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Sustainability Doesn’t Mean What You Might Think it Means

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“Sustainability” is a popular buzzword in many circles – sustainable communities, sustainable development, sustainable agriculture, sustainable building, sustainable growth – heck, even sustainable fashion. But what does “sustainable” really mean, and how do we apply it in our daily lives – or is sustainability what we really want?

wiper blade clearing window with sun shining through rain, "Sustainability" text

I'd suggest that we strive for something more. Sustainability and self-reliance talk often go hand in hand, so August and I decided to share some of our thoughts on the subject.

What is Sustainability?

The definition of sustainability from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:

1. Capable of being sustained

2. a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged, eg. sustainable techniques, sustainable agriculture b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods, eg. sustainable society

The Long Term Reality of Sustainability

This sounds like a great thing to strive for – except that in reality, it doesn't work. True sustainability is not possible.

Have you ever heard of entropy? For this discussion, the most applicable definition is: “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity”.

All systems break down. Resources are depleted over time. The sun eventually stops putting out energy, geological change occurs whether we want it or not. Things change, and we need to adapt.

If your only goal is to keep things as they are (sustained), then you're fighting a losing battle. 

Instead, we need to become creators and innovators.

We need to move beyond conservation (a great first step) to create systems that are growing and producing new resources.

Sustainability Doesn’t Mean Stagnation!

At least, sustainability shouldn't mean stagnation. Far too often, sustainability has taken on a sort of Luddite or anti-progress mentality – a negative, shrinking, doomsday perspective.

“There are too many people!”

“We can't grow enough food!”

“Not everyone can live at the same level of prosperity as developed counties, so we should all give up our standard of living.”

Pardon my language, but screw that. It saddens and frustrates me that generations of schoolchildren now view themselves as an excessive carbon footprint rather than the greatest hope for positive change on the planet.

The earth is perfectly capable of supporting a lot more people – provided those people learn to become stewards instead of users and abusers. I'd rather lift everyone up than beat everyone down. It's not that there aren't enough resources, it's that they're not being utilized as they should be.

Tons of food goes to waste every single day. We mow and maintain over 40 million acres of land is “lawn” and at least 1/2 of that could be producing food. People buy disposable crap they don't need, or try to spend their way to happiness.

I know this may be a pipe dream, because there are an awful lot of people out there who are a) struggling just to get by or b) couldn't give a rat's patootie about making this world a better place. That said, if I don't put ideas out there and try to shake up the status quo, how can we improve things?

bird nest with sustainability text

Our Sustainability Goals

As my mom used to say, “You don't sh&t in your own nest”. We start with the “low hanging fruit”of eliminating or reducing activities that trash our health and our environment. I can't change the world, but I can change me. Each of us can work to improve our local conditions and support things that improve or maintain the standard of living for all.

14 Things You Can Do To Create Positive Change

  1. Educate yourself. Read and learn. Find what fits for you and your lifestyle. You don't need to do everything, but everyone can do something.
  2. Take responsibility, in your life and your community.
  3. Plant a garden or a tree.
  4. Switch to edible landscaping
  5. Protect bees. We can make many small changes that protect Honeybees, Bumblebees and Mason Bees.
  6. Compost to reuse your organic matter and keep it out of landfills
  7. Switch to non-toxic cleaners
  8. Buy local when you can. Patronize farmers markets, local “pick your own” places and Community Supported Agriculture projects.
  9. Cook at home, read labels and avoid processed food.
  10. Consume smartly. Base purchases on lifetime cost of object. Look for less packaging.
  11. Exercise. Take a walk, work in the garden, ride your bike.
  12. Reduce time on the road, use public transport, maintain your vehicle for best fuel efficiency.
  13. Participate in local politics. Help determine policies and long range goals for your community.
  14. Share the message of positive change! Give the world an alternative to gloom and doom. The internet can be an amazing tool to connect with like-minded people and share your goals and successes. Heck, you might even decide to create a website. 😉

Wider Sustainability Goals

Don't just sustain – grow and improve.

