SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  September 2010
Volume 11 Issue 10

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A brief history of sustainability within SETAC

Ron McCormick, US Bureau of Land Management; Larry Kapustka, LK Consultancy; Cynthia Stahl, US Environmental Protection Agency

Any assessment of the history of sustainability within SETAC should start at the beginning, but let’s start with the present instead. Go to your SETAC profile, add “Sustainability within SETAC” to your Communities section, and join in the ongoing conversation of what does sustainability have to do with SETAC. Sign up for the Sustainability Short Course offered at the Portland meeting, and come to the Sustainability within SETAC (SwS) organizing committee meeting on Wednesday night (check the program for the room and time). Those things will get you up to speed and in the loop for what’s happening within and outside of the Society. To the surprise of many who attended the first SwS meeting in New Orleans, a part of SETAC's espoused mission is “to support the development of principles and practices for protection, enhancement and management of sustainable environmental quality and ecosystem integrity.”

The current initiative to build a formal SETAC sustainability group follows a previous attempt in 2004 to form a “Sustainability Advisory Group,” which did not generate sufficient interest at the time. But SETAC has had a solid, if minor, sustainability component in its journals, committees and annual meetings. A Pellston workshop in 1993 on Sustainability-based Environmental Management resulted in a book on the subject, and other Pellston workshops have focused on uncertainty, ecological valuation and risk, all strong components of a sustainable approach to living, working and playing on social–ecological landscapes. More than 150 articles in ET&C and IEAM journals have the word “sustainability” in them, though only four have it as a keyword, and another eight actually use the word in the abstract. Again, while not specifically using the term, many more articles and commentaries talk about life cycle assessment (LCA), population viability analysis, holistic and integrated risk assessment, and green buildings, all substantial parts of a larger research focus on sustainability.

The beginnings of LCA discussions (a la Jim Fava and a related Pellston workshop) could be considered the absolute origin of sustainability efforts within SETAC. Early in the 2000s there was an interactive poster session on sustainability at an annual meeting, putting forth the idea that sustainability is a journey, not a destination, and thus the definition is fluid and scale dependant. Presentations from a special symposium were published in a special edition of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (2000) under the title of “Ecosystem Vulnerability.” Within the Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group, first with the Precautionary Principle Working Group, and then with the Decision Uncertainty Working Group, sustainability has been a key focus topic, and the groups have organized sessions at most of the meetings since 2003. This year’s meeting is no exception, with three sessions on sustainability planned for Wednesday and Thursday.

The theme for the annual meetings in 1999 and 2006 included sustainability and the global environment, and we have invited plenary speakers from outside of SETAC to talk about their efforts in advocating a sustainable approach to business and manufacturing. These have included representatives from Interface Flooring (1999), DuPont (2006), The Natural Step (1997), and the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development (2003).

As evident from this brief discussion of past efforts, for more than two decades SETAC has had a small but strong sustainability undercurrent. Indeed, in 1994, ET&C published an article on post-normal science (Funtowicz & Ravetz), which today remains one of the foundational ideas for how to look more holistically at wicked ecological, economic and social problems, like sustainability. So we have the necessary scientific expertise and interest within our membership. And, the push to expand SETAC into a global society could be considered a tacit move to more fully embrace sustainability, as reflected in much of contemporary European environmental policies. So, as the SwS takes shape, we have the opportunity to learn from our varied experiences and perspectives, making this a truly exciting journey to be on. Join us in Portland and help us shape the SETAC mission for the coming decades!

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