We hear the word ‘sustainability‘ a lot these days, but what does it actually mean?
Sustainability was an incredibly important concept, yet in the 21st century, it has become a slogan thrown around by businesses in an attempt to appear as if they care while doing the bare minimum to be quote on quote “sustainable”.
It’s not just businesses that are guilty of this. Politicians, Scientists, NGO’s all use the word freely, but very few understand what it means to “be sustainable”. With the word being used more than ever before in human history, we risk it losing all meaning entirely.
Originally, visionaries and environmental innovators had a strong perception of what they were doing and why. Now, everybody is taking the easiest route to show signs of compliance for the sake of preserving market share, votes, and donations.
Sustainability in this modern context does not challenge those of power and privilege, the ones that truly must change their ways.
THE DEFINITION DILEMMA
So, let’s start with the definition of the word. This is an issue in itself as there are numerous ways to interpret sustainability – the definition varies considerably, depending on what you are sustaining.
There are many different types of sustainability; ecological, biological, economic, financial, political, social, agricultural, the list goes on and on.
After a quick Google search, I found 10 separate definitions of the word all on the first page, which begs the question; how can companies, and us as individuals, pledge ourselves to a word we don’t truly understand? If there is no internationally recognised definition, it can just be used wherever and whenever a company sees fit.
This is the dilemma.
So, let’s open the dictionary:
sustainability noun the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. "the sustainability of economic growth" avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. "the pursuit of global environmental sustainability"
From there we can consider the first widely accepted and most commonly referenced definition of sustainability:
“Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”
Going by that definition, the vast majority of activities that we take part in as a species cannot be deemed sustainable. Even things that appear extremely balanced on the surface will always have underlying environmental issues due to the nature of our society.
Take a regenerative commune for example. Sounds idyllic, right? They could be an entirely self-sustaining, solar powered, vegan community – but if it is built on converted wetland, then it is not sustainable.
The same goes for the entire solar panel industry. Of course, solar panels are a fantastic renewable energy alternative, and they produce truly ‘green energy’ – but there is no denying that the production of photovoltaics is a black industry (I will most likely write an entire article on this topic).
Constant re-definition and differing interpretations make people unsure of its true meaning, or they simply focus on just one aspect of the word. Sustainability has become more a personal view instead of a defined fact.
Civilizations prior to ours followed the rules of sustainability before the word even existed. The native American Indians had a simple, yet beautiful interpretation of the word: “Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it”.
Perhaps attempting to define the word is a major setback. It seems pretty impractical to have one unchanging definition covering an everchanging concept.
So, let’s move on, shall we?
THE CONSUMPTION CALAMITY
A major driving force behind carbon emissions and environmentally damaging activities is our species raging and uncontrolled consumption of pretty much everything. Modern capitalism is often overlooked or simply brushed aside in the environmental argument.
One of the major issues is the planned obsolescence theory. This refers to the fact that certain objects are created with a purposefully short life span or frail design to maximise profit from future sales of the same product.
We have been brainwashed by companies to consume as much as we want and not think about the consequences. You must get that new iPhone! It’s got an even better camera than the one from last year, you’ll be able to open Instagram even faster. The fact that there is a new smartphone every single year is a clear indication we have a consumption problem. We have an incessant desire to always have the fastest, the best, the newest.
Consider these alarming facts:
- 140,000,000 (140 million) phones are thrown into landfills every year.
- Phones contain many harmful chemical substances (lead, lithium, arsenic, copper, cadmium, mercury, and zinc) that will contaminate soil and groundwater after breaking down.
- Production and delivery of a new mobile phone will produce, on average, 75kg of CO2.
This simply must change if we, as individuals, wish to live a sustainable life. Perhaps it is not a question of consuming less, but simply valuing more – imagine a world in which the products we buy lasted longer and didn’t have to be upgraded each year. The industrial production of said products would decrease, leading to a reduction in emissions. A sustainable step in the right direction.
The developed world (yes, that includes you) has an incredibly privileged view when it comes to sustainability. Every day we get to eat what we want, sleep in our own beds, and watch nature documentaries – of course it’s easy for us to ponder the importance of environmentalism and question what’s going on in the world.
But the majority of global emissions are released from developing countries, with 63% coming from low-middle income countries. The majority of people in these areas are simply not concerned with such global issues, they are doing the bare minimum to escape complete poverty.
Unfortunately, escaping poverty generates inescapable emissions.
It’s an incredibly difficult argument for us to make, telling developing countries to conserve forests, buy electric cars, and invest in renewables when we became developed doing the exact opposite. When a country is unable to meet the basic needs of the majority of its population, it will take the cheapest and easiest way, which is always the most destructive.
This means that for literally billions of people, more emissions are a good thing (personally).
Rich, powerful countries, however, such as the US, China, and most of Europe, should be leading the charge and demonstrating there is a new and better way to do things. There is certainly enough money and knowledge to step up to the plate and make some serious changes, unfortunately, it is simply not in these countries’ best interests.
