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The word “sustainability” has been connected to everything from a certain kind of economic development to corporate promises about improved supply sourcing. But despite the apparent ubiquity of the term, the concept of sustainability has come to mean a number of specific things. In this accessible guide to the meanings of sustainability, Kent Portney describes the evolution of the idea and examines its application in a variety of contemporary contexts—from economic growth and consumption to government policy and urban planning.

How the Best Companies Manage the Unexpected

A catastrophic earthquake is followed by a tsunami that inundates the coastline, and around the globe manufacturing comes to a standstill. State-of-the-art passenger jets are grounded because of a malfunctioning part. A strike halts shipments through a major port. A new digital device decimates the sales of other brands and sends established firms to the brink of bankruptcy. The interconnectedness of the global economy today means that unexpected events in one corner of the globe can ripple through the world’s supply chain and affect customers everywhere.

The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water

How did branded bottles of water insinuate themselves into our daily lives? Why did water become an economic good—no longer a common resource but a commercial product, in industry parlance a “fast moving consumer good,” or FMCG? Plastic Water examines the processes behind this transformation. It goes beyond the usual political and environmental critiques of bottled water to investigate its multiplicity, examining a bottle of water’s simultaneous existence as, among other things, a product, personal health resource, object of boycotts, and part of accumulating waste matter.

A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability

McDonald’s promises to use only beef, coffee, fish, chicken, and cooking oil obtained from sustainable sources. Coca-Cola promises to achieve water neutrality. Unilever seeks to achieve 100 percent sustainable agricultural sourcing by 2020. Walmart has pledged to become carbon neutral. Big-brand companies seem to be making commitments that go beyond the usual “greenwashing” efforts undertaken largely for public-relations purposes.

What We Have Taken from Nature

The biosphere—the Earth’s thin layer of life—dates from nearly four billion years ago, when the first simple organisms appeared. Many species have exerted enormous influence on the biosphere’s character and productivity, but none has transformed the Earth in so many ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. In Harvesting the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil offers an interdisciplinary and quantitative account of human claims on the biosphere’s stores of living matter, from prehistory to the present day.

Not so long ago, people North and South had little reason to believe that wealth from oil, gas, and coal brought anything but great prosperity. But the presumption of net benefits from fossil fuels is eroding as widening circles of people rich and poor experience the downside.

Policies for a Sustainable World

Today, there are thousands of synthetic chemicals used to make our clothing, cosmetics, household products, electronic devices, even our children’s toys. Many of these chemicals help us live longer and more comfortable lives, but some of these highly useful chemicals are also persistent, toxic, and dangerous to our health and the environment. For fifty years, the conventional approach to hazardous chemicals has focused on regulation, barriers, and protection.

A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses

In this book, Vaclav Smil argues that power density is a key determinant of the nature and dynamics of energy systems. Any understanding of complex energy systems must rely on quantitative measures of many fundamental variables. Power density—the rate of energy flux per unit of area—is an important but largely overlooked measure. Smil provides the first systematic, quantitative appraisal of power density, offering detailed reviews of the power densities of renewable energy flows, fossil fuels, thermal electricity generation, and all common energy uses.

The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States

In the early 1970s, organic farming was an obscure agricultural practice, associated with the counterculture rather than commerce. Today, organic agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry; organic food can be found on the shelves of every supermarket in America. In Organic Struggle, Brian Obach examines the evolution of the organic movement in the United States, a movement that seeks to transform our system of agriculture and how we think about food.

The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change

The risks of climate change are potentially immense. The benefits of taking action are also clear: we can see that economic development, reduced emissions, and creative adaptation go hand in hand. A committed and strong low-carbon transition could trigger a new wave of economic and technological transformation and investment, a new era of global and sustainable prosperity. Why, then, are we waiting? In this book, Nicholas Stern explains why, notwithstanding the great attractions of a new path, it has been so difficult to tackle climate change effectively.

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