  1. Improve everyone’s quality of life. As the old adage goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
  2. Increase energy availability. Energy is a tool. Used wisely, it dramatically increases quality of life.
  3. Reduce clearly measurable pollution: plastics, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals.
  4. Protect and clean our water supplies.
  5. Create bio-diversity, rather than trying to force naturally changing systems to be immutable (which in the long term is impossible). Think “native to the planet earth“.
  6. Accept we are all different. Equality at all costs is the destruction of freedom and liberty.
  7. Celebrate research and scientific advancement, and balance research with common sense. Just because you can do something, doesn't always mean you should do something. (See #8.)
  8. Measure. Recognize that new ideas must be measured against time tested solutions. The old way isn’t always bad but it also isn’t automatically the best. Avoid unmeasured change.
  9. Accept that there is no reward without risk. In the past decade, risk has become evil. With no risk, comes no new solutions, no new ideas, we need to accept risk.
  10. Share successes AND failures, so we can learn and grow. Too often online life and media is filtered, giving a skewed perspective of reality.

Specific Application – Sustainable Development

How do we apply these goals in our communities? We want to build communities to be resilient to problems. If you know an area is prone to natural disasters, put up building that can survive a hurricane, tornado or earthquake.

We need to shift our views of how communities should function, tying together aging in place, education and community building into new models. Stop isolating people by age. As we try these developments, we measure success and communicate failures, improving as we learn. Sometimes counter-intuitive solutions are the fix, and we need to be open to that.

We can apply proven techniques such as Six Sigma, LEAN and 6S to business and personal activity, generating improvement by measuring.

Specific Application – Sustainable Agriculture

If we stick exclusively with mono-cropping, we will eventually see widespread crop failure due to disease, infestation or climate incompatibility. The future of food is diversity. Heritage crops that thrive with minimal inputs, in a variety of weather conditions, need to be revived. We must intentionally expand biodiversity. Abundant life on our farms, from healthy soil to harvest, yields healthy, nourishing food.

Permaculture, which produces multiple functions from the same land, and establishes production methods that generate an excess, is key to sustainable agriculture. We have the ability to green the dessert with simple tree planting and earth moving. Windbreaks, cover crops and hedgerows provide habitat and restore topsoil.

Don't Just Sustain, Grow!

Growth in and of itself is not bad or evil. If we are careful stewards, we can work with nature to produce a greater abundance for humanity as well as all the amazing lifeforms with whom we share this planet. Challenge yourself to improve your corner of the planet. If we all do a little, we can do a lot.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

wiper clearing rain off of window with sun shining through. Text "Sustainability - what is it, and why we strive for something more, and you should, too"

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Originally posted in 2011, updated in 2018.

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  1. Let’s say that everyone who has a house and a yard plants a garden. Is it better for a bunch of inefficient Americans to try their hand at food production or better to acquire food from markets produced, transported, packaged and sold by experts?

    What is the true “environmental cost” of the inefficient versus the efficient experts?

    1. Given that smallholder farmers produce more than half of the world’s food from less than a quarter of all farmlands, I’d say that there’s a fair chance that food production need not be left to the “experts” to be efficient. If people start growing, and learn how to do so well, they greatly reduce the environmental cost of their food.

      See “Is it true that Smallholder farmers are more productive than large small farms/farmers?” for more information.

  2. This is how it strats first we raise awareness,then teach self-control,then we fail at controlling self,than we try to control everyone else,than comes the wars(We Are Right),than the ruins,than after all of this pain to us and the world we all work together to rebuild and than,we start the whole thing over learning to lie and cheet a little better than last time. So how do we separate control from ambition,gread from growth,power from leadership,pride from performance,and laziness from effort.
    We are all different and that solves and creates all of are problems. We can come together in times of trouble and that gives us greatness untill someone wants it(the greatness and power) for themselves. I used to think that humans needed to control are passion’s but I think it has leadto being selfish,self centered and self opsorbed. I need to think it though and then try again for a balanced answer.

