Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The meaning(s) of sustainability

As with all terms the term sustainability is a multi-meaning word.

Some people see sustainability as 'sustainable development' or the idea of maintaining the current usage of resources, but using renewable resources instead.  That is the idea that we can continue to live, produce, expand and 'progress' in the same manner we have been.  This is a purely economic engineering idea that progress = expanding/developing, combined with the fact we need to save our resource pool so it doesn't dry up.  This mentality is not about saving natural habitat, biodiversity, or the environment in its undisturbed state.  The article, "Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist" criticizes this definition of sustainability and I have to agree with the criticism. 

Another definition of sustainability is the concept that we need to live with the earth/nature/environment and not against or separate from it.  To live in collaboration with the environment were our waste, impact and consumption are balanced by the enhancement, enrichment and addition we supply.  The example that comes to mind is a bird nest.  Birds use the resources (sticks, grass, branches) to construct their nests and once they are done, the nest is reabsorbed back into the resource pool for another creature to use.  I do not think the destruction of natural habitats for renewable energy sources is sustainable.  Afterall, one of the pillars of sustainability defined by the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 is Ecology (environment).  This view of sustainability promotes changing one's behavior to live more frugally, reuse resources, and finally, create the least amount of waste by converting used resources into other forms of resources (eg. coffee grinds into fertilizer by composting). 

The latter definition is a modernization of the older environmental movement and green bandwagon.  However, I believe it bridges the gap between human 'civilization' and the 'natural' environment to bring humans back into the cycle of the earth.  We need to limit our urban expansion by protecting the unaltered habitat, but we need to reconnect with and manage (not control) the land as well.  By reconnecting to the land we will strengthen our respect for it, and therefore, increase our desire to protect it in the long run.

But what about these renewable energy sources?  Where are they suppose to go if not on the natural land?  How about on structures we already have?  What about reusing land we already have developed but don't use or are trying to replace with these forms of energy generators?  Solar farms on building roofs instead of in the desert.  The main idea here is to use what we already have!  This reduces the new resources needed, reuses old resources preventing new wast,e and still provides the energy (albeit probably less) that we use.  Being greedy has never been so dirty.


  1. I read that article on Orion with great interest as well and agree that 'business as usual' with greener substitutions isn't going to get us too far. With consumption and population on the rise, switching to greener energy is a bandaid to a much, much bigger problem.

    I'm hopeful that we can still learn to have a more respectful and conscious relationship with the planet we inhabit, but I doubt it will be easy -- our whole growth-based economy will need to undergo major changes, and individual citizens will have to start making more responsible decisions. The question is: will we be able to make these changes in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, or will we be forced to only when we have no other choice?

  2. You ask a very important question about timing! Realistically, I'm afraid it might have to forced upon the majority of people through government and economics means. However, for all of the people who have already taken steps towards living in a non-consumerism mentality the mass changes will have very little effect on their lives! It will be smoother sailing for our simple lifers and Eco-conscious friends!

    Thanks for reading and sharing your great thoughts!