The word sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sus, up). Dictionaries provide more than ten meanings for sustain, the main ones being to “maintain”, “support”, or “endure”. However, since the 1980s the word sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth resulting from the publication of Our Common Future, by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission after its Chair, Norwegian diplomat, Gro Harlem Brundtland). That report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This has come to be accepted as the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development.
In ecology, the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. Healthy ecosystems and environments provide vital goods and services to humans and other organisms. There are two major ways of reducing negative human impact and enhancing ecosystem services. One approach towards sustainability is environmental management; based largely on information gained from earth science, environmental science, and conservation biology. Another approach is management of consumption of resources, which is based largely on information gained from economics. Sustainability interfaces with economics through the social and ecological consequences of economic activity.
Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from reorganizing living conditions (e.g., eco-villages, eco-municipalities and sustainable cities), reappraising economic sectors , or work practices (sustainable architecture), using science to develop new technologies (green technologies, renewable energy, or new and affordable cost-effective practices) to make adjustments that conserve resources. Moving towards sustainability is a social challenge that entails, among other factors, international and national laws, urban planning and transport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism.
The evolution and growth of the concept of sustainable development has not been without the misconceptions and myths. I am attempting to give below, a checklist on the top ten myths and misconceptions about sustainability, to help you find the real meaning and value of this simple but much misunderstood concept:
Myth 1: Sustainability is confusing and deceptive
That’s not even close to being true. People have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of sustainability. Everyone’s perception on sustainability is different. Sustainability, in common parlance, is the capacity to endure. Or, to put it more simply “don’t take more than your share.” The word sustainability has become so popular in all sorts of marginally related or even unrelated contexts, it means differently to different people. The word ‘sustainability’ has devolved into a meaningless cliché, or it has a real conceptual heft. But, ’sustainable’, which at first conjures up a similarly vague sense of environmental virtue, actually belongs to the second category. “Green” or, even worse, “going green” falls into the first category. You hear this word applied to everything from cars to agriculture to economics. Actually, the concept of sustainability is at its heart so simple that it legitimately applies to all these areas and more. For humans the meaning of sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible planning and management of resources.
Myth 2: Sustainability is the other name for environment
This is not entirely true. The sustainability movement itself, not just the word, dates back to the Brundtland Commission report. Originally, its focus was on finding ways to let poor nations catch up to richer ones in terms of standard of living. That goal meant giving disadvantaged countries better access to natural resources, including water, energy and food, all of which come, one way or another, from the environment. The Brundtland definition of sustainability says nothing about protecting the environment, even though the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” issue mostly from the mouths of environmentalists.
According to Anthony Cortese, owner and founder of Second Nature, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the biosphere. The biosphere provides everything that makes life possible, assimilates our waste or converts it back into something we can use.” If too many of us use resources inefficiently or generate waste too quickly for the environment to absorb and process, future generations obviously won’t be able to meet their needs.
Paul Hawken, the author of Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw it Coming , who also helped to found the sustainability movement , observed: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP (gross domestic product) .”
Because humans evolved in a non technological world, we seem to need some connection to nature to be content. That concept is, though, tough to prove scientifically. Nancy Gabriel, of Sustainability Institute says, “If you look at Western society, you have huge rates of depression, isolation, [and] people who are disenfranchised. I think that reconnecting to the land is an important way of re-establishing a basic level of happiness.”
Myth 3: Sustainability or ‘sustainable’ are synonymous with “Green”
Notwithstanding the fair amount of overlap between the terms, “green” usually suggests a preference for the natural over the artificial. With more than six billion people living on the planet, today, and another three billion expected by the middle of the century, society cannot hope to give them a comfortable standard of living without a heavy dependence on technology.
Electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells are the antithesis of natural but they allow people to get around, warm their houses and cook their food with renewable resources while emitting fewer noxious chemicals. It’s probably more difficult to see nuclear power as sustainable. Unlike the other alternative energy sources, it has long been anathema to environmentalists, largely because of the problem of disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear reactors are, needless to say, a highly efficient source of power, emit no pollutant gases and can be designed to generate minimal waste besides being meltdown-proof. But calling it green would be a stretch. Calling it sustainable is much less of one.
Myth 4: Sustainability is all about recycling
For some reason, recycling was the enduring message that came out of the environmental movement in the early 1970s. And of course, recycling is important: reusing metals, paper, wood and plastics reduces the need to extract raw materials from the ground, forests and fossil-fuel deposits. More efficient use of pretty much anything is a step in the direction of sustainability. But it is just a piece of the puzzle. We now know that the most important areas in terms of sustainability are energy and transportation. If you think you are living sustainably because you recycle, you need to think again. None of these proposals seems preferable to focusing directly on less wasteful use of resources.
