Last Updated on April 11, 2023
Inside: What is sustainability? What does sustainable mean and how do we do it? And does what we do as individuals even matter?
Spoiler alert: YES!
Why What Sustainability Means Matters
Is one of your new year resolutions to do better by the planet? Good for you! (And the planet.) There’s no time like NOW to up your commitment to shrinking your environmental impact. If you’re justifiably freaked out by the increasingly worrisome climate news, jump in and do what you can to shift society toward sustainability as quickly as possible.
I tend to try keeping things pretty light around here, generally focusing on how limiting your environmental impact can benefit you. Which it does, by the way.
But behind all that emphasis on the cost-savings and health benefits of living green is not a small amount of panic about the giant mess our incredibly wasteful culture has made of the planet, the only one we have.
We’ve polluted our water with plastic and put so much carbon in the air that we’re endangering our own future. Like the hero of the youth climate movement, Greta Thunberg, I’m utterly dumbfounded that our leaders are not treating climate change as an emergency worthy of immediate action.
So the new year, at the start of a new decade — hopefully one that will FINALLY see real movement forward on climate action — seems like a good time to pause for a moment and think why all this environmental stewardship matters in the first place. I’m writing this just as Time magazine has announced that Greta Thunberg is their pick for Person of the Year. May her courage to push for change inspire the rest of us to do the same.
Let’s start with a look at a common buzzword that deserves a little scrutiny as we think about the coming decades and what they’ll mean for the people living through them. If you’re more interested in how you can help move us to sustainability right now, scroll past the next two sections to find actionable steps.
What is Sustainability? What Does Sustainable Mean Anyway?
Most of us have a vague sense of the term sustainability, and it’s often misused to mean “do a little less environmental damage.” Now, while doing less ecological harm is certainly a good thing, sustainability is quite a bit more far-reaching.
When most people talk about sustainability, they’re generally referring to environmentally better practices. In fact, the term encompasses not just environmental issues, but social and economic ones as well. I’m mostly going to stick with the environmental angle here, but in the interest of more complete information, I’ll include the additional elements of sustainability.
The term “sustainability” became more commonly used toward the end of the last century when efforts to address global poverty exposed the important truth that increasing wealth was linked to environmental degradation. As researchers devised ways to improve the living conditions of people worldwide, they recognized the importance of doing so without causing environmental damage.
A 1987 report commissioned by the United Nations titled Our Common Future is generally considered the source of the current use of the term sustainability, which defined sustainable development as a system “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While people define “need” differently, most of us agree that safe water and food and clean air are basic human needs, ones not being met at present for much of the world population.
In essence, this three-pronged approach to the idea of sustainability highlights that societies and economies rely on natural systems to support them, so all are interconnected. Trying to solve one issue without regard to the others, scholars believe, is an exercise in futility.
What is Environmental Sustainability?
In terms of ecological sustainability, we need to think carefully about the idea embedded in the word “sustainable.” Our current system operates on a model referred to as “take-make-waste,” where we endlessly take resources from the earth, use them, and then throw them away. What became clear as the global population climbed is that there is no “away.” And the resources themselves have gotten scarcer. For an excellent overview of why this model isn’t sustainable, I highly recommend the short film “The Story of Stuff.“
If “take-make-waste” is all you’ve ever known, it can be hard to imagine another system. But we have to, and there are alternatives already available.
Leaders in the field of sustainable development imagine a world running on what’s called a circular economy, one in which there is no waste. When we’re done with something, it can be fashioned into new things we need. Before we figured out how to use technology to make things so cheaply that using them once and discarding them was economically viable, people generally lived within circular economies, where resources were conserved and reused again and again.
No one thinks we’re going to return to a pre-industrial age, and few would want to. But we can’t go on the way we have been without dire consequences for our health and in many cases, survival.
In a circular economy, the materials we use can be endlessly recycled. Right now, designs of most consumer goods don’t allow for that, and disposability is the norm. Cradle to Cradle design aims to remake the way we make things to make the idea of “waste” obsolete. “The Story of Solutions” is worth watching for an inspiring alternative model to the one we have now.
Our energy can come from endlessly renewable sources, like wind and solar. Carefully managed forests can provide timber while capturing carbon. Food can be composted and used to grow more food. You get the idea.
Why is Sustainability Important?
Let’s start with the fact that we only have one planet, and it has simply reached (surpassed, actually) the limit of what it can support. We use water, land, and other resources at a rate that can’t be sustained, and the vast consumption of 7 billion people has irreparably polluted our water and air. Then of course there’s climate pollution, leading to wildfires, flooding, and drought that endangers food supplies.
If you’ve read this far, I doubt you need me to elaborate. Let’s move on to solutions. We all need to change our expectations and habits fast.
How do we, everyday people, live sustainably?
Since I imagine most of you concerned readers don’t have the luxury of spending untold hours researching energy conservation and the latest in zero waste living, I’m going to try to make it as easy as possible for you to shift your habits and help move our culture away from the dangerous take-make-waste mindset that’s killing the planet.
