Bush School Professor Kent Portney Discusses Sustainability and Its Applications in His New Book

November 11, 2015

A windmillSustainability is defined as the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. It is most often applied to environmental issues and in ecosystem sciences, but the word also has been connected to everything from a certain kind of economic development to corporate promises about improved supply sourcing.

In his latest book, Sustainability, published by MIT Press in its Essential Knowledge series, Dr. Kent Portney, professor and senior fellow at the Bush School’s Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy, has created an accessible guide to the meanings of sustainability, describing the evolution of the idea and examining its application in a variety of contemporary contexts—from economic growth and consumption to government policy and urban planning. His earlier book on the subject, Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously, also was published by MIT Press.

Portney begins his latest work with the 1987 definition of sustainability by the World Commission on Environment and Development as economic development activity that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” He explains that, at its heart, sustainability focuses on the use and depletion of nonrenewable natural resources. It is not the same as environmental protection or natural resource conservation; it is more about finding some sort of steady state so that the earth can support both human population and economic growth.

The book also discusses political opposition to the promotion of sustainability, which usually questions the need for sustainability or calls its costs unacceptable. Some issues include collective and individual consumption of material goods and resources and to what extent they must be curtailed to achieve sustainability; the role of the private sector and the co-opting of sustainability by corporations; government policy on sustainability at the international, national, and subnational levels; and how cities could become models for sustainability action.

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