Applied Ecosystem Services, LLC

The Environmental Issues Doctor

Photo of Sustainable Development Metrics


Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

How to measure sustainability comes up frequently in conversations among mining professionals. Questions asked include what protocol or algorithm should be used, and what measures should to be included. A lot of serious thought has been given this subject by experienced and insightful environmental managers. Yet there is still discomfort that the lists of measures or the procedure to be used may not be “correct.”

Sport analogies may help you understand a solution process in which you can have full confidence. Consider fly fishing: you don’t use the same fly for cutthroat trout in a small, high gradient stream as you would for brown trout in the lower reaches of a different river. When you’re fishing makes a difference, too. Most fishermen ask at a local shop before they wade into the stream what the fish currently seem to like to hit. Or, consider golfing (perhaps a sport to which most miners can better relate): why carry irons from #3 through #9, or different wedges, or fairway woods? Because each club has characteristics best suited to distance from the goal (the cup), position on the fairway, obstacles between the ball and the goal, and our abilities to optimally use a particular club. Different locations, goals, and local environments in these analogies dictate how we approach what we want to accomplish.

The same approach can be used to effectively measure sustainability. Rather than deciding in advance what specific measures (metrics) to use in any specific situation, ask the potentially affected stakeholders, local populations, regulators, and governments what factors are important to them for the project under consideration at the current time and location. Think of it as gaining expert insight, advice, or suggestions that help you reach your goal.

To refine your approach and focus discussions on the most suitable measurements, divide the discussion into consideration of factors in each of the economic, natural, and societal environments. Everyone has concerns in each environmental category, but their priorities of relative importance vary widely. If you apply a process that allows you to quantify these local values and beliefs, then your results are even more robust and can be used over time to re-assess how you are doing.

“Sustainability” is a linguistic variable that has no consensus definition. It is no longer adequate to describe it as a process because we can quantify it if we take the appropriate approach and measurements. As a concept it has become important enough in successfully permitting, operating, and closing mines that it deserves to be evaluated in a process that is both technically sound and legally defensible.

This work was originally published on the Applied Ecosystem Services, LLC web site at

It is offered under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. In short, you may copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format as long as you credit Dr. Richard Shepard as the author. You may not use the material for commercial purposes, and you may not distribute modified versions.

Keep reading

  1. Photo of Preparing For Change

    Preparing For Change


    Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

    Climate warming, unpredictable weather, and other factors that you cannot control could harm your business’s profitable sustainability. Understanding environmental science and regulatory permits and compliance provide you with the knowledge and tools to quickly adapt to these changes. Acting now is especially important because the future is uncertain and the present is constantly changing. Avoiding environmental permit compliance actions is much better than resolving them after they appear. This commentary explains environmental science as it affects compliance with regulatory permit conditions and helps you defend against litigation alleging your operation adversely effects the natural environment.
  2. Photo of Streamlining NEPA Compliance

    Streamlining NEPA Compliance


    Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

    When looking at streamlining the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process without reducing quality everything is open to reconsideration. Quantifying subjectivity and reordering tasks can dramatically reduce the time to produce a technically sound and legally defensible EIS and Record of Decision (ROD), but there is more that can be done. Data collection and numerical modeling offer opportunities to increase EIS quality while decreasing the time involved. The data are used to characterize existing environments and predict alternative future environments.

To learn more contact me.