There has been a growing interest in sustainability and environmentalism over the years, but what exactly is sustainability and how does it differ from environmentalism?
The definition of sustainability depends on who you ask, and many people do use the word “sustainable” interchangeably with “eco-friendly.” However, when you look at the word itself, you’ll understand that sustainability means the ability of something to be sustained. In other words, if something is sustainable, that means it can last.
So environmental sustainability is definitely important because we want the planet’s natural environment to last, but there are other aspects of sustainability as well. Some industries have started to place an emphasis on social and economic sustainability.
I definitely agree with these but would also argue that in order to pave the way forward, we need to look at the topic from other angles as well, such as individual, educational, health, and political perspectives.
In my next few posts, I’m going to go into detail about each of these different aspects, and it should become clear why they are all linked to each other and should be part of the overall conversation about sustainability. In this post, I’ll just give each perspective a quick introduction.
In diving into this conversation, I hope you share my belief that regardless of which aspect of sustainability we are discussing, sustainable and ethical are almost interchangeable, as are sustainability and responsibility. Our current global system allows us to opt out of sustainability for the most part, but the responsible way forward is to embrace sustainability in all its forms.
Let’s dive into the first form of sustainability, which is often most obvious. Environmental sustainability is the idea that we need to take care of the natural life on this planet, essentially refraining from harming it any further, and at this point, trying to heal some of the damage we’ve already caused.
Next up, we have another component that involves taking care of life on this planet, this time focused on human lives. My interpretation of social sustainability is this: in order to achieve a decent quality of life for humanity, we need to address human rights violations, social inequality, and other injustices that we humans inflict on each other.
Then there is economic or financial sustainability. This addresses the economic systems that our society functions by, as well as individuals’ ability to sustain themselves economically.
Although our society is largely a corporate capitalist society, other ways to describe our economic system are “hyper-consumerist” or “disposable.” The terms “convenience culture” and “throwaway culture” also have a place within a discussion of economics, especially as it applies to environmental and social sustainability.
We need to address overconsumption on a global scale as well as implement a circular economy where we don’t throw away millions of tons of consumer goods every year.
Since politics is so deeply intertwined with the other branches, it is an important part of this conversation. Political sustainability will further sustainability overall if political systems work in the interests of their citizens and also give those citizens a way in which they can effect change when they feel their needs are not being met.
As with political sustainability, addressing health in a conversation about sustainability means looking critically at healthcare systems as well as how much agency individuals have in their own health. Agency means firstly that an individual has the knowledge required to make a good decision, and secondly, that they follow through with making that decision.
That feeds into other aspects of a sustainable system when we look deeper into it, because an individual may receive education that helps them know what options will lead to the best health outcomes, but that may be useless if they don’t have the resources to actually act on that information.
This is why it’s impossible to talk about one aspect of sustainability without widening the scope of the conversation to discuss other aspects.
As I just hinted, education is going to have a huge role in people being able to make choices that help them sustain their best quality of life as well as make decisions that minimize damage to their surroundings.
Conversations about educational sustainability also need to address educational systems. As someone who has spent many years as an educator in a few different countries, I promise you that the education systems in the United States, Indonesia, and England are extremely unsustainable, and I guarantee that is the case in most countries around the world.
Many aspects of sustainability can’t be addressed without fixing the education system.
Finally, let’s answer the question that I have spent a lot of time agonizing over, and I imagine I can’t be the only one: If I care about sustainability, does that mean I have to give up everything that makes me comfortable or happy if those things aren’t the most sustainable? I’ve come to believe that’s not necessary.
Adopting a more sustainable attitude might mean making tweaks to your lifestyle, but someone’s individuality shouldn’t be compromised by the other aspects of sustainability. For example, art could be seen as wasteful and therefore not environmentally sustainable. Cell phones and other devices contain unethical materials. So maybe we can find ways to enjoy these things more sustainably (upcycled artwork and secondhand technology) as we push to make the system more sustainable in general.
Furthermore, if you care about sustainability and know that you could make choices that are more sustainable but you simply find yourself unable to, individual sustainability is something that justifies that. It acknowledges that we are unique individuals, and what works for one person might not work for another.
While many people may find it feasible to help the environment by giving up all single-use plastic, that may not be completely doable for other people. While many people may prefer to support small businesses, it may not be affordable for everybody.
In my view, individual sustainability means that each of us should do our best to contribute to a sustainable world without having to make undue sacrifices, and the best way to achieve that is to push for a sustainable system that accounts for our individuality.
As I continue my conversations on this platform, this is the foundation that I’m starting from.
This topic isn’t just for treehuggers. It’s for people who want to build a world in which we are all able to act responsibly and ethically. And I think it’s a little scary that there are people who would insist it’s not important to act responsibly and ethically, so I hope you’ll join me in helping build a more sustainable world.
Continuing the Conversation
Is there an aspect of sustainability that most interests you? Is there an action item that you want to start focusing on or one that you’re already working on? Did I miss any issues that you think are really important? Let me know in the comments!