Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental and Energy Policy (PhD)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Social Sciences

Advisor 1

Audrey L. Mayer

Committee Member 1

Carol A. MacLennan

Committee Member 2

Mark D. Rouleau

Committee Member 3

David J. Flaspohler


‘Sustainability’ may be a generalizable concept; its definition however, heavily depends upon context. Understanding the context (sociocultural, environmental, socioeconomic, political etc.) is crucial for defining and assessing the sustainability of any given socio-ecological system. This point underlies our research design and objectives. The primary objectives of this research were to understand the sustainability context in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and to use it to develop a sustainability assessment framework for a potential forest-based bioenergy industry in the region. We first reviewed top-down and bottom-up sustainability assessment frameworks. Then we used the best-suited approach i.e. bottom-up participatory approach, to pursue our objectives.

First, we critiqued a top-down sustainable development framework: the Millennium Project framework. We evaluated the generic environmental indicators employed by the Millennium Project to assess progress of developing countries toward environmental sustainability, based on the indicators’ relevance, comprehensiveness, practicality and sensitivity in a developing country’s context. We used Nepal as a case study for this analysis. Our results suggested that, while international (top-down) development and assessment frameworks play an important role in inserting broad sustainability concerns (e.g., biodiversity, water and sanitation, and environmental management) into country-level development agendas, indicators to monitor progress towards such goals are more effective if based on the on-the-ground realities (i.e., are relevant and practical).

Next, we reviewed 13 case studies where a bottom-up approach was used to develop sustainability criteria and indicators (C&I) for natural resource management. This review suggested that while bottom-up approaches may be important for highlighting grassroots concerns, reliance on local belief systems alone might not be sufficient to produce C&I which conform to sustainable thinking. Collaborative learning among stakeholders and experts is the best approach to promote the holistic understanding of a socio-ecological system, which in turn can enhance sustainable decision-making.

We used these reviews to design case study research: to generate a regional sustainability assessment framework for forest-based bioenergy production in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. We used participatory research techniques including focus groups, semi-structured interviews, a workshop and multi-criteria decision analysis to understand stakeholders’ concerns, values and preferences with regard to wood-based bioenergy production in the UP. These were translated into sustainability criteria and indicators for assessing sustainability of forest-based bioenergy industry in the UP. The final set of C&I were 5 criteria and 31 indicators (in parentheses): Economic (6), Environmental (7), Social (8), Policy and regulations (4) and Institutional capacity (6). This set reflected the general balance across sustainability dimensions valued by the stakeholders.