Sustainability. Its a term creeping up in more and more aspects of our lives. It has gained prominence in the face of climate change and increased climate awareness. Marketing teams are acutely aware of the buzz and have slapped the word across their products. But… what exactly is this ~sustainability~ stuff all about?
If you aren’t sure what sustainability really means, you're not alone. This is actually one of the most common questions I am approached with. According to the dictionary, sustainability describes a lifestyle involving the use of resources so that they are neither depleted nor permanently damaged (source).
Though it sounds simple, true sustainability is quite difficult to calculate. In retrospect, it is easy to look upon depleted resource reserves and conclude past methods were not sustainable, but how can we predict what is moving forward?
Many factors alter what is a sustainable practice. The rate at which resources are used may be significantly impacted by the technologies utilized to extract the resource. An efficient harvest method, that is, less energy is used to harvest than the overall yield gives off, results in a net gain. The advancement of technology works to maximize this gain.
Consider corn based ethanol as a biofuel. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires the gasoline sold in America to contain renewable fuel, ethanol or biodiesel. Currently, 14 billion gallons a year are added to gasoline, expected to increase to 26 billion by 2022. Ethanol is most commonly derived from the fermented organic material of corn. In theory, biofuels are carbon neutral. The plant grows, absorbing atmospheric carbon. When it is harvested, the burned material in gasoline only returns that exact amount of carbon into the atmosphere. However, since the ethanol produced does not contain as much potential energy as conventional petroleum, it is estimated the amount of fossil fuel burned by equipment used to manufacture ethanol offsets the carbon sink created by the use of the biofuel in the first place. The technology is not efficient enough to maximize the yield of energy from corn biofuels, thus actually increasing atmospheric carbon, while decreasing food supply. This is not sustainable.
(The issues surrounding biofuels are a lot more complex than I have described. If you want to know more about them, check out this article . Wonder why they are still being used? Learn more. In the future, algae based biofuels may offer a far more efficient alternative, check this out.)
On that note, sustainability entails that we waste less. That means avoiding excess consumption that thus compounds as waste while depleting resources. Fast fashion, food waste, and single use packaging are just a few of the most wasteful divisions of modern life. For instance, The U.S. is currently the world leader in municipal waste, that is, the waste disposed of by households. Approximately 4.5 lbs of waste per person per day. On average 15% of this waste is food. This waste ends up in landfills, using up land (check out what happened in New Jersey), releases potent greenhouse gases such as methane, and contaminates groundwater. Not so sustainable either.
Learn more about food waste.
Sustainability requires environments and their resource reserves to be left intact enough to recover after resource extraction. By this understanding, fossil fuels, petroleum, coal, and natural gas, cannot be sustainable due to their finite reserves. Slash and burn agriculture that uses land until nutrients are depleted before repeating the process on a new plot of land is not either. Neither is burying tons of non-biodegradable plastic waste in landfills. As it turns out, humans are not very good at living sustainably.
There are two outlooks on sustainability. One is anthropocentric, and the other is ecocentric. The former looks at sustainability as a means as which to ensure human survival. The primary motive it to preserve environmental resources for the use of humans. Meanwhile, an ecocentric outlook seeks to preserve the environment for its intrinsic value. Both however, seek the same goal: a relationship with humans and their environment that ensures the survival of both parties.
Overall, sustainability is a balance. It requires resource replenishment in unison with human consumption to foster a harmonious integration of society with natural resources and ecosystems. According the the United Nations, sustainable development provides for present societies without compromising future generations (source). Living sustainably deters pollution and environmental degradation while supporting a high quality of life. At its core, sustainability is an active relationship between humans and the natural world that requires thoughtful actions to ensure longevity in all spectrums. Most importantly, even with today’s technology, sustainability is within reach. All it requires is us.
PS: Just because a product is labeled as “sustainable,” it doesn’t mean that is it. There are no regulations surrounding the inclusion of the word on a products label, as there are with USDA Organic, so make sure you investigate their claims.
Thanks for reading! Share this information with the people around you. One of the biggest hurdles is proper knowledge surrounding the circumstances. Stay tuned for more information and tips for leading a sustainable lifestyle!
Natural living enthusiast, beach bum, waste-reduced, environmentalist, plant-based, student, artist, yogi, plant mom, Virgo, human, soul