Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Is Sustainability?

There’s been a lot of talk about sustainability lately – but what exactly is it? The word has become part of the lexicon, but I know I’m not the only one scratching my head wondering what it means.

Sustainability is a concept that addresses the overall well-being of the planet and the creatures that inhabit it. It’s about adopting or maintaining ways of life that lead to long-term benefit – for everyone, and everything. Basically it comes down to this: How do we make people happy and comfortable without destroying the planet?

The solution is multifaceted, with social, economic, and environmental aspects that intertwine and reinforce one another. It involves making sure that basic human rights are met worldwide, that resources are managed responsibly, and that economic growth is not tied to environmental degradation.

Yes, we can be stewards of the earth while still making money and enjoying the quality of life to which we have become accustomed. Sustainability asks us to look toward the future and determine not just how we can increase productivity in the short term, but how we can remain productive over time. For example, if our economy runs on fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are becoming both scarcer and more costly, it’s time to turn to more renewable sources of energy.

The term “sustainability” refers primarily to the actions of human beings. How can we meet the demands of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy says it well: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

How we live today impacts how our children and grandchildren -- and their grandchildren -- will live tomorrow. If we do not make the right choices now, our descendants will have far fewer – and bleaker -- options in the future.

But it’s not just about people. Our actions affect the rest of the planet – the animals and plants with whom we share the earth, as well as the rivers, the oceans, and the atmosphere. And vice-versa. Our lives are inextricably bound to what happens around us – be it a hurricane, a drought, or a surge in mosquito population.

Sustainability asks us to think about things like this. If we dam all the rivers in the American West to irrigate desert cities like Las Vegas, then the farmers downstream won’t be able to water their crops. Over time, this will lead to regional, and perhaps national food shortages, which in turn will increase the price of food, and pose further economic challenges for the average family. Reduced flow in those same rivers alters the habitat of plants and animals. So for example, if – due to lack of water -- there are no longer enough clams in those rivers to satisfy the population of crabs and birds, then those populations will migrate elsewhere, in turn reducing sources of food for human and other animal inhabitants. It’s an endless cycle.

The wise words of Chief Seattle of the Duwamish (1854) serve as an apt reminder. “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

Proponents of sustainability seek ways to balance environmental management with our consumption of resources such as water, oil, and natural gas. They consider topics such as urban planning, transportation, technology – and the ways we do, grow, and use things – and look for innovations that might serve the common good. No one wants to reinvent the wheel. This is not about completely overhauling the way things are done, but instead reconfiguring these systems in smaller ways, so that we use less energy and rely not-so-much on non-renewable resources.

A common fear when associated sustainability is Does This Mean I Have To Make Do With Less? No one wants to be forced to give anything up. Bearing that in mind, proponents of sustainability posit that while reducing consumption is important, so is making the full cycle of production, use and disposal more sustainable. How can we tweak these processes to make them more streamlined, less wasteful, less harmful to the planet? Can we introduce more solar energy, which has no by-products and pull back on nuclear energy, which creates waste for which we still have no foolproof method of disposal?

Major change will only come when our leaders choose sustainable methods. Can the government shift to more sustainable practices? How about corporations? Can investors take the long view and put their money behind enterprises that promote sustainable production, use, and disposal of food, energy, materials and water?

Meanwhile, there is a lot we can do at home. Our individual lifestyle choices and spending patterns do make a difference. Sustainable South Shore, the GoGreen Web Directory, and edible South Shore magazine will host the first-ever South Shore Celebration this weekend (Saturday, October 8) at the Marshfield Fairgrounds from 10 am to 4:30 pm. The event will showcase alternative energy services, green products, garden and landscaping services, and transportation innovations as well as local foods, plus a variety of workshops on sustainability-related topics. It’s a great opportunity to learn a little bit more and have some fun in the process. Visit www.southshorecelebration.org for details.

by Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
September 2011


Kezia Bacon-Bernstein's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com.

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