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January 30th, 2011
Sustainability Unpacked



Sustainability Unpacked
Food, Energy and Waterfor Resilient Environments and Societies


Kristiina A. Vogt, Toral Patel-Weynand, Maura Shelton,
Daniel J. Vogt, John C. Gordon, Cal Mukumoto, 
Asep S. Suntana and Patricia A. Roads

EarthScan Publications Ltd., 

  • ISBN-10: 1844079015
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844079018




Reviewed by

Jeff Thurston

The environment is gaining more attention and today many of us are asking “What is Sustainability?” It is difficult to define, largely because the world never stops changing a snap shot in time is near impossible to obtain. Consequently, we need to evaluate a changing world in a constant state of change and evolution. “Sustainability Unpacked” is written as guide to understanding not only means, but also what it involves.

Several different indices from international organizations are included and used to describe issues related to sustainability, with a view toward decision-making. The book assists to provide information for understanding the links and feedbacks interacting with the human landscape. It also pursues issues related to the measurement of sustainability. 

Since the linkages and webs that interconnect sustainability can often be complex, the authors of this book suggest that an ‘unpacking’ of this complexity is needed, one that will help others to understand the nature and processes of sustainability more easily and readily.  

There are many interesting comparisons, anecdotes and expressions throughout this book that are used to elaborate and describe sustainable activities and interactions. “A practical sustainability-option tool must consider the resilience of countries to natural and to human-generated disturbances”… “Decisions have to be structured into ecosystem frameworks.”  Geography is included as a primary factor for deciding potential sustainability. The authors ask about those places easiest (and hardest) to live in with respect to sustainability footprints. 

The difference between natural and non-natural communities is discussed. In the later case, societies are supported through heavy carbon inputs that support poor sustainability practices, improper location choices or other factors. Food and water security are raised and described in terms of their necessity to support human living. While most readers will no have some idea that location, food and water are necessary to support life and development, this book attempts to describe how travel and politics, for example, contribute toward their abundance. 

The authors mention a world where those with resources have ‘over-developed’ while the other half of the world is ‘under developed’ – pointing toward a gap in terms of resource allocation and ownership. They also outline the connection between agriculture (production) and politics. 

The past, it is suggested, was filled with accidental over-use of resources, thus collapse of whole societies – people could not envision a connection between resource use and subsequent collapse. The writers suggest that that is not the case today, and that we more fully understand these connections and, seemingly, why conservation and sustainability ought to be on our agenda. Somehow I find myself wondering on this point if we collectively understand that? Although I acknowledge there is more information available today about sustainability- environment than ever before.

In the section ‘Decoding Country Resource Stories’ the book addresses indices and how they contribute toward sustainable option choices. Those involved in the geospatial and geomatics sectors should take note, since, technologies like remote sensing, survey measurement, mapping, GIS and infrastructure designs are all invariably put to use for gathering data and information to establish indicators in the first instance. 

A question we might ask ourselves today is relates to the development of these indices. Suggesting that environmental vulnerability has different meaning to developed as compared to developing countries. Alternatively, developed countries would likely suggest lack of adequate water if they turned the tap and nothing happened, as compared to those places where obtaining water once a day or week might be more the norm. The lense through which developed countries see sustainability, is somewhat different as compared to those struggling to find basic daily resources – whose overall footprint – is likely quite smaller too. 

Energy and fossil fuels are discussed, and many of us are now aware of the higher use countries and their contribution toward the global carbon budget. However, forests are not as well understood by many of us in terms of their contribution to healthy communities and the sustainability of other resources. The book expands on this contribution and explains it well. 

‘Solar Capital’ is defined as the total available carbon for use globally. This includes, oil, coal, forests, tar sands etc. In financial terms the analogy is made that expenses should only be made in relation to income, that a balance per home must be struck – which we all know. In environmental terms, expending solar capital without reference (or low reference) to income, jeopardizes sustainable balance – random car use, lights left on without use etc. How can we use solar capital to increase sustainability? That is an interesting question. 

Thus the concept of sustainability ultimately leads back to human productive sustainability potentials – learnign how, where and why we make decisions and take actions that trip over the balance, sending individuals and societies into spirals of unsustainability. This suggests that we need to get much better at knowing and understanding sustainability – and more committed to taking action when we recognise that balance is teetering or moving in the wrong direction. 

The last part of this book is written to help deal with sustainability ‘myths’ – some of which might include downright poor communication. Consequently, communication itself is included and how it can be improved and expanded. 

‘Sustainability Unpacked’ is well written. It includes highly informative data, observations and discussion about sustainability. The tone of this book is also attractive. It seeks to inform without being over-bearing in terms of fear and negativism. It avoids grand political debates. As a result the information and discussion causes the reader to become engaged, and to read with the idea of learning and understanding from start to finish.

Although the book does not include a lot of detail related to cartography, mapping and geospatial topics, the concepts and discussions naturally extend to spatial topics, and the reader only need estimate where geomatics fits into the debate.

If there is one book that geospatial ought to read when it comes to sustainability and it’s understanding, this is the one. It will supply the needed knowledge to put your tools to work more fully.


Jeff Thurston is co-founder Vector1 Media and editor at ASM Magazine (