A Working Definition for Sustainability

Motivation

This definition is motivated by the growing misconception and variety of meanings that sustainability has come to embody. Businesses use it to sound innovative, consumer products use it to leverage sales, universities use it to provide an illusion of groundbreaking environmentalism, and individuals use it in context only they identify best. The all-encompassing buzzword has been used to mean so much in varying circumstances, it now means so little. The word has even lost meaning for those who care about it most. This definition is intended to provide clarity for all levels within the field and give context to begin scratching the surface toward solutions that will ensure the wellbeing of our planet and future inhabitants.

The definition is not intended to cover all topics that fall under the umbrella of sustainability (a book couldn’t even accomplish this, although it has been attempted). All examples included are used to provide clarity, but not emphasis on the subjects addressed. We hope this definition is used as concise reference point for the individual call to action.


The Definition

Sustainability is a complex¹ prioritization² of human values³ which requires iterative solutions⁴ to be implemented at a personal⁵ and global⁶ scale to secure what we love about ourselves as humans⁷ and our place in this universe⁸.

  1. COMPLEX: All systems are inherently complicated, which leads to ambiguity when one word, sustainability, tries to blend together three major systems: the environment, social communities, and our current economic strategies. Sustainability is a unique blend of hard science, the arts, humanities, and empathy that stretches through all generations and life forms. To understand it best, you need a comprehensive understanding of biology, psychology, education, economics, geography, and so on. This multidisciplinary intersectionality is why we all need to care and understand the intricacies of the field (see #5, personal scale). For example let us analyze the complexity of something that appears to be a simple concept in sustainability: recycling. Often, recycling relies on products that shouldn’t be manufactured in the first place, such as single-use plastics. In return, society embraces it as an environmental “feel good” and finds false confidence that they are contributing to a better world. When we do this, we get comfortable with consumption that increases the demand on a company whose supply chain benefits by ignoring marginalized communities and environmental degradation. Does this imply all recycling is bad? Of course not. We need recycling for the rare metals we are consuming at an alarming rate and to adapt initially within our consumptive habits. It’s complex. Our solutions won’t be one size fits all. Society needs to caution normalized capitalistic solutions that answer the call of environmental concern. It’s time to start flipping our assumptions on their head. Instead of debating the hybrid car and SUV, what about integrating a walking city with efficient and accessible forms of public transportation? Production cycles haven’t just manufactured goods, but also public consent that narrows our perception of viable solutions. With all the inherent uncertainties sustainability attempts to resolve, let us be critical of the solutions that are provided and ask difficult questions before accepting our options and falling toward contentment.
  2. PRIORITIZATION: Immense problems arise when we accumulate our understanding into a single metric. This is obvious when we look at our primary measurement for economic progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By only prioritizing monetary value added to finished goods, we monstrously underestimate the importance of human well being, education, health, current available resources, environmental impact, long term cost analysis and more. This is why it’s imperative for sustainability to consider any and all relevant impacts. Let’s look to an automobile for an example. The dashboard provides us with different metrics: how much gas the car has, how fast we are driving, total miles on the car, etc. A number that would combine all of these into a single metric would provide the driver with absolutely no useful information. When we discuss sustainability, various topics will have different measurements attached (carbon, eutrophication, health, security of future resources, cultural displacement, and so on). What gets measured gets managed. This is why it’s important to measure both the good and bad implications of our decisions, so we can create policies for the better. For example, the decision to switch from coal to natural gas for power generation will improve combustion efficiency, but is disastrous for the continued reliance on fossil fuels. In addition, while solar may decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, it still requires rare metal mining that has consequences for our resources and land. Each impact needs attention. As we add measurements and increase our understanding, success as we have previously defined it (GDP) may seem too slow, but our priorities will be placed in a more holistic understanding of how societies progress.
