What is sustainability?

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We have all heard and seen the word sustainable in relation to environmental concerns many times before, but what is sustainability really? Sustainability means that humans are able to endure, thrive, and regenerate without overburdening the living systems of the earth.  A sustainable society, therefore, is one that satisfies its needs without jeopardizing opportunities for future generations. To simplify this, the three words I like to use to summarize the meaning of sustainability are: maintain resources forever.

The simplest way to analyze whether or not our human actions are sustainable is to consider how three main factors are affected by a given activity.  These three crucial factors, known as the Standards of Sustainability, are:  Society, Economy, and Environment.  In other words, each human activity can be analyzed for how sustainable it is by looking at how it impacts the society, the economy, and the environment in negative and/or positive ways.  The more positive the activity influences each of these factors, the more sustainable the activity is.  Conversely, the more negatively the activity influences these factors, the less sustainable it is.  The following Venn diagram is commonly used to visually demonstrate this concept:


Standards of Sustainability

In other words, to determine how a given activity impacts sustainability, we must ask:

  1. How socially acceptable is the activity, or what does it do to or for the community?
  2. How economically viable is the activity?
  3. How suitable is the activity to the environment?

Let us consider how two different activities might be applied to this concept.  The first activity is one that is generally considered good for the environment and the second is one that is generally considered bad for the environment.  By putting them into the Standards of Sustainability diagram, we can see why.

Purchasing organic food from a local market:


Positives:  Stimulates the local economy

Negatives: May cost more for the consumer

Conclusion: Mildly advantageous to the economy


Positives:  Supports a positive sense of community, promotes personal well-being and health

Negatives: Nothing major

Conclusion: Highly advantageous to the society


Positives: Minimizes the overuse of fossil fuels by cutting down on lengthy transportation

Negatives: Nothing major

Conclusion: Highly advantageous to the environment

Therefore, because the activity of purchasing organic food from an organic supermarket is advantageous to all three criteria, it is a highly sustainable activity.

Purchasing non-organic food from a large supermarket:


Positives:  Allows for cheaper food production and sales so people spend less for food

Negatives: Smaller, local businesses are hurt

Conclusion: Neutral; the benefits carry about as much weight as the negatives


Positives: Occasionally larger corporations are able to give back because of massive profit

Negatives: Larger corporate stores and industry overtakes the local landscape, providing unpleasant scenery and taking away from the individuality of a community

Conclusion: Strongly negative to the society


Positives: The development of pesticides and GMOs have allowed us to produce more food on less land.

Negatives: The fossil fuels used to transport food all around the world leads to massive and unnecessary pollution, the industry used to mass-produce food creates massive pollution and often results in unsafe work conditions, the contents in the food (pesticides, GMOs, etc.) are often unknown to the consumer

Conclusion: Extremely negative to the environment

Therefore, because purchasing food that is not organic from a large supermarket is extremely negative in one category, strongly negative in another, and neutral in a third, it is a fairly unsustainable practice.

Not every activity is as black and white as these two examples.  Further, some activities carry much less positive or negative weight than others.  Obviously, shopping for non-organic food at gigantic, corporate supermarkets is not the most sustainable activity, but it is certainly not as unsustainable as lighting toxic garbage on fire, for example.  The point is, we have certain resources that we absolutely must have if we are going to continue long term as a species.  Our children and their children will be left with the consequences of our actions, for better or worse.  As a species, then, it is important that we live in a way that is sustainable to our society, or economy, and our environment.  How do we do this?  We maintain our resources forever by carefully considering how our actions impact the Standards of Sustainability.

How sustainable are you?  Click here to vote.



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