What Exactly is Sustainability?

Here/s a good definition: Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social—also known informally as profits, planet, and people.
Profits: Sustainability focuses on equal economic growth that generates wealth for all without harming the environment.
Planet: Sustainability is concerned with assuming that nature and the environment are not an inexhaustible resource and so, it is necessary to protect them and use them rationally.
People: Sustainability promotes social development, seeking cohesion between communities and cultures to achieve satisfactory levels in quality of life, health and education.
Nowadays, many of the challenges that humans face such as climate change or water scarcity can only be tackled from a global perspective and by promoting sustainable development.
People who act sustainably act in the present thinking about the future.
Now, what are some common myths about sustainability.
Myth 1: Nobody knows what sustainability really means.
That’s not even close to being true. By all accounts, the modern sense of the word entered the lexicon in 1987 with the publication of Our Common Future, by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. That report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Myth 2: Sustainability is all about the environment.
If too many of us use resources inefficiently or generate waste too quickly for the environment to absorb and process, future generations obviously won’t be able to meet their needs. But it’s also about the economy. We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP [gross domestic product].”
In modern terms, because humans evolved in a nontechnological world, we seem to need some connection to nature to be content. That concept is tough to prove scientifically. Nevertheless, says Nancy Gabriel, program director at the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vt., “If you look at Western society, you have huge rates of depression, isolation, [and] people who are disenfranchised. I think that reconnecting to the land is an important way of reestablishing a basic level of happiness.” That kind of intangible connection has led towns, cities and states all over the U.S., but especially in built-up areas, to preserve land for open space.
Myth 3: “Sustainable” is a synonym for “green.”
Although there’s a fair amount of overlap between the terms, “green” usually suggests a preference for the natural over the artificial. With some six billion people on the planet today, and another three billion expected by the middle of the century, society cannot hope to give them a comfortable standard of living without a heavy dependence on technology. Electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells are the antithesis of natural—but they allow people to get around, warm their houses and cook their food with renewable resources (or at least, a much smaller input of nonrenewables) while emitting fewer noxious chemicals.
It’s probably more difficult to see nuclear power as sustainable. Unlike the other alternative energy sources, it has long been anathema to environmentalists, largely because of the problem of storing radioactive waste. But nuclear reactors are also a highly efficient source of power, emit no pollutant gases and—with some types, anyway—can be designed to generate minimal waste and to be essentially meltdown-proof. That’s why Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, has become a nuclear booster and why many other environmentalists are beginning—sometimes grudgingly—to entertain the idea of embracing nuclear. Calling it green would be a stretch. Calling it sustainable is much less of one.
Myth 4: It’s all about recycling.
“I get that a lot,” says Shana Weber, the manager of sustainability at Princeton University. “For some reason, recycling was the enduring message that came out of the environmental movement in the early 1970s.” And of course, recycling is important: reusing metals, paper, wood and plastics rather than tossing them reduces the need to extract raw materials from the ground, forests and fossil-fuel deposits. More efficient use of pretty much anything is a step in the direction of sustainability. But it is just a piece of the puzzle. “I deal with the people who run the recycling program here,” Weber notes, “but also with purchasing, dining services, the people who clean the buildings. The most important areas by far in terms of sustainability are energy and transportation.” If you think you are living sustainably because you recycle, she says, you need to think again.
Myth 5: Sustainability is too expensive.
If there is an 800-pound gorilla in the room of sustainability, this myth is it. That’s because, as Gabriel observes, “there’s a grain of truth to it.” But only a grain. “It’s only true in the short term in certain circumstances,” Cortese says, “but certainly not in the long term.” The truth lies in the fact that if you already have an unsustainable system in place—a factory or a transportation system, for example, or a furnace in your house, an incandescent lightbulb in your lamp or a Hummer in your driveway—you have to spend some money up front to switch to a more sustainable technology.
In general, governments and companies can take that step more easily than individuals can. “Over the past seven years,” Cortese explains, “DuPont has made investments that have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 72 percent over 1990 levels. They’ve saved $2 billion.” The Pentagon is determined to cut its energy use by a third, both to save money and to reduce its dependence on risky foreign oil supplies.
Myth 6: Sustainability means lowering our standard of living.
Not at all true. It does mean that we have to do more with less, but as Hawken argues, “Once we start to organize ourselves and innovate within that mind-set, the breakthroughs are extraordinary. They will allow us to achieve greatly superior rates of resource productivity, which in turn allow us to be prosperous, fed, clad, secure.” Moreover, he and others maintain that the innovation at the heart of sustainable living will be a powerful economic engine. “Addressing climate change,” he says, “is the biggest job creation program there is.”
Myth 7: Consumer choices and grassroots activism, not government intervention, offer the fastest, most efficient routes to sustainability.
Popular grassroots actions are helpful and ultimately necessary. But progress on some reforms, such as curbing CO2 emissions, can only happen quickly if central authorities commit to making it happen. That is why tax credits, mandatory fuel-efficiency standards and the like are pretty much inevitable. That conclusion drives free-market evangelists crazy, but they operate on the assumption that wasteful use of resources and the destruction of the environment is without cost, which is demonstrably untrue.

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