What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is our future. When we define this term, which was ultimately coined by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem at the United Nations Brundtland Commission in 1983, we are talking about a unification of all sectors in an effort to take care of the planet.

Specifically, sustainability requires the cooperation of environmental, social, and economic sectors, often referred to as the three spheres. Sustainable practices do not just refer to energy and climate change, they encompass all facets of the environment and require us to understand how these facets are interconnected.

plant_in_soil.jpgThink about an apple. Where did it come from? Where was it grown, who raised it as a crop, and what agricultural policies were in place? How far did it travel to reach the supermarket where you bought it from? How did you travel to that supermarket? How much carbon dioxide was used? How did you dispose of the apple, and will it be composted, burned, or dumped? These kinds of questions demonstrate that nearly any product, and any action we take, has a lifecycle that is highly complex.

This is not say that sustainability means walking on eggshells and monitoring every small choice a person makes. Rather, sustainability requires that people develop a new awareness of how some of their choices may affect the planet. That means an awareness of the choices we make as individuals, and the choices we make as groups.

Our planet is comprised of a comprehensive network of living and non-living systems. Currently, our global population is nearing 7 billion people and is expected to grow past 9 billion people by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base. The reality is that everything is interconnected, and the more we can do to understand the actual connections among environmental, social, and economic sectors, the better we can do in making healthy and positive choices that serve the best interest of humankind and the preservation of the planet.

Thus, sustainability is about creating human systems that run for a long time on practice and behavior that has minimal impact on the natural environment, allowing for the preservation of our planet, while meeting our current societal needs with the highest quality of life standards possible. As was described by the Great Law of the Iroquois, “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

ducks.pngUnderstanding this reality serves as the basis for understanding the importance of sustainability.

The success of our future is embedded in our ability to recognize our interconnectedness as a global community. We are no longer separate floating entities. We are all responsible to each other, and our success in sustaining the earth will require sustainability initiatives at every level—domestic, town, state, federal, and global.

There is vast potential for sustainability initiatives to continue to grow and sustain the earth in positive ways, and the measure of that success is determined by the choices people make every day and the ways in which we work together as human beings to achieve that change.

Read about the role of sustainability in education >>