© 2013

Practicing Sustainability

  • Guruprasad Madhavan
  • Barbara Oakley
  • David Green
  • David Koon
  • Penny Low

Table of contents

About this book


“Delightful…the chapters are gems of precision and insight.”—Michael Spence, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics

Sustainability applies to everybody. But everybody applies it differently, by defining and shaping it differently—much as water is edged and shaped by its container. It is conceived in absolute terms but underpinned by a great diversity of relatively “green”—and sometimes contradictory—practices that can each make society only more or less sustainable. In Practicing Sustainability, chefs, poets, music directors, evangelical pastors, skyscraper architects, artists, filmmakers, as well as scientific leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, business executives, policy makers, and the contrarians, shed light on our understanding of sustainability and the role that each of us can play. Each contributor addresses what sustainability means, what is most appealing about the concept, and what they would like to change to improve the perception and practice of sustainability. What emerges from their essays is a wide spectrum of views that confirm an important insight: Sustainability is pursued in different ways not only due to different interpretations, but also because of varying incentives, trade-offs, and altruistic motives. Practicing and achieving sustainability starts with a willingness to look critically at the concept. It also means enabling rich and vigorous discussion based on pragmatism and common sense to determine a framework for best ideas and practices. With time and the much needed critical thinking, sustainable development will become a more integral part of our culture. By sharing experiences and crisp insights from today’s savants, Practicing Sustainability serves as a stepping stone to the future.


alternative energy biomimicry emerging technologies genetically modified crops global health green revolution sustainability bioengineering sustainability biotechnology sustainability science and technology sustainable development

Editors and affiliations

  • Guruprasad Madhavan
    • 1
  • Barbara Oakley
    • 2
  • David Green
    • 3
  • David Koon
    • 4
  • Penny Low
    • 5
  1. 1., Policy and Global AffairsNational Academy of SciencesWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Dept. Industrial & Systems EngineeringOakland UniversityRochesterUSA
  3. 3.El CerritoUSA
  4. 4.AlbanyUSA
  5. 5.Social Innovation Park LimitedThe Parliament of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

About the editors

Guruprasad Madhavan (Editor) is a program officer at the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council—collectively known as the National Academies—in Washington, DC.

Barbara Oakley
(Editor) is an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and a former vice-president of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.

David Green
(Editor) is a MacArthur Fellow, Ashoka Fellow and is recognized by the Schwab Foundation as a leading social entrepreneur.

David Koon
(Editor) represented the 135th district of the New York State Legislative Assembly from 1996 to 2010.

Penny Low
(Editor) is a Member of Parliament of Singapore, and was the youngest elected female representative in 2001.

Michael Spence
(Foreword) is William R. Berkley Professor in Economics and Business at New York University, and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Klaus Schwab
(Editorial) is founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.

Robert Rubin
(Editorial) is Co-Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as the 70th Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

George Whitesides
(Editorial) is Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University.

M. S. Swaminathan (Afterword) is a Member of the Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and a World Food Prize Laureate.

Bibliographic information


“Delightful…the chapters are gems of precision and insight.” (Michael Spence, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics)

“This book so aptly demonstrates [that] the concept of sustainability can be applied to many different areas, which could be woven together into a sustainability agenda.” (Robert Rubin, Co-Chairman, Council on Foreign Relations, and Former U.S. Secretary of Treasury)

“Seminal…a thoughtful and refreshingly different book.” (Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum)

“Mahatma Gandhi once said ‘unsustainable lifestyles and unacceptable poverty should become problems of the past, to achieve harmony with nature and with each other.’ Practicing Sustainability not only brings out the relevance of this vision clearly, but also the need to develop better concepts and pathways to achieve that vision.” (M.S. Swaminathan, World Food Prize Laureate and Member of Parliament, India)

“An enlightening book that demystifies what sustainability really means with a fresh, unusual range of voices and practical insights. Practicing Sustainability should be read by anyone who cares about the future of our planet.” (Neal Lane, Former Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. National Science Foundation.)

“In this unique collection, each reader will find three or four sparks—things that will connect with their head or heart or both, and perhaps spur them to real action. It's a necessary book!” (Bill McKibben, Founder,, and author of The End of Nature, Deep Economy, and Eaarth.)

Practicing Sustainability is an engaging and ultimately uplifting kaleidoscope of ideas from the people on the front lines of building a better planet.” (Greg Ip, author of The Little Book of Economics)

“The popularity of “sustainability” has taken a toll on its meaning—it is too often used as a lofty aspiration or as a vague objective. This book provides a great antidote to this trend. Practicing Sustainability is a must-read for anyone looking for good ideas on how to make sustainability more real and concrete.” (Moisés Naím, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Chief International Columnist, El País; Former Editor-in-Chief, Foreign Policy)

“An important book that contributes greatly to the understanding and practice of sustainability in a comprehensive, lucid, and thoughtful way.” (Shu Chien, National Medal of Science Laureate; University Professor of Bioengineering and Medicine, University of California, San Diego)