A new paradigm for evaluating environmental sustainability in a complex systems context and recommendations for incorporating that paradigm into sustainable design and LCA
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As consumers become increasingly eco-conscious, environmentally sustainable design has arisen to meet their demand for lower-impact products. Unfortunately, the sustainable design process as it is currently implemented often results in designs that do not ultimately result in reduced environmental damage. This occurs for a variety of reasons, including a failure to account for contextual factors and how they influence environmental impact, as will be discussed in Chapter 5, and the adoption of an overly-reductionist approach to addressing environmental problems, as will be argued in Chapter 9. The purpose of this research is to: (1) identify and discuss the problems in the current paradigm for sustainability that undermine efforts to address environmental issues via sustainable design; (2) propose a new paradigm for environmental sustainability and environmental impact that addresses the problems with the current paradigm and conceives of sustainability as an emergent property of a complex system composed of global energy and material flows; and (3) show how this new paradigm can be applied in practice to life cycle assessment (LCA) methods, the sustainable design process, efforts in eco-consumption, and research in related fields to more reliably address environmental problems. Chapters 1 through 4 introduce this work and provide background information related to LCA, scale and system boundaries, and network-related approaches to environmental impact assessment. Chapters 5 through 7 discuss context in LCA and sustainable design, namely, how contextual factors can affect the environmental impact associated with a given design and the environmental damage associated with a given impact, the implications of variability in impact due to contextual factors, and how other environmental impact measurement frameworks account for context. Chapters 8 and 9 present the current paradigm for environmental sustainability and problems with the reductionist approach. Chapter 10 presents a new paradigm for environmental sustainability as an emergent property of complex global systems; Chapter 11 presents a summary of findings, with examples; and Chapter 12 concludes.