Sustainability: 'we all have to learn from each other'

Posted on June 04, 2018

Prof Howard Apsan, Director of Environmental, Health, Safety and Risk Management at The City University of New York, recently delivered a guest lecture on ‘Community and sustainability’, at the University of Pretoria’s Sustainable Development Goals Lecture Series.

He is also a professor in Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and teaches in Columbia’s Sustainability Management Program. He has served on the United States Technical Advisory Group (US TAG) for ISO 14000, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), Environmental Committee (E-50) and the Environmental Commission in Springfield, New Jersey.

At the lecture, he highlighted water management issues in Flint City, Detroit and what New York City was doing to monitor its lead levels in water. He indicated that South Africa could learn lessons from the United States and vice versa.

Primarashni Gower posed questions to him on sustainability.

What exactly is sustainability?

Prof Apsan: Our Common Future, the report of the 1987 United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, also referred to as The Brundtland Commission, defined sustainable development as ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’  In simple terms, it means thinking about long-term outcomes rather than focusing on short-term outputs. In personal terms, it means thinking about our grandchildren instead of focusing exclusively on ourselves.

Why is sustainability so important to all countries?

Prof Apsan: Sustainability is important to everyone because we all share the same planet and environmental degradation does not respect national borders. Air pollution generated in one country affects air quality in neighbouring countries; wastewater discharges in one country flow downstream to other countries; and climate change impacts us all.

What will happen if countries do not plan for the future?

Prof Apsan: Because the future is inherently unpredictable, planning is indispensable. Plans must be measurable to determine if they are being met and flexible enough to address unanticipated contingencies.

Please explain the relationship between sustainability and economics.

Prof Apsan: To quote Steve Cohen, my colleague at Columbia University, ‘sustainability management is the practice of economic production and consumption that minimises environmental impact and maximises resource conservation and reuse’. In practical economic shorthand, maximising sustainability means minimising inefficiency and waste.

What was the purpose of your visit to South Africa?

Prof Apsan: I was invited by the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning to address an educational symposium in Johannesburg. I spoke about the importance of sustainability and how we measure success. The Academy also arranged for me to meet with business, government and educational leaders, and scheduled a number of talks.

What do you make of South Africa's water problems?

Prof Apsan: I travelled to Cape Town and saw first-hand how the city has been coping with a severe water crisis.  I am pleased that Day Zero seems to have been averted for now, and thanks to increased rainfall and significant conservation measures, the situation has begun to improve slowly. Naturally, more must be done to ensure that the crisis does not recur in coming years.

Any ideas on how ordinary South African's can save water in their homes? 

Prof Apsan: Just as we expect our municipalities to check for leaks and inefficiencies in the water supply system, we should check our home plumbing. Additionally, where possible and economically feasible, we should replace old fixtures with water efficient fixtures, such as shower heads and toilets.  Finally, we have to make some simple behavioural changes, such as taking quicker showers and shutting the water off while we brush our teeth.  

What more can South Africa do for sustainability or how can it boost its sustainability efforts?

Prof Apsan: In all countries, the first step towards sustainability is education.  And because we adults are set in our ways and sometimes resistant to change, the best place to start is in the primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions.  

What lessons on sustainability can the United States share with South Africa?

Prof Apsan: We all have to learn from each other. Through PlaNYC and OneNYC sustainability initiatives, New York City continues to exercise leadership in urban sustainability, but we all have much to learn from Cape Town about water conservation. Shared lessons learned is the best approach improving everyone’s sustainability efforts.


- Author Primarashni Gower

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