Defining Sustainability

We have to learn to live sustainably; how many times have you heard that? Everyone appears to agree on this fact, yet few people really understand what this entails. Ask ten different people what sustainability is and you will likely get ten different answers. It has become the latest buzzword, used by everyone from real estate developers to oil company executives. A quick search of the internet will throw up a bewildering number of different uses of this term, most of which are intended to cast an organisation or company in a favourable light.

One possible definition of sustainability is provided by, which defines sustainable as ‘capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment’. While this definition is reasonable, I would challenge the use of the word minimal. My own definition is narrower and leaves less room for misinterpretation; sustainability means living in a manner that has no long term effects on our environment whatsoever. I suspect if this definition were universally adopted we would see far less abuse of the word, as it leaves little scope for green-washing by governments and corporations.

The society in which we currently live is clearly not sustainable by any definition of the word. Since the dawn of the industrial age we have been pumping considerable amounts of pollution into the atmosphere, our population has increased many times over, and our impact on the Earth becomes greater with each passing year. We are now starting to see the breakdown of many of the Earth’s ecosystems, and the next few decades will be critical to our survival as a species. Just one environmental issue, climate change, has the potential to turn our familiar world into a hostile environment, capable of supporting only a fraction of our current population.

To turn things around will not be easy. We need to drastically cut our emissions over the next few years; not by the ten or twenty percent talked about by world leaders, but by eighty or ninety percent. Even that may not be enough to bring things back into balance. Scientists have found that as carbon dioxide levels increase in the atmosphere many carbon sinks, such as the oceans, loose their effectiveness. Thus we are increasing our emissions just when the Earth is least able to cope with them. To make matters worse, climate change is only one of a whole range of symptoms of environmental breakdown. Add in deforestation, massive erosion of topsoil, pollution of lakes and rivers, over fishing, and desertification to the mix and the problems facing us may appear truly overwhelming.

Why should we care about living sustainably? To put it quite bluntly, if we carry on as we are doing at present there will be little left for our children, and nothing at all for our grandchildren. Unless we can learn to live sustainably we might as well just give up and accept that the human race is destined to become just another entry in the fossil record. The point is that sustainability is not a luxury. It is the only way that we can continue to live long term on our planet. We have to realise that as humans we are only a part of a much greater Earth.

With timely action we can turn things around. However we need to start right away. First and most urgent is the need to move away from fossil fuels. We need a concerted effort to develop alternative forms of energy. Many environmentalists, including former vice president Al Gore, seem to be obsessed with how we are going to power our vehicles in the future. I believe in a sustainable future we will have to learn to live without as many vehicles and to rely much more on walking and on public transportation. We simply can’t afford the luxury of wasting most of our energy on a fleet of small private vehicles, which are used to transport individuals over short distances. This means that we will have to live and interact within a much smaller area, which will mean a return to smaller, more compact communities.

We will also have to find ways to encourage smaller families. Demographers predict that the human population will level off at between nine and ten billion by the middle of this century. However this number of people occupying a planet whose carrying capacity has been greatly reduced by climate change is a recipe for mass starvation. The effects will hit hardest in the third world, where population growth is currently highest. These areas are also most likely to be worst affected by climate change.

There will be many other challenges on the way to a sustainable future. Probably the greatest is changing people’s attitudes. People do not like to face up to unpleasant facts. Yet in order to move forward it is necessary to appreciate the problems facing us. We have to stop seeing the world as our private resource and realise that we are totally dependent on it. If we damage it then ultimately it is us who will pay the consequences.

What would the sustainable world of the future look like? We are currently so far away from this that I can only hazard a few guesses. It would be a world in which people live in balance with nature. Over time an optimal human population would be established through a natural balancing of birth and death rates. Much of the land we have currently taken for agriculture would be returned to nature. Communities would be more self-sufficient, with most of the resources they required being sourced locally. Standards of living would generally be good, especially if viable forms of alternative energy are available. Above all, the inhabitants of this future world would share something we have largely lost in this current day and age; the sense of being an integral part of a caring and vibrant community. This to me is the true meaning of sustainability.