I was discussing environmental sustainability with my family recently. The intent was to show them all of the ways that we do it in our own home with minimal effort – recycling, composting, reusable grocery bags, vegetable gardening, electric vehicles, meatless Monday menus, and reduced air travel. As a climate scientist by profession, these efforts are very important to me because there is no “Plan B” planet. Though I am certain you’ve heard the word “sustainability,” what is it anyhow?
When the definition of a word is required, I was always taught to look in the dictionary. So let’s start there. The Online Cambridge Dictionary defines sustainability as, “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time.” However, the second definition is of greater relevance to our discussion herein – “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.” Other definitions capture different aspects of sustainability at different scales:
- United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development – “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website – “To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”
- The University of Maine Office of Sustainability website – “Sustainability is not just about renewable energy and energy efficiency….We must strive to achieve a sustainability state of mind that permeates all aspects of our day-to-day lives in local, national, and international domains.”
Though the word may seem a bit “en vogue” today, it is not some recent buzzword. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 put the United States on a pathway to sustainability. A key statement in the law says that it is U.S. policy to, “create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”
Sustainability is something that every single individual, county, state, nation, corporation, or organization can do. It really doesn’t matter how much you can do, it all collectively helps the cause of sustaining our environment, halting anthropogenic climate change, and ensuring that marginalized or poor communities are not disproportionately impacted through certain practices. A quick Internet search of “ways to be more sustainable” will yield a host of websites and suggestions for individuals.
The Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) is an amazing organization, and I serve on its Board. The ISC website says something that resonates profoundly with me, “Throughout the world, people want the same things: access to clean air and water; economic opportunities; a safe and healthy place to raise their kids; shelter; lifelong learning; a sense of community; and the ability to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.” I challenge anyone to quibble with that statement. There is nothing controversial about it. It is simply humane and common sense. I further challenge us all to find 3 new ways to increase our personal “environmental sustainability footprint” today.