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Entropy and Energy: Toward a Definition of Physical Sustainability (Paper)

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

A different perspective towards developing an “environmental” approach to defining sustainability…

Entropy and Energy: Toward a Definition of Physical Sustainability



Sustainable development is a growing concern expressed by many businesses, organizations and individuals. Yet, no workable quantifiable definition of sustainability is available for evaluation of specific projects or operations. 

This paper attempts to set a framework for such a definition in terms of the first and second law of thermodynamics. Specifically, the proposed description of sustainability relates the fundamental processes of chemical, physical or biological transformation, and mass transport to energy and entropy changes. 

Unlike previous applications of these concepts, the proposed definition is focused on the smallest unit operations and processes while allowing for aggregation into larger systems. The proposed description also explicitly considers the time horizon for sustainability. An example of sustainability analysis for a water treatment process is included.


Slawomir W. Hermanowicz, “Entropy and Energy: Toward a Definition of Physical Sustainability” (December 1, 2005). Water Resources Center Archives. Working Papers. Paper swr_v2.

Link to full paper (pdf) –>…8&context=wrca


Environmental Context – Sustainability, Biophysics & Ecological Character

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

If we define the environment as “the combined features and assets that provide the basis for economic and social development, natural resource management and conservation”, it becomes abundantly clear that, sustainable management strategies, options and “best practices” must be planned, implemented and maintained in the context of the processes, components and attributes of the abiotic, biotic and human factors in any developmental landscape.

Following on the earlier posts, this article examines a theoretical approach to management of impacts to the natural biophysical environment, associated with socio-economic development. This requires the establishment of a focus, for the development of a systems methodology based on measurable parameters which can be used to quantify changes in natural resource status, in relation to hypothetical marginal damages resulting from development impacts (industrial and other).

Issues related to the biophysical environment, in relation to development impacts on ecological, social and economic characteristics, generally encompass:

 ·       Physical features of the natural environment that potentially impact ON development activities; and

 ·       Physical resources of the natural environment potentially affected BY development activities.

 Physical Features of the Environment

 These are defined by the forcing functions (enduring features and driving variables) of the natural environment, that potentially impact on development activities. Physical features of the environment are generally determined by oceanographic, meteorological, climatological, topographic, geophysical and hydrological processes, characteristics and interactions, in relation to the variability of natural systems (e.g., seasonal, inter-annual and synoptic oscillations).

 These physical features have an important role in determining:

 ·       Dispersal and dissipation rates of pollutants by air, water, sediments and soil, both waste streams (process residues) and unplanned events (spill and leakages);

 ·       Risk of extreme weather events (e.g., floods, tropical storms and hurricanes);

 ·       Geophysical constraints and opportunities to landscape development (e.g., topography, soil structure and subsurface geology);

 ·       Risk of seismic and tectonic activity (e.g., earthquakes and volcanoes); and

 ·       Occupational hazards and safety in the workplace environment.

Physical Resources of the Environment

These comprise the physical components of the natural environment which are potentially at risk of being adversely affected by development (e.g., by waste streams of industrial facilities). Physical resources consist of air, soil, water (surface and subsurface) and sediments. These abiotic environmental components have a pivotal role in defining the “Ecological Character”, which refers to the structure and inter-relationships between the biological, physical and chemical components of the ecosystem. This dynamic character is driven by landscape-level features and ecological processes, which encourage the development and maintenance of critical ecosystem functions, that support key natural resource components. These act as life-support systems for flora, fauna and humans in the biosphere, by providing a number of essential goods, services, attributes, and values, including:

·       Control and stability of natural materials production, cycling and renewal systems (e.g., water, organic matter, and inorganic nutrients, and minerals);

·       Control and stability of natural energy conversion, cycling and renewal systems;

·       Support of an ecological structure (diversity of habitats, species and foodwebs);

·       Resistance to, and resilience from, adverse environmental impacts and other changes;

·       Support of economic (subsistence, commercial and recreational) activities for local area and resource-user communities; and

·       Supply of engineering media, raw materials, energy sources and waste treatment and assimilation systems (internally self-regulated within threshold limits).

The study of adverse changes to these resources, from industrial development impacts, can be achieved by measurement of environmental quality, in conjunction the physical features (forcing functions) described above. This will be elaborated upon and further developed in subsequent posts.


Ramjohn, Karl. 2000. Development of Methodology for Impact Detection and Monitoring in Accordance with The Certificate of Environmental Clearace Rules, Rule 10. M.Sc. Thesis, Science and Management of Tropical Environments. Faculty of Agriculture & Natural Sciences, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. September 2000; 117 pp.


Characteristics, Role & Functions of Sustainable Development in Environmental Management

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

In a previous discussion on the characteristics, functions, and significance of “sustainable development” in the context of environmental management, it was noted that in order to attempt a rationalization of sustainable development (or achieving “sustainability” in development activities) and how that relates to the environment, it may be useful to establish a proper understanding of some of these main concepts.

