous, finding materials for hunting, food preparation—even shelter, and understanding the behaviors of newly discovered animals.  Obviously our ancestors took on those challenges, whether or not they had the option of weighing them against the familiar challenges of their previous surroundings.      

There is ample physical and biological evidence that our ancestors met the challenges of a life outside Africa.  In fact, the human population began to increase steadily and spread slowly throughout Asia and Europe.  At an almost indiscernible average rate of one mile per decade, our ancestors continually widened the range in which they searched for food and other necessities, which suggests that humanity finally found its niche in their ecosystem.      

Over the long term, the rate of one mile per decade was enough for our ancestors to reach the Eastern edges of Asia and western shores Europe in less than 45,000 years.  Despite recent evidence of multiple genetic bottlenecks along the migratory paths, our ancestors demonstrated their flexibility and control over the skills and behaviors born under adverse conditions in Africa to sustain human populations through a wide variety of ecosystems in Asia and Europe.  In other words, the balance between ecological productivity and human consumption was maintained through this period of continual migration.      

A Shift in the Balance

Through a combination of circumstance and increasing ingenuity, human migration continued across significant bodies of water and reached what are essentially closed ecosystems—Papua New Guinea and Australia.       

(to be continued)

1. What is Sustainability?

Because of its widespread application and effect, the modern concept of sustainability has been defined in multiple ways and according to the specific context under analysis. Rather than reiterating existing definitions, a deeper understanding can be attained by exploring the common principles underlying sustainability.

  • Continuity.  I first encountered the importance of sustainability when I was working on ideas related to business resilience.  It became clear to me that enterprises are vulnerable to potentially fatal disruptions unless flexibility and risk management are woven into an enterprise’s organizational structure and culture.
  • Natural.  In ecology, sustainability is a necessity.  The Earth’s crust and chemistry are constantly recycled as explained by the theory of plate tectonics.  Biology reveals the natural interdependence of organisms through a constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
  • Systemic.  Sustainability permeates nearly all aspects of our society.  The continued health of our civilization depends upon the execution of sustainable practices within core institutions, such as government, corporations, and physical infrastructure that connects us all.  Sustainability is also vital to maintaining quality and health of our cities, our neighborhoods, our natural environment, our families, and our descendants’ lives.
  • Interdependence.  Sustainability recognizes not just the interdependence of current societal organizations, but, more importantly, it reveals the vital link between the prosperity of human society and the health of our planet’s environment.
  • Limitations.  Sustainability challenges deeply held human values with prehistoric origins—that the purpose of the Earth is to be dominated and used my humanity.  More recently, however, advancements in knowledge have broadened our understanding of ourselves and our ecological role, and have shown us that many natural resources are finite.  Unlike previous generations, we have had the opportunity to literally see the Earth as one planet, and continue to find that its multitude of microsystems is intrinsically linked to one global system.
  • Distributive Equity.  Sustainability removes the comfort and self-indulgence of the here and now and requires us to recognize inter-generational connections and our duty to ensure a healthy world for humanity into the future indefinitely.

Understanding and further exploration of these common principles provide the necessary foundation for developing a qualitative definition of sustainability.

On a side note, sustainability can also be defined and measured more rigorously through quantitative analysis.  Sustainability measurement provides the tools and data for tracking and managing a system’s sustainability factors.  A more detailed exposition of sustainability metrics will be provided later.

For now, having enough understanding to answer intelligently, “What is sustainability?” within any context is sufficient.  Here is an excellent example:  “A sustainable society is one which satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.”  (Lester Brown, Founder and President, Worldwatch Institute).  In a corporate context, sustainability is usually defined in terms of its economic benefit to a business.  However, I would argue that sustainability should be defined as a principle regardless of any corporate benefit.

Introduction: The Sustainability Buzz

Image: Christian Meyn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The concept of sustainability has lately become a buzz word du jour in corporate circles, and may well reach the status of other seemingly indispensible phrases, such as automate, out-of-the-box, multi-task, value added, and protecting shareholder value. Increasingly, companies include sustainability as part of their set of core values, tout its importance to the corporate culture, or promote it as a differentiator of a product or service.   

Despite the increasing commonality of its use, most people only have a generic notion of what sustainability means within the context of a corporate value. Trendiness can have a detrimental effect on any concept not fully understood.This blog continues to be a draft of my thoughts on sustainability.  However, as I continue to explore the issue further, I realized the necessity of breaking down this topic into a series of blogs, partly because I have more thoughts on the issue than I had originally planned, and partly to keep the attention of most readers.  My apologies for constantly changing the format; since this is my first official blog, consider my inconstancy as mistakes by a well-meaning newbie blogger.     

Here is my current outline for the series (subject to change): 

  1. What is Sustainability?  Exploring the foundations supporting the modern concept of sustainability.
  2. Sustainability’s Path through History:  An account of human history as a balance between ecological productivity and human consumption.
    • A Pre-Historical Case Study
    • A Historical Case Study
    • Notes on Current Issues
  3. The Erosion and Subsequent Resurgence of Sustainability in the Modern World
  4. Sustainability: Its Role and Application in a Corporate Context

(Note:  This series is indebted to the work of many who I will credit in my next version coming soon.)