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Bioresource-based Energy for Sustainable Societies


Evaluating what types of energy are sustainable is not a simple task. The entire life cycle of each energy source must be considered before it can be classified as sustainable. Within each life cycle there exist multiple indicators that should be included. Each of these indicators may impact or modify some phase of an energy source’s life cycle that affects whether it is truly sustainable. An approach for analyzing current energy technologies and their appropriateness to be considered sustainable is the focus of our paper. Since the most recognized examples of sustainable technologies using renewable resources are wind power, biomass, and solar, these will be the primary focus of this assessment.

Tools have been developed to assess the resiliency of natural environments to disturbances. However most of these tools have not been developed to measure social sustainability in the context of the natural environment. This makes it extremely difficult in the face of climate change to include metrics for evaluating the impact of our energy choices on societal resilience and societal vulnerability. But if social and cultural metrics are included in energy evaluations, energy choices can then be linked to not only environmental impacts but social impacts.

Tools do exist to measure social sustainability but these approaches require a significant amount of data which diminishes their utility for selecting energy resources. For example, the large amounts of data that are needed to measure social sustainability would necessitate years of data collection. Since decisions need to be made today and not 20 years in the future, years of data collection are not an immediately useful option. Today, social aspects of sustainability are mainly measured using economic metrics. Because economic indicators are only one facet of social sustainability, they are not fully effective in assessing all aspects of social sustainability. There is a need to move beyond these narrow metrics because they may conclude that energy use in a locality is sustainable when in fact its society may not be truly sustainable. One approach to help achieve a more complete sustainability is to focus on cultural values as part of an assessment. This might then highlight additional indicators that may be more valuable to help assess, and to manage for, sustainability.

Since sustainable energy cannot happen without sustainable societies, societal factors need to be a strong focus of any assessment analyzing what energy source to adopt. Therefore, this analysis will include a discussion of the metrics currently used to determine whether an energy source is truly sustainable and if it contributes to a sustainable society. In this paper we summarize the current indicators commonly used to determine the efficiency of energy options and whether they are appropriate measures given the particular cultural and economic values important for the rural and indigenous landscape context. We conclude this discussion by introducing an approach for how to use cultural metrics to design energy production systems for these environments. We make a case that sustainable energy consumption does not equate to sustainable societies. Without the inclusion of both cultural values and ecological health in the mechanism of assessment frameworks there is a major concern that social and ecological sustainability will be compromised.