To begin with, what is the “environment” as it pertains to sustainable development? For this purpose, the “environment” can be considered as the combined features and assets that provide the basis for economic and social development, natural resource management and conservation. In this context, sustainable management strategies, options and “best design” practices must be planned and implemented in relation to the processes, components and attributes of abiotic (non-living), biotic and human factors in any given developmental landscape.

Or to use a more formal definition:

 Environment = The combined features and resource capital, that provide the basis for development, environmental management and conservation. Includes the processes and components of, and services provided by, atmospheric, hydrological, geophysical, biotic, human and landscape factors.

Environmental quality = The status or value of the natural resource capital at a particular location at a specified time, relative to development, environmental management and conservation.


Some further discussions on these concepts that characterize  “sustainable development”:

Development = The act of altering and modifying resources in order to obtain potential benefits. 

Environmental Degradation
 = Adverse effects (reversible or permanent) on biophysical, social and economic resources, or any other reduction of the set of options available to future generations.

Adverse Effects = Any reduction in environmental quality of a system, or other depletion of the environmental resource capital. Defined in terms of, and measured by, environmental impacts.

Environmental Impact = Change in environmental quality due to external disturbance to a system. Includes positive and negative, primary and secondary, cumulative, synergistic, short, medium and long-term, reversible and irreversible. Described in terms of magnitude (of effect), direction (of change) and probability (of occurrence), with or without mitigation


In terms of discussing “development” (the act of altering and modifying the resources of the natural environment in order to obtain potential economic and social benefits), it is important to note that it involves the application of human, financial and biophysical resources to satisfy social and economic needs, inevitably leading to some modification of the biosphere. The extent of development-induced modifications depend on the location, scale, intensity and duration of activities as well as adequacy of mitigation and compensatory measures, which define the scope for, and degree of balance in, environmental costs and benefits. As noted, ideally, for a development to be “sustainable” it should demonstrably be economically feasible and socially acceptable, without causing significant environmental impacts
or land degradation.

From a policy, regulatory and legislative perspective, very closely related to implementation of all of these characteristics of sustainable development, is the “Precautionary Principle” – a sustainability principle which states that if there are threats of serious irreversible environmental impact, lack of full scientific certainty will not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

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Wider Views on the “Definition of Sustainability”

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

An interesting discussion has recently been developing on the SustainabilityForum.Com related to the “definition of sustainability”, with emphasis on the linkages between the concept of sustainability and the natural environment:

> Looking for a Definition of Sustainability

This discussion, initiated just two months ago, has had the input of views and perspectives from about 10 different members of that forum, from a variety of nationalities and professional backgrounds, and as such, adds diversity to, and addresses some gaps in, the material covered in the earlier posts on this site.

Further Definitions of Sustainability Issues in Environmental Management

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn


Goal: Ideal or desirable value or state of environmental quality, identified by scientists and policy makers.

Target: Value or state of environmental quality considered to be attainable in the short or medium term (in the interest of long-term environmental management goals).

From this perspective, the goal of environmental management is to promote national development in the various sectors, in an economically viable and socially acceptable manner, without causing environmental degradation. This long-term goal may be approached by establishing targets, to be attained in the short to medium-term. In the context of environmental management, the primary target of all proposed developments, is to promote a favourable cost-benefit ratio, by undertaking tangible accounting of goods, services and attributes of the natural resource capital.

One of the major challenges to implementation of sustainable development legislation in developing countries is that frequently, where feasible engineering solutions (or other techniques) exist for ecological compatibility, concern of a loss of economic efficiency are cited as a perceived outcome (e.g., the so-called “environment vs jobs” trade-off). There are also frequent socio-cultural barriers to effective implementation.

These factors may directly affect the functional application of environmental laws, by hindering the establishment of progressive trade-offs among the three main objectives of sustainable development . Consequently, they may also complicated attempts to integrate environmental concerns into conventional economic decision-making.




(I – III; based on Munasinghe, 1993)

I: Economic Objective

The economic approach to sustainability is based on the Hicks–Lindahl concept of the maximum flow of income that could be generated while at least maintaining a stock of assets (or capital) which can yield these benefits. There is an underlying concept of optimality and economic efficiency applied to the use of scarce resources. Problems of interpretation arise in identifying the kinds of capital that need to be maintained (e.g., manufactured, natural and human capital) and their substitutability, as well as in valuing these assets, particularly ecological resources. The issues of uncertainty, irreversibility and catastrophic collapse pose additional difficulties.

II: Social Objective

The social (or socio-cultural) concept of sustainability seeks to maintain the stability of social and cultural systems, including the reduction of destructive conflicts. Both intragenerational equity (especially elimination of poverty) and intergenerational equity (involving the rights of future generations) are important aspects of this approach. This approach attempts the preservation of cultural diversity across the globe, and better use of knowledge concerning sustainable practices embedded in less dominant cultures. Modern society would need to encourage and harness pluralism and grass-roots participation into a more effective decision-making framework for sustainable development.

