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wind turbineSUSTAINABILITY...the Key to Understanding the Issues

A new way of thinking

Sustainability is the key concept in understanding the environmental issues affecting the Lake Superior region and finding ways to solve them. It is a different way of thinking about environmental issues.

In the past, some people felt that protecting the environment meant unemployment or no economic development. Likewise, if jobs were created to produce things that society wanted from natural resources, the environment had to suffer! This type of thinking labeled issues as being either pro-environment or pro- economic. It is a linear way of thinking that polarizes a problem as an either-or choice. Either people or the environment—one has to be the "loser."

Sustainability is a new way of thinking. It means finding a balance between what we as a society want and demand from natural resources, our need to use natural resources to provide jobs and income for our families and communities, and the natural resources that are available to provide what we need.

Sustainability means finding ways to balance all 3 elements so that we do not deplete our natural resources or pollute them while we find ways to provide goods and services that use natural resources and generate a level of economic development that will maintain our communities.

Historically, the natural resources in the Lake Superior Basin have been consumed at an unsustainable rate. The region has a long history of industries based on resource extraction; mining, timber, and fishing to name a few. It is part of the cultural heritage of the region and as a result it is difficult for people to understand why this pattern of consumption cannot continue indefinitely. The idea of "sustainable use" of natural resources is an unfamiliar concept to most people.

The use of the word "sustainability" in this context is relatively new and has really only been used in this way for about twenty years. Presently it is becoming more common to see the word especially in relation to community or economic development. Exactly what the word "sustainability" means is constantly being debated.


One way to represent sustainability is the three interlocking circle model. When all three elements of sustainability (the environment, economics, and society) are in balance, there is harmony or sustainability. In every decision we make we must consider the consequences of our actions on all three elements of the model

Just What is Sustainability?

Sustainability means using, developing and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs.

Sustainability requires simultaneously meeting environmental, economic and community needs.

The 1987 Brundtland Report, defined sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This is very much like the seventh generation philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy. Chiefs were charged with bearing in mind the effects of their actions on their descendants for seven generations.

Investigate more about Sustainability

world in handGenerally, definitions of "sustainability" element in planning for sustainability in the Lake Superior Basin involve making decisions about where we want to be in comparison with existing conditions. At the very least, we must conserve existing resources in the Basin so that our descendants can enjoy the same quality of life as the present generation, if not a qualitatively better standard of living. Therefore, sustainability means using, developing and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs. Sustainability requires simultaneously meeting environmental, while also meeting economic and community needs.

Additionally, in order to predict how we may best ensure regional sustainability, we need to bear in mind a variety of issues:


bullet The environment, economy, and social structure of a region are interdependent; to make policy which preferences one over the others will ultimately result in the collapse of all three. Thus, in the long run, social, economic, and environmental needs must receive equal footing in planning for and identifying progress toward sustainable lifestyles.

ore mine drawingIn the 1880's, iron ore was discovered in the Lake Superior region. It has been an important natural resource providing the raw material to make the steel that America needs and demands for products like cars, bridges and buildings. Iron mining provides good paying jobs and supports communities. But is this industry sustainable?


bullet Since processes directed at achieving and maintaining sustainability must themselves be enduring, we need to encourage and respect a diversity of perspectives regarding the manner in which society makes progress toward sustainability. Effective policy truly depends on a political consensus that favors long-term advances over short-term benefits. Thus, planning for sustainability requires ongoing education and persuasion much more than merely attempting to enforce laws and regulations that may not be wholly supported by most citizens.

natural step logo

The Natural Step is one model to guide communities, businesses, organizations and governments to a more ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable path.


bullet As a dynamic process, developing and measuring sustainability requires attention to how society and the environment change over the span of many years; the true measure of a sustainable society is on the scale of generations rather than years. Thus, planning and assessment is a much more complex process than, for example, rehabilitating a single stream or eliminating a specific chemical in the environment.

bullet What is or is not sustainable at a given point in time may not be the same in the future. An understanding of what constitutes sustainability will always be a moving target because we cannot control all of the social and environmental factors that are associated with the process of sustaining valued lifestyles. Thus, any plan for developing sustainability must be flexible and responsive to changes that follow social and natural cycles such as migration trends or climate change.


footprintHow Big Is Your Ecological Footprint?

Find out how just how sustainable your life style is compared to the rest of the world. After taking the quiz, think about what demands you are making on the environment through the choices you make. What can you do to reduce the footprint you are leaving on the planet and its resources!



It is hard to expect people to change how they live, to be more "sustainable", when they are not clear on what that means. Achieving any real form of sustainability would require much more than following a few new environmental regulations or policies, but would instead mean significant change in individual and social behavior. This in turn would lead to structural changes (legal, economic, etc.) and ultimately to changes at the societal level and visa versa.

The goal of the "Connecting The Coasts" website to help to engage students and teachers in service-learning projects that will help to address the critical environmental issues identified by the Lake Superior Binational Program and in the process help our citizens learn what it means to be "sustainable."

As you investigate the critical issues affecting the Lake Superior region, look for evidence of how the elements of sustainability: the environment, economic development needs, and society's demands affect the problem and what needs to change to find a solution.

Take the next step...INVESTIGATE the issues!


critical pollutant link

Critical Pollutants


aquatic community link

Aquatic Communities


habitat link


aquatic invasives link

Aquatic Invasive Species


human health link

Human Health



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