Defining Sustainability

24 Feb

Over the past few decades, the understanding that an intricate, interdependent and global relationship exists among environmental protection, economic growth and social equity has become increasingly prevalent. Today, the concept of sustainability is found everywhere from corporate mission statements to job descriptions to university course names. But, has the concept become so vague and ubiquitous that it has lost all useful meaning? Will we know sustainability when we see it?

Sustainability is not just a box to tick or an award to collect. It’s not an end-goal, but rather an ongoing process that involves constant and balanced attention. And, it’s not a simple task. For example, a research conduct by M. Whitten examines how local authorities make decisions about urban green space, particularly within the constraint of their need to provide additional housing built in a dense, compact way. While both urban green space and compact development contribute to urban sustainability, the two concepts have inherent tensions. This demonstrates that making decisions about sustainability can be complex – the choices aren’t always black and white.

As we try to understand the causes of things in order to understand how our futures can be better, or more sustainable, we must also understand that the causes of things cause changes in things, constantly in a dynamic world. The simplicity of the concept is its direct association with making the world a better place to live. That’s quite difficult to accomplish collectively though.

I think an issue with the concept is that too many entities exploiting the word see it as black and white and not a type of mental awareness to all activities. For example, a firm incorporates a recycling program, uses efficient lighting technology, replaces its windows and perhaps incorporates combined heat and power and walla, we’re now LEED recognized, we can now label ourselves as sustainable, let the trendiness of it improve profits and marketability, and relax with our everyday consumer behavior behind closed doors.

Sustainability is, in my view, a very simple concept applied to such a broad range of activities that it applies to virtually everything which causes complexity because there is no blueprint or single solution. This causes the concept to perhaps infringe on certain personal lifestyles. Psychologically, people are generally against change when it means they need to change the way they live, certainly when it means giving up something they enjoy doing or breaking habits in the name of sustainability when an individual action is perceived as so meaningless in the overall picture.

An analogy is voting. Many people don’t vote because they think their individual vote is so meaningless that the outcome will be the same whether they vote or not. So the sustainability concept is compatible with global dynamism but not necessarily with any single static “solution.” Therefore, all this debate about what sustainability means is actually, in my opinion, quite clear. Implementing collective, constant multitudes of contributions in such a complex world of conflicting activities is perhaps a far more important focus for debates because of its complexity of all actions and willingness required to produce meaningful results. The word itself is simple to understand. How to align its concept with constant commitment towards a true balance between its three corners is the challenge in an ever-increasing world population full of differing social, financial, political, and cultural priorities. Sustainability is a global process in which eventual successes begin with individual commitment.

So, the next time you read about sustainability or you are involved in a debate or discussion about the topic, don’t just nod robotically in support. Join the conversation. Engage others. Think about what sustainability means to you.



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