III: Ecological Objective

The ecological view of sustainable development focuses on the stability of biological and physical systems. Of particular importance is the viability of biological and physical systems that are critical to the overall ecosystem. Protection of biodiversity is a key aspect. Furthermore, “natural” ecosystems may be interpreted to include all aspects of the biosphere including man-made environments like cities and industrial estates. The emphasis is on preserving the resilience and dynamic ability of such systems to adapt to change, rather than conservation of some “ideal” static state of the environment.


Evaluation of these objectives using direct monetary comparisons may not always provide adequate accounting of the natural resource capital in relation to environmental degradation. In this context, the efficient application of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process may require the implementation of multi-criteria analysis (Munasinghe, 1993). Subsequent posts will discuss inter alia the use of indicators of environmental quality in providing a scientific basis for assessing costs and benefits, to assist in addressing the economic, social and ecological concerns associated with the implementation of sustainable land use and enforcement of impact control legislation.


Munasinghe, Mohan. 1993. Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development. World Bank Environmental Paper No. 3. The World Bank, Washington DC, USA.

Ramjohn, Karl. 1999. Sustainable Solutions to Land Degradation (Saline Intrusion) in the Lower South Oropouche Floodplain: Community-based Management Strategy. Tropical Environment Research & Management Center, Trinidad & Tobago. May 1999; 22 pp.

Ramjohn, Karl. 2000. Development of Methodology for Impact Detection and Monitoring in Accordance with The Certificate of Environmental Clearace Rules, Rule 10. M.Sc. Thesis, Science and Management of Tropical Environments. Faculty of Agriculture & Natural Sciences, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. September 2000; 117 pp.

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Interactions Between Climate Change & Sustainable Development

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

A technical paper by Mohan Munasinghe on the interactions between “Climate Change” and “Sustainable Development”…

Munasinghe, M. 2001. Interactions between climate change and sustainable development – an introduction. Int. J. Global Environmental Issues, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp.123–129.

Article Link:…_2004/art1.pdf

·Sustainable development – basic concepts
·Interactions with climate change
·Overview of papers


National leaders are looking for new solutions to many critical problems including traditional development issues (such as economic stagnation, persistent poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and illness), as well as newer challenges (like, worsening environmental degradation and accelerating globalisation). One key approach that has received growing attention is based on the concept of sustainable development or ‘development which lasts’. Following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the adoption of the United Nations’ Agenda 21, sustainable development has become well accepted worldwide. At the same time, global climate change poses an unprecedented challenge to humanity. The wide-ranging potential impacts of climate change on sustainable development suggest that linkages between these two topics need to be critically analysed. Accordingly this special issue of the journal is devoted to several papers, which seek to explore the critical issues within the nexus of sustainable development and climate change…

Keywords: Sustainable development; sustainomics; environmental domain; social domain; climate change.

Reclaiming the Definition of Sustainability

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

An interesting paper on the definition of sustainability, and how the meaning, scope etc. has gradually changed over the past 20 yr…

Johnston, P., Everard, M., Santillo, D. & Robert, K.H. 2007. Reclaiming the Definition of Sustainability. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 14 (1): 60-66.

Article Link:


Background and Scope. Since its inception two decades ago, the concept of sustainable development has suffered from a proliferation of definitions, such that it has increasingly come to mean many things to many different people. This has limited its credibility, called into question its practical application and the significance of associated achievements, and, overall, limited the progress in environmental and social developments which it was designed to underpin.

Goal. This viewpoint article is intended to re-open the concept of sustainable development for discussion, 20 years on from the Brundtland report, in the context of the current state of the world, our growing understanding of ecosystems and their response to stressors and the parallel increase in recognition of inherent limitations to that understanding.

Approach. Following a brief review of the diverse manner in which the concept has developed over time, we present the case for application of a series of simple conditions for sustainability, originally developed by The Natural Step in the early 90s, which nevertheless still provide a sound basis on which progress towards sustainable development could be monitored. The paper also highlights the unavoidable links between sustainability and ethics, including those in the sensitive fields of population and quality of life.

Discussion. Overall we argue the need for the concept of sustainable development to be reclaimed from the plethora of economically-focused or somewhat vague and un-measurable definitions which have found increasing favour in recent years and which all too often accompany relatively minor progress against ‘business as usual’.

Recommendations and Perspectives. The vision encapsulated in the Brundtland Report was ground-breaking. If, however, true sustainability in human interactions within the biosphere is to be realised, a far stronger and more empirical interpretation of the original intent is urgently required. To be effective, such an interpretation must encompass and guide developments in political instruments and public policy as well as corporate decision-making, and must focus increasingly on addressing the root cause of major threats to sustainability rather than just their consequences.

Keywords: Ecosystems; ethical standards; over-exploitation; pollution; public policy; resources; sustainability; sustainable development; uncertainty.

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