Environmental organizations promote long lists of things you can do to shrink your environmental footprint, but I suspect you’ve glanced at “101 things you can do to save the planet” and felt kind of paralyzed about where to start or what would actually make an impact.
Here’s the thing: We’re in a race against time, so it’s vital we focus on the things
1) We can do,
2) That have the most impact, and
3) That we’re most able to change quickly.
If you haven’t spent the last decade researching these issues, I want to save you some time and make it as clear as possible how to proceed. In my many discussions with friends, neighbors, and people I’ve interviewed for articles on the topic of sustainability, I’ve found that people on the whole have little idea where to begin or what changes they could make that would be most beneficial.
In hopes of helping you quickly figure out what you can do to live more sustainably as quickly as possible, I’ve created a customizable roadmap to sustainable living you can download from this post on shortcuts to sustainable living. Give it a quick read and find one thing you can do today to start moving your lifestyle toward sustainability.
In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report breaking down the ways various things we do affect the climate. I’ll give you a very condensed version so you can make informed choices.
Here’s what they found about the contributions different areas of our lives make to climate pollution:
Transportation: 28% (5.9 tons)
Consumer goods and services: 26% (5.5 tons)
Home heating and cooling: 17% (3.6 tons)
Other home energy use: 15% (3 tons)
Food: 14% (3 tons)
If your habits align with the average American, your annual contribution to the CO2 in our atmosphere is roughly 21 tons. Some savvy tweaks can bring this number down significantly, while also helping to cut other forms of pollution and reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals.
If you want to better understand your own personal ecological footprint, try this ecological footprint calculator.
As you can see from the breakdown above, our transportation choices make up a big piece of the pie. (The category ‘consumer goods and services’ turns out to be a bit complicated, as these include things like our use of healthcare services, which can be pretty resource-intensive).
I’ll help you work out the best first steps to take in the next post, but until then, thinking about how you get around is likely the most important thing you can do to knock some tons of carbon off your contribution. Particularly if you’re thinking about replacing your car, make fuel efficiency your number one priority.
I was stunned when I went shopping for a fuel efficient car how few salespeople mentioned cars that got more than 25 or 30 miles per gallon. I really don’t understand how anyone could want something that not only adds unnecessary carbon to the atmosphere but also wastes money.
Here’s what to know about choosing fuel efficient cars. There are some fantastic choices available, and if you drive a decent amount, all- or part-electric cars will save you a lot of money and drastically reduce your emissions. Driving less is of course an even better option, though it’s not feasible for everyone.
Beyond Your Own Habits: Why What You Do Isn’t the Most Important Thing
Just to be clear: We can’t fix this problem by bringing our own bags to the grocery store and using a metal water bottle. Those are both important, but the ecological crisis is too vast to be fixed by individual effort, though everything we do chips away at it a little and buys us time to make the larger changes we need.
What’s needed? A complete overhaul of the ways businesses are allowed to use and waste resources and pollute our air and water. Fixing our own wasteful habits is one piece of this puzzle and sets wheels in motion for larger-scale changes. Just a decade ago, think how unusual it was for people to expect to bring their own bags to the grocery store and use refillable water bottles. It’s currently unusual for people to bring their own containers to shop the bulk bins or get take out, but as more of us do these things we help to normalize it.
More important: We need to push the companies and institutions making it SO. DAMN. HARD to do the environmentally-right thing to change their business practices. This means writing letters to elected officials, signing petitions, participating in protests, and giving to environmental organizations that lobby for saner regulations. Consider supporting groups like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, or 350.org. Here are some other ideas for environmental groups to support.
It also means voting with your dollars for the companies working to make their business practices truly sustainable, and writing to those that aren’t.
It means voting for candidates who will stand up to corporate interests and put protecting our shared home ahead of profit.
Your efforts can have multiple effects. As you shop for produce not wrapped in plastic, you model better behavior to those around you. Consider talking to the manager of the grocery store about expanding those options or getting rid of plastic produce bags. Support the plastic bag ban in your community and write to companies that package food in plastic about shifting to alternatives.
Do what you can. It all matters.
Moving Toward Sustainability
In a nutshell:
- Take stock of your footprint and pick something you can improve. The worksheet on shortcuts to sustainable living will help you find a place to get started.
- Help friends and family do likewise.
- Vote, protest, write elected leaders and companies letting them know you want change now.
Try to keep it simple so you don’t get overwhelmed. My next post goes into more detail about these categories and includes a worksheet you can use to make a personalized roadmap to sustainable living. Take a look and see what you can do to make your life more sustainable right away.
What does sustainability mean to you? What have you done to make your life more sustainable? Share your tips in the comments.
Pin to save and share this discussion of what is sustainability for later — our future depends on making these changes as soon as possible.
What is sustainability photo credits: piyaset, RyanJLane, annca, JillWellington
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.
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