What Is the People Pillar of Sustainability?

Lisa Peterson is an expert regarding the People Pillar of Sustainability
Lisa Peterson holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering and is a Sustainability expert.

Planet, Profit and People are the three interconnected pillars of Sustainability. In the last two blogs, we looked at Planet and Profit. Now let’s look at the third pillar, People and the health of our communities.

Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Notice that the present and future needs of people are at the core of this statement.

Defining future needs is highly speculative because we don’t know

  • the developments and inventions of tomorrow that will change our needs; and
  • what the generations of tomorrow will need and value.

And even today, each person values items differently. Admittedly, for engineers, the social science side of this topic tends to be more difficult. The formulas and calculations that drive our assessments on the financial and physical science side of sustainability become “fuzzier” as we assess the social science side. So given the uncertainty, we need to proceed with mindfulness and open-mindedness.

Depletion of Natural Resources and the People Pillar of Sustainability

One way we impact the social pillar of sustainability is by depleting a non-renewable resource. Depleting non-renewable resources means that the resource won’t be there for future generations, whether they might need it or not.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are examples of non-renewable resources. Historically, fossil fuels fueled much of the world’s electric power. Today, there is much research work that has happened and is continuing to happen around biofuels and renewable energy as alternatives to fossil fuels. On the electric grid in the US, we are building solar and wind to complement our traditional power plants. Some countries in Europe are ahead of the US in terms of green energy adoption. The cost of increasing installations of solar and wind power has been power grid instability (1).

These issues can impact the social pillar of sustainability because the health of the community is dependent on reliable power. Massive blackouts across large regions mean that businesses, as well as households, have no power. Power outages have a devastating impact on communities because

  • water doesn’t get pumped;
  • food doesn’t remain refrigerated or frozen; and
  • manufacturing facilities are down.

Solar and Wind

Solar and wind are excellent solutions if one focuses on lowering the carbon footprint. However, the engineering community still has work to do in terms of improving energy storage capability and capacity. Engineers must do a better job managing grid instability with significant wind and solar installations. These issues are very complex, and future research will solve them. However, until these issues are resolved, the Social Pillar of Sustainability is stressed.

Anthropogenic Change

Another way to look at this topic is through the lens of anthropogenic change. Human presence creates change. Being mindful of what changes we are making and how these changes cause ripple effects to other plants and animals can help minimize negative consequences.

An example of anthropogenic change is a large development project that creates a significant increase in impervious surface area. When a major storm strikes, water cannot infiltrate as well as it did before the development. Flooding of homes and businesses result.

Government Regulation

For this reason, municipality and city leadership must review development projects. Appropriate stormwater management infrastructure must be installed to manage runoff to minimize and mitigate flood risk.

In these two previous examples, government regulation is playing a pivotal role in looking out for the well-being of society. In this way, citizens are involved passively, simply by their presence as consumers and actors in the system. However, citizens are not typically playing a lead role.

Citizens’ Collective Action

In some cases, citizens take collective action ensuring the health and maintenance of a resource and that we use it sustainably. The term ‘common pool resource’ means that many people share a resource temporally, spatially, or both. Furthermore, citizens can be involved proactively and intentionally when they form social groups for action on the topic of sustainability.

Two examples of citizen groups who have banded together to care for a resource, such as healthy waters, include Trout Unlimited and various community Watershed Alliances. In fact, there are numerous examples of citizen advocacy groups across all topics of sustainability, not just water.

Concluding Comments Regarding the People Pillar of Sustainability

In conclusion, sustainability can impact people and people can impact issues of sustainability. Sustainability, and specifically the People Pillar of Sustainability, indeed involves everyone independent of

  • homeownership, employment;
  • wealth; or
  • any other criteria.

As humans on planet Earth, our mere presence results in change that can range from positive to negative. Furthermore, the change can impact us from today to future generations. Lastly, each of us is a stakeholder. We all play a crucial role and don’t ever underestimate the role that each of us plays.

(1) Shellenberger, Michael. “Renewables Threaten German Economy & Energy Supply, McKinsey Warns in New Report.” Forbes Sept 5, 2019.

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