In 2020, $6 trillion (that’s not a typo) went towards coal, oil, and gas subsidies. Now imagine if all of that money went into renewable technologies and electricity storage. My goodness, the world would be an entirely different place.
One of the major problems with sustainability is its use by corporations as a greenwashing marketing ploy in an attempt to shift the blame onto the general public.
BP for example, as ironic as it sounds, has an entire sustainability branch. Their webpage is littered with generic infographics and environmental buzzwords that greenwash their mindless supporters with generalising statements about “our planet” and “our future”.
Did you know that it was actually BP who coined the term “Carbon Footprint” during a 2005 ad campaign, in a pathetic attempt to shift the blame away from themselves?
How can an oil company try and guilt trip everyday people into believing that we’re in this together, that this is our planet and if we just work hard enough, we can beat climate change!
How about stop drilling for a finite resource that destroys our planet? How about not forking out literally billions of dollars to settle environmental laws you’ve decimated?
If only it were that easy.
I am starting to lean towards the belief that the word should be banned in most, if not all, economic, consumerism, and industrial contexts. By definition, nothing that uses fossil fuels is sustainable, it never has been and never can be. We are constantly flooded with marketing schemes claiming, “more sustainable this, more sustainable that”, but being sustainable is binary, it either is or isn’t. It’s the same as labeling a new brand of cigarette as a health product just because it has a slightly lower tar content.
But I’m a self-proclaimed hypocrite. I’m sitting here typing this on my laptop that was made in China using a tonne of fossil fuels. I turn on the heating in my house when it’s cold. I used to drive to work every day. Being a ‘passive consumer’ is my least favourite trait about myself.
But what other option do we have, really? Unless I were to upturn my entire life and go live in the woods eating only berries and nuts, it’s impossible to not have some sort of ‘footprint’ (thanks BP).
No matter how long I stay vegetarian or how many bamboo toothbrushes I buy, nothing will change. We have been lied to and manipulated into believing that if you leave a light on, somewhere up in the arctic circle a polar bear will drop dead.
In actual fact, 71% of the world’s entire greenhouse gas emissions come from just 100 companies, and while they exist because of our consumerism, they are the ones who need to start taking responsibility for their actions.
If gargantuan corporations continue to treat the planet as if it’s a business in liquidation, while spouting how they are working towards a sustainable future – we simply won’t have a future worth saving.
THE OVERPOPULATION PROBLEM
Throughout Earth’s long, volatile history no one species has ever dominated as heavily as humans have accomplished. There have always been natural checks to keep populations under control, such as disease and predation.
But we are just too damn smart. We create cures and vaccines (yes, they work) for most serious illnesses and learned to outwit and hunt even the largest of potential predators. Our population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. Is it even possible to be sustainable with a population of this size? Absolutely not if we continue to live the same way.
The biggest problem will undoubtedly be food. We already struggle to feed 8 billion people, how on Earth (excuse the pun) are we expected to feed a further 2 billion hungry mouths? The way in which we currently produce food destroys vast areas of fragile ecosystems while emitting massive amounts of emissions, the meat industry being responsible for the vast majority.
Throughout human history, the main bulk of our diet was seasonal vegetables, fruits, and nuts with a small amount of meat every so often. Along with the rise of industrialised meat production, chicken, beef, and pork have all become a staple food. This has not only had drastic impacts on our health, but also on the planets.
While I certainly don’t have the answers to the population crisis, I am somewhat optimistic we will figure out an alternative. The potential of lab-grown protein and dairy is massive, just imagine if all the land dedicated to industrial farming could be rejuvenated into diverse areas of conservation.
THE REJUVENATION RENAISSANCE
After consideration, perhaps sustainability is not what we should be striving for.
The only things we seem capable of sustaining are ecological scarcity, excessive emissions, and sky-high pollution levels.
Our aim as a species should not be to just survive, but to thrive (sorry for the cliché), and for that, we need a flourishing and diverse planet. Perhaps we should be diverting our efforts towards rejuvenation, to rewilding large sections of the land and oceans, dedicating them to nature – not ‘sustaining’ what we have already done.
With every passing year bringing more extreme catastrophes, it is becoming apparent that it is too late to just mend our ways, we must restore our past mistakes.
WHAT’S THE POINT?
The more time I spent writing this blog entry, the more I began to question the objective behind it. What good am I really doing sat at a desk, complaining about sustainability issues and the state of our planet. Environmental campaigners and activists (who are much more qualified and informed than I am) have been arguing all these points for a long time, and where has that gotten us?
Every year we obliterate the “hottest year” record, greenhouse gas emissions have never been higher, wildfires and floods are annihilating vast regions across every continent. We need to stop saying that we are “heading towards a climate crisis” – We are already in it.
There’s no point focussing on sustainability, it’s far too late for that. I’m not sure what it’s going to take for the veil to be lifted. Perhaps it never will be. Perhaps companies like BP, Exxon, and Shell will continue to drill, destroy, and devastate until we’re forced to fire Matthew McConaughey into space to save us all.
But don’t worry! Sustainability is a foundation of their strategy.