    1. In some cases, religion offers a functional framework (do unto others, etc). In other cases, it’s been used to justify horrendous things.

      There is no simple answer, but I think we need to start asking the questions, or there never will be any answer.

      One thing I didn’t mention in the article that has been a driving force in my mind for many years is the concept that there is no “away”. Humanity has long held the concept that the solution to pollution is dilution. We built our smokestacks taller to spread out the smoke. We mix our waste water with clean water until the contamination levels are “low enough”. Now, we’re finding that all those years of trying to send things “away” has spread filth to every corner of the globe. There is no away. We need to find better ways of doing what needs to be done (and eliminating what doesn’t need to be done) to stop spewing so much crap.

      We also need a revival of servant leadership:

      A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

      1. We have not moved past what the problem is some blame consumerism,greed, laziness, wastefulness but what is the real problem? Changing the way we all live and our consumption is the goal but what is it we are changing from Ang to what. You and others and me all have a different view of the end goal we are looking at the same goal just from one or two degrees difference.
        I will take a shot at the commen ground and say that it includes self-control and respect for others or don’t hurt others or take there stuff. This is close to becoming a respect mother nature but I will not go there because that is leading with all heart and no logic. Self interests must be wieghed so that we don’t become blind drones in the hive. Self control is working when you need to not when you want to building stuff from virgin matter is just as important as useing recycled matter and then being able to trade or sell the extra is how we brake up the global economy with the local economy.
        The local economy is allways better at handling the ups and downs. It is also the best way to help others work towards there best and most efficient lives without bullying. Then groups can form a fund shared core values and the good and sain will thive and the bad and wastefulness will cause others to fail.
        Waste cleanup is the wave of the future I!ean true cleanup not move it away from me.and that’s were I will be starting my next stage of life don’t know what or where but I will start looking into it.

  3. Seems like it boils down to a question of whether you’re a net plus to the system or a net drain. If you consume more than you produce, you’re a drain and thereby not sustainable.

    As you said, someone can help even out their sustainability-deficit by consuming less. “Producing” gets complicated when you introduce specialization, but it can still be figured.

    Per your “growth” comment, someone should be producing MORE than they consume. The young and strong need to produce more than they consume in order to compensate for people who cannot produce as much (children, grandparents).

    Sustainability is bigger than just the individual

  4. This is very good! The hard part for me: we are selling and moving (hopefully) from a few acres in the rural area to a city. Hopefully the city life will be temporary — about 2 years. I guess I will learn about true sustainability; if I can live a more sustainable life in the city, then moving back to a more rural area should make sustainability even easier.

  5. Hi Laurie,
    Today is Earth Day and this article was very appropriate to the occasion. I was there in 1970 when they proclaimed Earth Day and the first go round of “reduce,reuse,recycle”. And since then has gone to pooh. The almost trivial articles now about things to do for Earth Day and sustainability makes you wonder. “Bike to work one day a week”–but staunch NASCAR fans ignore the vast amount of gas and petroleum products that sport uses. “Turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth”—then go drink almond milk that uses massive amounts of water irrigation for the almond groves. “Don’t use plastic water bottles”–but shop for all your individual servings of yogurt,peanut butter, jello, pudding, etc-in plastic. “Sign up for ebilling to prevent waste”—but then use tons of disposable diapers and baby wipes that clog sewers and fill landfills. “Plant a tree in your yard”–then across town they cut and grind up acres of trees for another mall, restaurant, subdivision. Let’s talk real talk about resources and sustainability instead of politically correct talk. Changing out your light bulbs does not equal out the vast amount of stores and restaurants open all night, using resources, for our shopping pleasure. We gotta drill down to what will make the bigger changes and have the courage to do it.

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