The concept of ‘sustainability’ has risen to the top of human concern among many in recent years, quickly moving away from academia into our day-to-day lives.
But what does it really mean?
And why does it matter to you and me? Why should we care?
What is sustainability?
When we think about the term ‘sustainability’ we immediately relate to all those essential natural resources needed for our survival (e.g. water, food, energy sources, air) and all the current issues related to them – overexploitation, overconsumption, overpopulation, pollution, environmental degradation, etc. So ‘sustainability’ concerns our long term, interdependent relationship with the resources we need to survive that are only found in or derived from our natural environment.
In fact, the term has been widely used as synonymous with ‘sustainable development’, which was first defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development almost 30 years ago as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This definition brought to light two fundamental notions:
1st: the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor in contrast to the concept of wants of the world’s rich; and
2nd: the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs; in contrast to the notion of unlimited growth.
There are hundreds of other definitions of sustainable development out there. (1)
In spite of some differences in scope they all have in common two important things: the vision of the world as an inter-connected system, and the implications for us, human beings, in our relationship to the environment that surrounds us, and to the economy that stages our activities as three inseparable, interconnected sub-systems within the world, that greater system.
Hence, achieving sustainability is about caring for and securing human, environmental, and economic well-being.
By grasping this concept we can understand much better ourselves, our world, our relationship with and role in it, the extent of the problems we face, as well as how we can help address them. After all, what’s the point of being physically healthy, if we are poor and don’t have access to education? Or to have a secure income, but have to breathe a polluted air, eat chemically manufactured or produced food, or drink contaminated water?
Our individual well-being is inherently linked to sustainability because they both have the natural environment as a common denominator. Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment and the ecosystem of which we are ALL a part. We are part of the natural world and dependent on the use of natural resources to sustain our health, business, and activities. We share the same air, earth, soil, water and resources as all life, human and non-human.
Hence, if we care about our personal well-being, sustainability should matter to us.
Often what is good for our individual health is also a good strategy for the environment. For instance, by moderating animal protein we can enhance our health as we reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as help the environment as we reduce the demand for water and energy resources (raising cattle is a highly water- and energy-intensive process).
Similarly, walking or biking are not only excellent exercise options for the body, mind and spirit, they may also avoid resource depletion and reduce pollution when substituting a car or bus ride (by not burning gasoline or diesel from driving a car, for instance). Moreover, investing in one’s personal wellness and sustainability can translate into financial savings (e.g. better health reduces family insurance premiums, greater resource efficiency reduces bottom-line costs).
Once we start paying attention to the notions around ‘sustainability’, we realize that everything is interrelated. We start looking at the economic system we live in through a different lens or, better said, without any lens. We then realize that it isn’t an isolated system that can only thrive through unlimited growth and greater divide between the haves and no-haves, but a system capable of continuous evolution through innovation and re-creation within existing boundaries (set by the environment that surrounds it), very much like the dynamic equilibrium we see in natural ecosystems.
Want to learn more about sustainability? Take the “Sustainability Tour.”
Introducing the 30 Day Shrink: Fast, cheap and simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint, by Lindsay Wilson in Shrink that Footprint
Physical Health and Sustainability, by Candance le Roy in Talking Sustainability
Exercising our birthright to Sustainable Abundance. Namastê!