I find myself instantly skeptical when I hear the term sustainable.
If something is truly environmentally sustainable, it can be continued (or sustained) forever. We all need to be clear about this.
Sustainable is not a small action that proves to be a little better for the environment. It is not something that uses sustainably sourced materials, while simultaneously creating unusable waste. It is not solar panels and wind turbines made from non-recyclable materials and that have wasteful manufacturing processes. These things may be a step in the right direction, but they fall short of the ultimate end goal.
To fully understand the concept of environmental sustainability, it helps to see the world as an essentially closed and interconnected Earth System. It is essentially closed because apart from an injection of energy from the sun and the very little matter that enters or leaves, it is an isolated unit in space. It is interconnected in that the happenings of one place affect another place and actions in one time affect a later time.
Sustainable behaviour must not cause a loss of resources or contamination of the system in any place or time. If we release synthetic compounds and unnatural materials that fail to biodegrade at a rate that can easily be accommodated by the natural processes already in place, we risk damaging the whole system. As our human system is a subsystem of the biosphere we have no choice but to live within its means. We cannot overburden or devastate it without risking our own well being.
True sustainable practice works in perfect balance with the natural systems of the earth. It uses recycling, regenerating, and balancing to align with the logic of life itself.
Presently, few things in our modern world meet this criteria.
How Green is Green?
Many of us are stuck in an endless race, anxiously trying to keep up with our peers, neighbours, or coworkers. We are also forever enamoured with the idea of a ‘deal’. Ultimately what we think we want are as many low cost, high quality, fun or fancy things as possible. Even more appealing is if they are easy to find and always available. In the back of our minds we are aware that we should not be encouraging the destruction of the natural world to have these things. Consequently we are looking for relief from our guilty over-consuming conscience. Quite the conundrum. How can we have it all without destroying it all?
A savvy businessperson recognizes an opportunity to step in and clear this up for us. By tacking on greenwashing statements like: “Now with more natural ingredients” “new green formula” and “environmentally friendly” they hope to ease our mind.
In theory these are good ideas. Environmentally friendly certainly seems better than environmentally unfriendly. Unfortunately there is no easy way to be sure how much damage a product or service is inflicting with such vague terminology.
Most of the time the fundamental reason that a business exists is to create profit and sustainable initiatives will rarely be written into business plans unless they will increase profit. In many cases more money, time, and effort have been spent on flashy PR campaigns trying to make businesses appear green than have ever been spent on upgrading product, policy, and practice.
If we want to be a sustainable society, the standards to which we hope to hold ourselves must also be demanded of the businesses that serve us. The kind of company that we welcome into our society should never insist on trying to sell us something at the expense of a healthy environment. Once they have agreed to this fundamental understanding, they need to have included in their design a good way of researching and measuring their business practices to make sure they are functioning at an environmentally sustainable level. Also recommended are unbiased third party organizations assigned to assuring compliance.
Ultimately what is required is an overall change of culture from one of unbalanced consumption and growth to one of balance. We can do this by collectively understanding what true sustainability looks like and cooperating to bring these ideals to the very front and centre of our societal thinking.