  3. HUMAN VALUES: Human value involves building love for people and places. Too often existentialism is replaced by materialism in western society. To progress, we need an awareness of what it means to both improve as a people and understand the flaws and injustices that are the result of seeking our individual sense of satisfaction. Intention versus impact is an essential distinction that requires vulnerability. With appropriate human value you gain a moral compass that leads not only to a balanced mindset, but also a “heartset” that is full of compassion, vulnerability, and empathy that dictates the distinction between your individual needs and wants. Sustainability is not a dichotomy, but rather a hierarchy of balancing what’s most valuable for the present and future needs of our planet and all those who inhabit it.
  4. ITERATIVE SOLUTIONS: If our problems are complex and dynamic, it’s obvious our solutions should be as well. A legitimate solution to our issues does not arise with a stagnant declaration, but rather consistent attention to revolving feedback. Sustainable solutions are moving targets. Although our current knowledge of the world is limited (and we must acknowledge that science is a mile behind in understanding the true implications of climate change, just one impact category), we are learning more about every discipline each day. It’s time we start implementing smart scale solutions that fit the context for our current needs. Humanity won’t end having solving every problem in the world, but we can still set ourselves on a path to progress within our limitations. Iterative solutions allow us to update our processes and measurements with new information. Iterative solutions aren’t new. For example, the flu vaccine changes with each season to provide a mitigative solution to the virus. As the virus changes, so does the vaccine, a practice that can and should be mimicked everywhere.
  5. PERSONAL: Sustainability is a personal responsibility. It’s not enough to depend on the movers and shakers that historically redefined history: political leaders and the scientific community. The isolated genius will not be enough; all humans need to address the issue. Sustainability can only be achieved through collective action. Progress relies on unanimous acknowledgement of the problem as well the need for solution-based daily participation. Population size does not just represent a number, but rather a potential to create necessary change. The individual’s responsibility is a direct correlation to the opportunities the individual has. As opportunity arises to make decisions that will improve current and future lives, or the planet we live in, it becomes a moral obligation to act with that in mind. Ignoring this responsibility is what has lead to an unequal distribution of resources and care for one another. When individuals empower others, it increases collaboration and solutions that benefit all.
  6. GLOBAL: While individual actions are important, it’s imperative to note that our global systems (political structures, social norms, corporations, and institutional education) are affecting our resources at a devastating rate. This must be addressed with urgency if we want to have a legitimate conversation about sustainability. Systemic efforts create mass change, and while they should be cautioned, they also play a vital role in redefining norms that benefit people and the planet in a proportion that cannot be ignored. Business as usual is planetary suicide. This is clear when slavery, human trafficking and blood spilled in our product and resource distribution chains are exposed. It’s also blatantly evident when we consider how some populations currently have excess food, water, and shelter while masses battle with acquiring these due to geographical constraints, epidemics, and social injustices. Western cultures are literally shitting in drinking water while people die from lack of access. A healthy planet is a reflection of the health of humanity.
  7. HUMANS: Sustainability cannot be achieved without believing in humanity. Our species has a unique ability to love in many ways, form meaningful relationships, create art and beauty, find independence, curiosity, collaboration and strive for a purpose.
  8. UNIVERSE: Sustainability is a topic for the entirety of our chaotic universe. While this includes the Earth, it’s important to recognize the innate desire to explore and dissolve boundaries between ourselves and the unknown. Earth can exist (and has done so just fine throughout most of history) without humans. Similarly, if we redefine our dependence with this Earth by acknowledging our place in this universe, we will see sustainability and our existence with a necessary scale.

Afterthought

Sustainability is a complex¹ prioritization² of human values³ which requires iterative solutions⁴ to be implemented at a personal⁵ and global⁶ scale to secure what we love about ourselves as humans⁷ and our place in this universe⁸.

Reading this definition does not mean you are done understanding sustainability. This definition and your own mindset towards sustainability should continually be addressed as our world changes. Realize that the Earth as we understand it will not exist because of human decisions, and address the issue with a sense of urgency. You cannot unread this definition, therefore you cannot unlearn what it takes to be apart of the solution. Stand on the right side of history.

Clare Bassi and Brendan Hellebusch