Concepts of sustainability have been around for millennia and passed down from generation to generation. Folktales and religious scriptures contributed to this inherited sense of environmental stewardship. As seen through the example of Inuit culture, survival in many cases depended upon a balance between man’s needs and the environment.

In “Hijacking Sustainability,” the author tells of traditional folktales of polar bears helping the Inuit stay alive in their harsh environment by providing them with food and companionship (Parr, Adrian. Hijacking Sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.). In return, the Inuit have a deep respect for the polar bear which is inherent in Inuit mythology. Man and animal are seen as equals, without one achieving superiority over the other.

You shall not pollute the land in which you live…you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people. ~ Bible, Numbers 35:33-34

And the sky has he raised high, and has devised (for all things) a balance, so that you might never transgress the balance: weigh, therefore (your deeds) with equity, and do not upset the balance. ~ Quran,  55:7-9

A Pew Research study in 2012 concluded that 8 of 10 people around the world associate themselves with a recognized form of religion (Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project). Religious philosophies from Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and others also direct mankind to achieve a balance between his needs and that of a sensitive environment. Although man has been given right to utilize the environment to his benefit, he must recognize that he will ultimately reap what he sows.

So how is it that we do not practice what we preach?

squid net

In a secular context, theories such as the tragedy of the commons introduced by William Forster Loyd in the 18th Century provoked intellectuals to ponder the rights of a community versus the greed of a few over a limited supply of resources. While Loyd’s example was of a tragedy related to common grazing land, a similar comparison can be drawn to overfishing in certain communities which is a modern-day dilemma.

In an attempt to refocus humanity on the basic rights awarded to each individual regardless of geography, socio-economic background, race, creed, or religion, the UN introduced 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September of 2015. “Over the next fifteen years, with these new Goals that universally apply to all, countries will mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind” (United Nations).

In the modern context, sustainable development is defined as humanity’s challenge to, “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need” (Kates, R. W., et al. 2005. What is sustainable development? Goals, indicators, values, and practice). With finite natural resource, an exponential growth in population, and the constant need for growth and development, humanity’s ability to achieve sustainability in many of its endeavors fall short.

The Anthropocene has seen dramatic shifts in the natural balance due to this unprecedented demand for resources. Dr. Johan Rockström discusses examples of this change in his talk on “Abundance within Planetary Boundaries.” Dr. Rockström discusses nine planetary parameters or boundaries which keep earth’s systems within balance. These boundaries include ocean acidification, land use change, climate change, biogeochemical flows, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity, freshwater use, and novel entities.

crop duster

As mankind strives for a more consistent and abundant food supply through the use of fertilizers and pesticides, Nitrogen and Phosphorus levels in our waterways have transgressed acceptable limits. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states, “Nutrient pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Significant increases in algae harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive.”

Sustainability takes concepts derived from sustainable development further and emphasizes the need to balance between economic, social and environmental variables to achieve harmony. In the Anthropocene era, economic and social drivers have pushed environmental concerns to the background. However, the impacts of our actions are now coming to the forefront.

As a civil engineer working for a large multinational Architectural and Engineering firm, I have seen firsthand the impact of the Anthropocene, and I am working to mitigate the damage. A number of my projects focus on achieving EPA mandated Total Maximum Daily Loads for Nitrogen, Phosphorus and suspended solids into the Chesapeake Bay. My team and I designed stormwater best management practices which reduce the discharge of these pollutants into our creeks, streams, and rivers. Furthermore, as urban sprawl introduces more and more impervious area, we are challenged to control the rates of stormwater discharge which deteriorates downstream habitats and induces flooding.

Another project which I am intimately involved in deals with coastal flooding in Annapolis. A city rich in history is now under threat of receding into the Atlantic Ocean. Flooding caused by tidal fluctuations and storm events disrupts daily life, including flooding within homes, businesses, and the city’s emergency response capabilities.

In 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) completed a sea level rise study, identifying Annapolis as the most significantly impacted city in the US with a predicted 925 percent increase from 2.8 events of nuisance flooding per year to 39 events per year (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Conservative projections of sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay regions place the rate of sea level rise at 1.3 feet per century.

Paradise Creek Nature Park

In “Key Competencies in Sustainability: A Reference Framework for Academic Program Development,” the author cites five key competencies which each sustainable professional should be aware of. Sustainability research and problem-solving competencies would develop professionals, ”having the skills, competencies, and knowledge to enact changes in economic, ecological and social behavior without such changes always being merely a reaction to pre-existing problems” (Wiek, A., et al. 2011. Key Competencies in Sustainability: A Reference Framework for Academic Program Development). These competencies include systems-thinking competence, anticipatory competence, normative competence, strategic competence, and interpersonal competence.

In my professional capacity as a project manager and civil engineer, we must demonstrate competencies in all five of these realms. The most effective competency varies on the type and need of our client. As a bare minimum, independent subject matter experts are asked to review our proposed mitigation solution to ensure that we are not inadvertently introducing a new issue or making the existing issue worse. Thus, we are tasked with portraying system-thinking competency.

Further, in assessing risks, we anticipate the “what if scenarios” and how each would impact the proposed project. And finally, interpersonal competencies are required to convince a sometimes unyielding array of stakeholder that the proposed solution will have a positive impact and address their specific concern.

As a sustainability professional with over a decade of experience, I would argue that all five competencies are necessary to influence change. It is not imperative that a professional be a subject matter expert on a specific competency but he/she must acknowledge each in an attempt to develop holistic solutions.

volunteers by Chesapeake Bay Program


Syed Umar Shahid headshot

Virginia Tech Master of Urban and Regional Planning graduate student Syed Umar Shahid is a project manager and senior civil engineer with AECOM in Germantown, Maryland.  Umar completed his undergraduate studies at the George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is a certified Professional Engineer in Virginia, Maryland,and the District of Columbia.  He also holds certifications as a Project Management Professional (PMP) and LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP).  With over a decade of experience in design and project management, Umar strives to deliver innovative, efficient and cost-effective solutions for various civil engineering and water resources related projects.  This blog post was done as an assigned for NR 5014 Constructing Sustainability, a course in the Online Master of Natural Resources program curriculum, taught by Dr. David Robertson.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks Brandon for permission to use his accompanying photos, and the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Anita RitenourLinda TannerGreg JordanChesapeake Bay Program, and Chesapeake Bay Program.