What is sustainability? Here’s the quick science –Life exists within a biosphere. Within the biosphere exists planet and animals. The plants release oxygen and food, which is vital to the life of the animals. In turn, the animals produce fertilizer and carbon dioxide, which is vital to the plant. This is an open system with respect to energy. This means energy from the sun comes into the biosphere and radiation goes out. The biosphere is a closed system in respect to matter. A very important key to sustainability and understanding how every system (and every living thing is related) is the first law of thermodynamics. You remember all those science classes, right? That’s okay, I didn’t either. Basically, this law states that nothing cannot be created or destroyed. Things only transform.
What is Sustainability?
The butterfly did not appear out of thin air; the caterpillar was “transformed” into the butterfly. (The technological term is metamorphosis, but stick with me on the term “transform”.) The butterfly now exists, whereas the caterpillar does not. An apple core does not disappear when it is thrown out. If the apple core is composted, it will be allowed to properly decompose (aka rot). The apple core doesn’t disappear it breaks down into the nutrient-rich soil base. These are small-scale examples, ones that are value added to natural cycles.
What happens to a retired airplane? What do shoes with holes look like after ten years in the landfill? What happens to all the plastic packaging and wrapping paper after birthdays and Christmas? It is also important to note that some of the above mentioned material will eventually begin to breakdown and this is how soil and fresh water sources are further exposed to chemicals, which will eventually make its way back into our daily lives (often in our food sources).
The image I’m trying to create is that just because you throw something “away”, doesn’t mean it disappears. It may no longer be your problem, but it remains an issue to the natural cycles within our biosphere. The matter that existed during the age of dinosaurs still exists today. It has transformed again and again. It will never be a dinosaur again, but that matter has been reorganized from the dinosaurs.
- All matter that was on Earth at creation remains here. There is no “away”.
- Everything has a tendency to disperse and lose its structure over time.
- Natural cycles are well balanced on their own. They are also heavily influenced by human society and our processes.
What is Sustainability?
Sustainability can be a complex concept. It can be applied to all facets of life. It should influence production systems, business practices, construction standards, home life, and, of course, how we interact with the environment. The most widely used definition is from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This concept derives from the understanding that the Earth’s natural resources are finite and conservation practices should be observed. For generations, environmental organizations have highlighted issues concerning ocean pollution, deforestation, and depletion of the ozone layer. As science continues to develop, environmentalists have identified further, more specific, concerns regarding the polar ice caps, farming and fishing practices, nuclear waste, Carbon Dioxide emissions, coral reef bleaching, and others.
Why is it important?
Frankly put, the future of the planet depends on it. Maybe you will not personally see the full effects in your lifetime, but your children and grandchildren and great-grandchild will experience the consequences of an unsustainable world in their lifetimes. Due to population growth, the demand on natural resources continues to grow. Additionally, economic practices influence production standards and consumerism that do not currently support sustainable development.
Appliances, for example, used to be built for long-lasting wear and tear. If the drier stopped working, it was repaired. Parts could easily be replaced. Repair was the more economic solution versus purchasing a new unit. The production quality met the consumer’s expectation for a lifetime guarantee. Certain business practices eventually influenced change within production practices.
For example, businesses found a challenge in maintaining their sales. As their products lasted an extended period of time, the demand for new units lessened over time. Globalization is another impact of modern consumerism. (To be discussed in future articles). Today, products are made with cheaper material and the expectation to last two to three years before being replaced. Technology and culture drive demand, as the public wants the “latest and greatest” versions of products they already own.
What does being sustainable look like?
First, it is important to recognize that root causes of unsustainability are both ecology and social. Humanity physically inhibits nature’s ability to run cycles. Chopping trees at a faster rate than they can grow. Building parking lots limiting the growth of the natural soil. Systematically destroying ecosystems, i.e. coral reefs and rainforests. Creating chemical compounds that cannot be transformed or released back into nature without causing significant harm, i.e. nuclear fusion. Creating barriers to people meeting their basic needs worldwide.
For example, where were your clothes made? Check the label. Chances are high that a piece of your clothing was fabricated in a region of the world with loose work environment policies. This is part of the reason shirts can be sold for five dollars. Items purchased from sweatshops conditions is an unhealthy environment where workers are paid poor wages that inhabit them to meet their basic needs. Consumers indirectly support the working conditions and treatment of the workers with their purchase of the product.
So, what DOES sustainability look like? It looks like the way the world did before civilization changed everything. Okay, maybe that is a little overkill. It is knowing that in the biosphere, everything is related. Therefore, things we buy, the materials that were used, the way it was made, the way we (the consumers) use it, the way the item is disposed – the full cycle matters.
Sustainability is protecting the natural systems of this planet. Enabling those systems to flourish. Being mindful of our consumption and how it may impede natural growth of those resources. Plant more trees than are cut down. Support businesses that provide their employees the ability to meet their basic needs. Keep corporations responsible for environment pollution caused by their practices. Support local businesses to minimize your ecological footprint. Vote for politicians and propositions that support environmental wellness.
Bottom-line, sustainability is the capacity of our human society to continue indefinitely within its natural cycles.