What is sustainability?
When people hear the word sustainability, they often think of things that benefit the environment for example, recycling and solar power. While sustainability does very often bring about environmental benefits, sustainability is about much more than the environment alone. If you look up the definition of sustainability, it’s simply the ability of something to be sustained or the ability of something to last, so when we talk about sustainability what is it we are trying to make last and how long do we want to make it last for?
We are trying to sustain our ways of life on Earth as well as Earth’s ability to meet our needs, not just today but in the future as well. This means we must use earth’s resources in a way that can be used forever. If we use too much of something today it could be gone forever. To do this there are three main areas, known as pillars, to focus on; environment, social, and economic. When we talk about environmental sustainability we mean using earth’s resources in a way that they have enough time for earth to replenish as we use them. This can mean something like trees where we cut down too many and don’t plant enough to replace them, or by creating waste streams faster than earth can absorb them, causing waste to build up. Economic sustainability is where people are able to make enough money to support their needs and businesses. It’s about the continued success of the economy for all people. And social sustainability is where all people have the opportunity to get the resources and economic success they need while not facing any exploitation or discrimination of any kind.
These three pillars may sound pretty similar to you and they should because they overlap and impact each other. For example, businesses want to make more money but often have negative environmental and social impacts in doing so. Socially, people want to support their families, but that often means limiting business and environmental impact. And environmentally we need to use earth’s resources sustainably, but certain groups of people and businesses don’t want to limit their consumption. To make this easier to understand, imagine a business that uses a lot of earth’s resources, for example, water from a nearby lake. If that business uses water from the lake too quickly, it’s possible to use up all the water and the lake will be gone which means the people who live there won’t have access to water and will have to find it elsewhere. Also without any water the company won’t have the resources it needs to make its products. This decision by the business may have been beneficial in the short term, but in the long term it didn’t last and resulted in negative impacts on people, profit, and planet. This could have been prevented but the business put profits first and the needs of people in the environment last. However, if the business found ways to use less water and therefore reduced its water consumption to an amount where the lake can refill at the same time, it will never run out the local people won’t go thirsty and the business will be able to go on forever.
This trade-off by the business to sacrifice its profits today in order to benefit the local people and environment is what sustainability is all about. Sustainability is the balance of social equality economic opportunity and earth’s resources to ensure they will exist forever. Sustainability is about decision making. There are populations of people that didn’t live sustainably, that didn’t make the right decisions and their societies collapsed. For example, in Mesopotamia people worked hard to create a strong agricultural system to have enough food for its people, but their overuse of land for growing food led to issues with water supply and soil quality which eventually contributed to the collapse of their society. This may not have happened had they not overused the land and instead used more sustainable growing techniques. And while these people lived long ago we still see many unsustainable things happening today. Businesses continue to pollute and negatively impact people to make money, even entire societies continue to pollute as an easy way to deal with waste but with negative impacts on the environment. It’s a complicated issue but one that can only be solved with taking the right actions today. So what actions do you do to create a more sustainable world? What actions will you start or stop doing?