Sustainability – What it is and Why it Matters

Sustainability is a concept that covers a wide area including business, technology, energy, environment, and the social sciences. In indigenous cultures around the world, sustainability isn’t even something that requires thought, it is simply the way that things are done. In today’s world there is a demand for people trained in sustainability, especially with more and more governments committing to reduce carbon and move to 100% renewable energy.

Today when we think about the definition or meaning of sustainability, we consider issues that affect the sustainability of our planet. This includes reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, moving to renewable energy sources, protecting our environment, and keeping ecosystems in balance. Considering that all of these affect every living thing on earth, including humans, it is difficult to understand how it becomes a political issue.

There is an old Cree prophecy that says, “Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

cree prophecy

What is the definition of sustainability?

The definition of “sustainability” is the study of how natural systems function, remain diverse and produce everything it needs for the ecology to remain in balance. It also acknowledges that human civilization takes resources to sustain our modern way of life.

There are countless examples throughout human history where a civilization has damaged its own environment and seriously affected its own survival chances (some of which Jared Diamond explores in his book Collapse: How Complex Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Sustainability takes into account how we might live in harmony with the natural world around us, protecting it from damage and destruction.

Sustainability and sustainable development focus on balancing that fine line between competing needs – our need to move forward technologically and economically, and the need to protect the environment in which we and others live. Sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also about our health as a society in ensuring that no people or areas of life suffer as a result of environmental legislation. It’s also about examining the longer-term effects of the actions humanity takes and asking questions about how it may be improved.

At the World Summit on Social Development in 2005, three main areas were identified that are the backbone of philosophy and sustainable development. While we must be sure that development meets the needs of the present, we have a responsibility to ensure that we do not comprise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Responsible Economic Development

When planning and implementing economic development in a sustainable way thought must be given to how changes will affect businesses, jobs, and employability as well. One of the ways this is done is by governments giving incentives to businesses and organizations for pursuing sustainable goals that are beyond current guidelines.

It is also helpful to incentivize the common person to do what they can and even though the efforts of an individual may be minuscule when many individuals come together the positive outcome can be substantial. Modern humans use a lot of resources on a daily basis so in order to preserve the environment it is essential that we get the use under control.

Responsible Social Development

The most important consideration in social development is that citizens are protected from pollution and the irresponsible activities or some businesses and organizations that cause damage to the environment and ecosystems. In most developed nations there are governmental regulations that put safeguards in place to protect people, animals and the environment from harm by unscrupulous entities.

In the U.S. the current administration is attempting to roll back many environmental protection policies and has also rolled back protections for workers, all to profit businesses. As stated above, protecting the environment and safety of citizens should not be a partisan political issue.

One big issue currently is sustainable housing, not only building homes with sustainable materials but also making sure there are enough homes for everyone. Homelessness is a huge problem globally and it is not sustainable. It is less expensive to house people than for them to remain on the street.

The last aspect of responsible social development is education. The populace at large must be educated and encouraged to be willing participants in building a sustainable world. They must be taught about the negative impacts that are being made on the environment and why it is crucial that we meet the goals that have been set forth for renewable energy while also protecting the environment.

Protecting the environment

All responsible adults should know what needs to be done when it comes to protecting the environment. It should be common sense, unfortunately it seems in this day and age, common sense is not that common. Some of the simple things we can do include the following:

  • Reducing use of plastics and recycling
  • Turning off electronics when not in use
  • Walking or biking when possible instead of driving
  • Eating a plant-based diet and reducing meat consumption
  • Limiting water use
  • Converting to renewable energy wherever possible

These are just a handful of things we can do to help as individuals. In most countries there are incentives for installing renewable power sources in our homes and businesses. These should be taken advantage of whenever possible as this one aspect of sustainability can make an enormous impact.

Protecting the environment should be the main focus if we are concerned with the future of humanity. If we do not protect the environment it cannot help and protect us. Just since the Industrial Age began, the act of humans cutting down mass amounts of forests have had a tremendous negative effect on our air quality. Trees absorb carbon and they put off oxygen. Why do we cut down trees that actually give us the oxygen we need to breathe?

Planning and building a sustainable present and future should be a concern for every single person on the planet. This is the only home we have, and we need to take care of it. There is no “planet B.”