Winter 2013

Energy in the Context of Sustainability

Rosina M. Bierbaum and Pamela Anne Matson

Today and in the coming decades, the world faces the challenge of meeting the needs of a still-growing human population, and of doing it sustainably – that is, without affecting the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Energy plays a pivotal role in this challenge, both because of its importance to economic development and because of the myriad interactions and influences it has on other critical sustainability issues. In this essay, we explore some of the direct interactions between energy and other things people need, such as food, water, fuel, and clean air, and also some of its indirect interactions with climate, ecosystems, and the habitability of the planet. We discuss some of the challenges and potential unintended consequences that are associated with a transition to clean, affordable energy as well as opportunities that make sense for energy and other sustainability goals. Pursuing such opportunities is critical not just to meeting the energy needs of nine billion people, but also to meeting their other critical needs and to maintaining a planet that supports human life in the near and long term.

ROSINA M. BIERBAUM, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2007, is Dean Emerita and Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy in both the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She was appointed to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2009. She is a World Bank Fellow, Chair of the National Climate Assessment's chapter on adaptation, and a Review Editor for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Her publications include Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy (2011), which she cochaired; World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change (2010), which she codirected; and Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable (2007).

PAMELA A. MATSON, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1992, is the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Environmental Studies at Stanford University, where she is also a Senior Fellow of the Woods Institute for the Environment. She cochaired the National Academy's Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability, served on the National Research Council's Board on Sustainable Development and Committee on America's Climate Choices, and is a past President of the Ecological Society of America. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Fellow, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her publications include Seeds of Sustainability: Lessons from the Birthplace of the Green Revolution in Agriculture (2012) and America's Climate Choices: Advancing the Science of Climate Change (2010). Her work has appeared in ScienceNature, and BioScience, among others.

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