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Documenting Change: Lesson Two

Defining Sustainability

by Emily Bergeron

These days we can’t seem to escape the term “sustainability.” Making it through the day without encountering the word has become challenging. We shop for sustainable foods produced by sustainable agriculture. We see ads for sustainable energy sources and environmentally friendly public transportation. We are told to use reusable shopping bags, aluminum water bottles, and silicone straws. From head to toe – even fashion choices have become something that should be sustainable – how we wash our hair, the jeans we wear, even the shoes we run in.

Many indict sustainability and sustainable development as simple terms that mask real environmental problems by focusing on economic growth. Environmentalist Bill McKibben has called “sustainability” a “buzz-less buzzword” that was “born partly to obfuscate.” While it is trendy to be sustainable, this doesn’t mean the term is without merit – governments, communities, organizations, and individuals have tried to align themselves with its basic principles to create a safe, prosperous, and ecologically minded society. Much like the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions changed our lives – so might a sustainability revolution.

A Google search for the term “sustainability” returns around 2,210,000,000 results. Unfortunately, sustainability is often thrown around without fundamental understanding or substance. People use it to address issues including, but not limited to, climate change, infrastructure, architecture, energy, and more. These are essential steps in individual actions like using solar panels, recycling, and rainwater collection. But there is much to what it means to be sustainable.

“Sustainability” concerns systems and processes that can operate and persist independently over long periods. They can endure without failing. It comes from the Latin “sustinere – to maintain, support, endure.” There is also a German equivalent, Nachhaltigkeit – which first appeared in the literature in a 1713 forestry book by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, which described how the sustainable management of timber would allow the resource to be available indefinitely.

Sustainability evolved from many other ideas relating to the environment, its management, and protection. It begins with the concept of conservation (environmental, not heritage) – that nature (and specific elements) is a resource that must be managed. This differs from ecology – the late 19th and early 20th-century idea that relationships and connections in the larger environment must be considered. The environmental movement began in the 1960s and 70s. It is often associated with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book’s title references a world without birds – the potential outcomes of indiscriminate pesticide use. The work introduced citizens to the problems with the environment to help them become actively engaged. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which addressed the issues of exponential growth.

The 1970s would be a good decade for environmental protection. The first earth day was held on April 22, 1970, and the event spoke to the need to address technology and alternative energy as part of the conversation. The 1970s was also a period in the U.S. when environmental legislation became a more central aspect of the federal regulatory environment. Laws enacted in this decade included NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the EPA was created, the Water pollution control act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Energy Policy and Conservation Act, National Energy Act, Federal Pesticide Control Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Endangered Species Act. During the 1960s and 70s, there was a growing awareness of distributional disparities and environmental justice.

Sustainability emerged as an environmental, social, and economic ideal in the late 70s and 80s. The term sustainable development was introduced in a 1980 report (“World Conservation Strategy”) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the term was later popularized in 1987 in the World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED) report known as the “Brundtland Report” or Our Common Future. This report defined sustainable development as “development that needs the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is also intended to recognize the rights of all people – including future generations. By the 1990s, the term sustainability had become familiar in politics – e.g., President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development. The concept of the “triple bottom line” (i.e., Environment, economics, equity. People, planet, profit) came about in 1997 from John Elkington.

Why do we Need Sustainable Practices?

“Sustainability is meant to counteract a moribund economic system that has drained the world of many of its finite resources, including fresh water and crude oil, generated a meltdown in global financial systems, exacerbated social inequality in many parts of the work, and driven human civilization to the brink of catastrophe by unwisely advocating for economic growth at the expense of resources and essential ecosystem services.” (Mason, P. 2010. The End of the Age of Greed. NY: Verso).

We face food scarcity, water depletion, pollution, habitat destruction, extinction, lack of renewable and nonrenewable resources, climate change, social inequity, failing governments, out-of-control corporate interests, and increasing wealth gaps. Species are declining, and natural disasters are out of control. We are at a tipping point. We have too much consumption and too much population growth. What happens when we cross the threshold?

Western cultures have operated with the belief that economic growth (and population growth), accompanied by constantly improving living standards (reliant on using various renewable and nonrenewable resources), can persist indefinitely. However, we are currently operating at over 140% of capacity. It is estimated we will be at 200% by the 2030s. This means human demands far exceed the regenerative capacities of the planet on which we live. We’ve depleted natural capital. We can only keep spending resources as slowly as they can regenerate.

Because all these things are connected, we cannot fix one problem in isolation. Sustainability is a holistic approach that addresses nearly 250 years of an unsustainable ecological assault created by industrialization. It is a way to recognize and address how we have created an imbalance. We cannot look at water problems – we have to look at how water problems impact many other issues. It also means we must have water quality engineers look at this issue. We need scientists and engineers, but also economists, educators, policymakers, and social activists to determine how we are to create safe, livable cities with plenty of green space, green buildings, public transportation networks, and agricultural systems that meet human needs without GMOs and monoculture, and water free of pollutants.

In other words, sustainability goes far beyond just environmentalism. It is about a balance between environmental, economic, and social well-being. These three are all connected – poverty, poor health, overpopulation, resource limits, and the degradation of the environment are all reliant on each other. It would be best if you also thought of the human-nature connection in sustainability – all systems are linked – so let’s call them social-ecological systems.

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