“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? 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?
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
- 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.
- Take responsibility, in your life and your community.
- Plant a garden or a tree.
- Switch to edible landscaping
- Protect bees. We can make many small changes that protect Honeybees, Bumblebees and Mason Bees.
- Compost to reuse your organic matter and keep it out of landfills
- Switch to non-toxic cleaners
- Buy local when you can. Patronize farmers markets, local “pick your own” places and Community Supported Agriculture projects.
- Cook at home, read labels and avoid processed food.
- Consume smartly. Base purchases on lifetime cost of object. Look for less packaging.
- Exercise. Take a walk, work in the garden, ride your bike.
- Reduce time on the road, use public transport, maintain your vehicle for best fuel efficiency.
- Participate in local politics. Help determine policies and long range goals for your community.
- 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.
- Improve everyone’s quality of life. As the old adage goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
- Increase energy availability. Energy is a tool. Used wisely, it dramatically increases quality of life.
- Reduce clearly measurable pollution: plastics, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals.
- Protect and clean our water supplies.
- 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“.
- Accept we are all different. Equality at all costs is the destruction of freedom and liberty.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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Originally posted in 2011, updated in 2018.