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What is Sustainability?

The term sustainability gets thrown around a lot. It’s becoming a bit of a buzzword; a label that anyone can slap on to look better. But what does it really mean for something to be sustainable? What does that look like? And, in case you’re not already on board with “saving the Earth,” why should we even care?

These are really important questions to ask, and I assure you if you keep reading you will get all the answers.

What Does Sustainable Mean?

To understand what sustainability means in today’s context, it’s useful to look at the history of sustainability, and what it has meant in the past.

The idea of sustainability has roots as far back as the 17th century, beginning in the forestry industry in Britain. Concerns over the overexploitation of natural resources drove the need to consider alternative ways of foresting. The roots of sustainability are focused on the use of resources.

During the industrial revolution, air pollution from burning coal would lead to the implementation of one of the first modern environmental laws; these laws focused on reducing emitted pollution. This is the beginning of considering the effects of industry on the health of citizens.

The environmental movement picked up steam in the United States and Britain during the 1960’s. Lots of influential texts were being written; voicing concerns over the depletion of natural resources, the widespread use of pesticides, the link between economic growth and environmental degradation. The work of activists culminated in a number of organizations, global charters, and environmental regulation.

Throughout the 70’s, the interaction between the environment, the economy, and society would dominate sustainability thinking. This “three spheres” model would be the basis for charters and policy passed through to the 2000’s; and is still used today, occasionally also featuring other sub-domains such as culture, technology, or politics.

While sustainability was first focused on pollution and depletion of resources, that definition has evolved and grown, as most things do. Today we consider sustainability as the interconnection between the biosphere and human civilization; for a society to live sustainably it must be able to coexist with the natural world while ensuring the needs and rights of its citizens are protected.

The oft-quoted definition of sustainability, defined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in their 1983 report Our Common Future is sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What Does Sustainability Look Like?

“Sustainability” might conjure images of those impeccable zero-waste mason jar shelves, or plastic floating in the ocean, or people in developing countries protesting for their right to not have toxic waste spilled near their home. And all of these images do, in fact, represent a facet of sustainability.

It would be wrong to assume there’s an end goal to sustainability, or (worse) that there is some “aesthetic” that sustainability fits in its final form. While setting goals is a great way to work towards being more sustainable, sustainability is a constantly evolving process that is never finished.

Sustainability in the context of a product looks different at each stage of the item’s life. From the design and gathering of resources to the manufacturing, packaging, and transport to its use and eventual end of life, considerations must be made that minimize environmental impact while providing value for money and maximal human benefit.  (These are, not coincidentally, also the principles of eco-minimalism.)

While thought must be put into every step of an item’s life, perhaps the most important is the end or, rather, the not-end. One of the most sustainable things we can do is consider the end of an item’s life as the beginning of a new item or resource’s life. Instead of calling it waste, we keep those resources in our economy. That’s the basis of a circular system.

The movement and transformation of energy, water, and nutrients in nature are an example of circular systems. Technology and innovation have allowed us to take ourselves out of these natural systems, and work linearly: where our resources become waste instead of being reused. This is unsustainable. But technology and innovation can also allow us to fit ourselves back into the system and exist sustainably.

Additionally, a sustainable society is one in which everyone has an equitable ability to meet their basic rights and needs. Food insecurity, water scarcity, and poverty are unsustainable.

The first part of sustainability, meeting the needs of the present, is crucial (and sometimes seems like an after-thought in the current environmental movement). While its important that we don’t completely degrade the lands we use for agriculture or pollute the little freshwater available, it’s even more important to recognize that people right now are not able to meet their basic needs because of the unsustainable nature of global capitalism.

In order for our society to be more sustainable, some of us need to use way less and reuse more. At the same time, we need to increase access to resources for vulnerable people.

Why Should We Care About the Environment?

If for whatever reason you don’t already believe that sustainability is a worthy cause — for the planet and humanity — then allow me to talk you through the basic arguments:

1. The Planet’s Health is Our Health

  • Natural resources: forests, rivers, marshes etc, all provide services for us. The problem with our current, unsustainable model is that we don’t consider these costs as we tear apart natural environments.
  • Once those habitats are destroyed, they’re gone (forever, in comparison to a human lifespan).

The planet cannot levy a tax against corporations to protect itself; we need to help it.

  • The current rate of growth is unsustainable and will catch up: if not to us, to the future generations. The longer we delay addressing problems, the bigger and more irreversible the damage will be. Positive feedback loops, anyone?

Beyond the desire to preserve the Earth’s systems for ourselves and our descendants, there is also a moral justification in caring about sustainability:

2. The World’s Poorest Will (and do) Suffer First

  • Less developed countries have fewer environmental and worker safety regulations, and the majority of our stuff is manufactured in those places. Factories are free to overexploit resources, release toxic chemicals and waste, and take advantage of people’s labor.

This is not a problem of us or them; the choice isn’t “some people meet their needs” or “nobody meets their needs.”

It’s either “some people overexploit the Earth, take more than they need, while others die from not being able to meet their needs” or “we consume only what we need to ensure everyone can meet their needs now and in the future.” And I don’t know about you, but the latter sounds much more appealing.

It’s “everybody, sustainably” or “nobody.”

Some people might choose not to care about sustainability because “individual actions don’t matter” compared to the actions of international companies. What they fail to realize is that all changes in human history have been initiated by a small group of people who believed in a better future.

Every individual action is a push towards the future. Every person who commits to a cause strengthens the community. You should care because you have the capability to make a difference.

Living perfectly sustainably is impossible because involvement in our society is inevitable. But this shouldn’t prevent us from doing what we can. Instead, it should empower us to recognize the need for society to change and inspire us to join the group of people advocating for reform.

Final Thoughts

Sustainability is about creating a better present and future. By keeping resources in our economy for longer we avoid depleting our natural resources. And by halting overconsumption, we can limit the amount of industrial waste and pollution released into the planet.

By taking individual actions and supporting sustainability initiatives, together we can make the world a more sustainable place for everyone. What are your tips for living more sustainably?

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