What does “sustainable” really mean?

I’ve been writing about sustainable development as part of an Environmental Management course (get me!) and have therefore been reading lots of theory about what “sustainable” means, which inspired this post. 

Written By Zero Waste Scotland  |  22 Jan 10

 I know from my work with Waste Aware Scotland that “sustainable” is often bandied around during discussions about the environment or the economy. We hear it so often it has almost become meaningless, a bit like “web 2.0″. But what does “sustainable” mean in an environmental context and why should any of us care?

On a superficial level “sustainable” means “something that can be maintained indefinitely” which is a sadly mechanical way of describing human activity. It misses the deeper significance of our society, in which we try and improve our lives and those of others. This is why “sustainable development” is such an important term; it recognises the limits of our environment yet acknowledges our desire for improvement. Yet it may also be a paradox: how do you always progress within a finite world?

Sustainable development as we understand it today was defined first by the Bruntland Commission in their 1987 “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.” This report suggested that sustainable development is development (generally understood to mean “improvement in quality of life”) which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It’s a useful definition as it shows that sustainability is about the long term (which of course it has to be) but it does beg the question of what are the “needs” of our present generation? Furthermore can you consider everyone in the world as one generation with the same needs? Clearly not. The Bruntland Commision’s definition cannot be (and perhaps was not meant to be) applied globally as the “needs of the present” differs greatly depending on who you are. My needs may be very different from Roman Abramovich’s needs or, indeed a Kalahari bushman’s needs. Who decides what our needs are anyway? Do they change as we develop? If you could strip away everything then all we theoretically need is a regular supply of porridge, the odd orange, clean water and a tent. But I suspect most of us wouldn’t consider it “development” if the UK government said “your needs are met”, plonked us in a big field full of teepees and asked us to peel oranges.

Do we need a global definition of sustainability or is it feasible to focus on a local level and simply say “what I do mustn’t impact on my children’s ability to do the same”? The problem with the latter is that we end up ignoring the impact of our activities on the wider environment. We run the risk of isolating ourselves and assuming that, because our well hasn’t run dry, it never will, so long as we only take from it what we need to survive. We forget that the well has a source, and the source might be a groundwater, and the level of the groundwater might be just about to fall dramatically as it gets drained by a local farming co-operative to irrigate their crops. For our activities to become truly sustainable we have to look outside our borders and consider the activities of everyone in the world. But how can we possibly define sustainability so broadly as to encompass everyone? How can we know what our impact is on a global basis? How can we be sure that everyone complies?

During my gap year in 1997 I lived in rural Kenya for four months, getting water from a well and putting my rubbish in a nearby hole in the ground. Incidentally our toilet was also a big hole in the ground. Was my life there truly sustainable? Not really: the hole in the ground (for the rubbish) was filling up and eventually we would have had to dig another one but with limited space we would have eventually run out of room. In one sense it was a sustainable lifestyle: having to physically drag water up from a well using a pulley meant that we recognised it as a scarce resource and used it sparingly. In another sense it was far from sustainable: no one can say that putting all your rubbish in a hole in your garden is a long term waste strategy. But if even the people of rural Africa are not living sustainably can there even be such a thing as a sustainable lifestyle? Could it be a pipe-dream? Certainly in the UK we are a long (loooong) way from achieving it.

Most of us recognise the absence of sustainability more readily than its presence, which might be because it is so hard to know when we have found it (or because it doesn’t exist). For example we know instinctively when we see (or do) something which could not be continued indefinitely (or done by everyone on the planet). Take driving. We know that oil will run out, that driving pollutes and we can be fairly certain that it contributes to a warming planet. Yet we, as a society, continue to support road use. And well we might. We wouldn’t get anywhere (literally) if roads were suddenly replaced with orchards. Although we might make some very nice cider. So we have a conundrum. Our needs will not be met if we stop driving, yet we cannot meet the needs of future generations if we carry on.

We see similar contradictions across many aspects of modern living, from shopping for luxuries to cooking more food than we can eat. We all know in our hearts that we are extremely lucky to be able to do these things (on top of being extremely lucky to have been born onto a planet which sustains life). We know that if every country on Earth lived as we did there wouldn’t be enough raw materials to make the luxuries or enough food to eat. Equally we know that future generations won’t be so lucky as luxuries don’t last forever and population growth in the world will reduce the amount of food available. Yet we don’t stop buying. We continue to waste food. We don’t recycle everything.

It looks bleak but there is a small bright spot on the horizon (or is it a smudge on the lens?): we are improving. Slowly but surely we are recycling more, using less energy and on a strategic level our Government is looking for ways to improve the infrastructure to allow for more renewable energy and to process more types of waste locally for recycling.

There might well be a way of meeting our needs (improving our quality of life) without unduly affecting the ability of others to do the same both around the world and in the future. There might be a template of a sustainable life which we can map onto our society. The funny thing is, we have no choice. We have to find a way of making this happen. Sustainability requires us to consider the long term impact of our actions because failure to do this will mean that our life will disappear. That doesn’t mean humans will die out, which would take some kind of apocalypse. What it means is that the marginal areas of the world will become inhabitable. Oil will no longer be available. Alternative forms of energy may not provide the amount of energy required to sustain such a large number of people on the planet. So the population will shrink. As it does so the strain on resource will also shrink. Eventually we will reach an equilibrium.

So sustainability is coming whether we like it or not. But does that mean we should do nothing and wait for change to be forced upon us? Of course not! There are many things we can do to manage that change and ensure a soft, rather than crash, landing. Whilst there are many things we cannot affect (which can be frustrating) there are also lots of things we can. Most of those involve our own actions and behaviour because, as individuals, we have the right to decide whether to seize the opportunities available to us. You can get involved at a local level by doing the basics: reduce, reuse, recycle. All you can really do is manage your own household and business waste sustainably and trust that others are doing the same. If you find it difficult to have trust then please remember: we see the stats every month and people and businesses are recycling more in Scotland every single day. Fact.

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