Myth 5: Sustainability is actually a population problem
This is not a myth, but it represents a false solution. Every environmental problem is ultimately a population problem. If the world’s population were only a couple of million people, we would be hard-pressed to generate enough waste to overwhelm nature’s cleanup systems. We could dump all our trash in a landfill in some remote area, and nobody would notice.
Population experts agree that the best way to limit population is to educate women and raise the standard of living (in developing countries). That strategy cannot possibly happen quickly enough to put a dent in the population on any useful timescale. The U.N. projects that the planet will have to sustain another 2.6 billion people by 2050. But even at the current population level of 6.5 billion, we’re using up resources at an unsustainable rate. There is no way to reduce the population significantly without trampling egregiously on individual rights, for example China’s one child policy, encouraging mass suicide or worse.
Myth 6: New technology is always the answer
Not necessarily. Sometimes existing technology can make a huge difference. Sometimes it takes a creative business model. Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, for example, wants to electrify the world’s car fleet–widely acknowledged as a big step toward cutting down carbon emissions not by inventing a battery that gets 200 miles on a charge but by inventing a better system for letting drivers go as far as they want without recharging. His proposal, which has been adopted on a pilot basis by Israel and Denmark, would create battery exchange stations along highways, analogous to the gas canister exchanges that people now use for barbecue grills. “He’s delivering distance, not better batteries,” says Mark Lee, CEO of the London consulting firm SustainAbility. “There’s an Italian utility that’s selling its customers hot water, not energy to heat water. It’s a different way of measuring, and it gives the company an incentive to be more efficient so it can be more profitable.”
In support of existing technology, Barack Obama made the tactical mistake of pointing out that proper tire inflation could save Americans millions of gallons of gasoline through better fuel economy, during his presidential campaign The Republicans ridiculed him, just as they did President Jimmy Carter for appearing on TV in a sweater during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Both Carter and Obama were actually right in their own ways.
Myth 7: Sustainability means lowering our standard of living
Not at all true. It does mean that we have to do more with less, but as Paul Hawken argues, “Once we start to organize ourselves and innovate within that mind-set, the breakthroughs are extraordinary. They will allow us to achieve greatly superior rates of resource productivity, which in turn allow us to be prosperous, fed, clad, secure.” The innovation at the heart of sustainable living is a powerful economic engine. “Addressing climate change,” he says, “is the biggest job creation program.”
Myth 8: Sustainability is very expensive
If there is a mountain in the room of sustainability, this myth is it. That’s because, as Gabriel observes, “there’s a grain of truth to it.” But only a grain. “It’s only true in the short term in certain circumstances,” Cortese says, “but certainly not in the long term.” The truth lies in the fact that if you already have an unsustainable system in place–a factory or a transportation system, for example, or a furnace in your house, an incandescent light bulb in your lamp or a Hummer in your driveway, you will have to spend some money up front to switch to a more sustainable technology.
Governments and companies, in general, can take that step more easily than individuals. The Pentagon is determined to cut its energy use by a third, both to save money and to reduce its dependence on risky foreign oil supplies. “Over the past seven years,” Cortese explains, “DuPont has made investments that have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 72 percent over 1990 levels. They’ve saved $2 billion.”
Myth 9: Sustainability results from consumer choices and grassroots activism, not government intervention
Popular grassroots actions are helpful and ultimately necessary. But progress on some reforms, such as curbing CO2 emissions, can only happen quickly if central authorities commit to making it happen. That is why tax credits, mandatory fuel efficiency standards and the like are pretty much inevitable. That conclusion drives free-market evangelists crazy, but they operate on the assumption that wasteful use of resources and the destruction of the environment is without cost, which is demonstrably untrue.
To cite just one example, economic devastation is very likely under even the mildest plausible climate change scenarios, in the form of disruptions to agriculture from shifts in rainfall patterns and growing zones; densely populated coastal areas will be rendered unlivable as sea level rises, and so on. Yet the price currently being charged to people who add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is zero. Putting a per-ton tax on carbon emissions would be wildly unpopular, but it would for the first time account for the real costs of unsustainable energy use.
Free market purists also argue that with respect to the depletion of natural resources, rising prices will automatically push people into more efficient behavior. True enough but the transition can be painful and disruptive.
Myth 10: Sustainability is an easy and simple concept of living
You cannot really declare any practice “sustainable” until you have done a complete life-cycle analysis of its environmental costs. Even then, technology and public policy keep evolving, and that evolution can lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences. The admirable goal of living sustainably requires plenty of thought on an ongoing basis.
All too often, a choice that seems sustainable turns out on closer examination to be problematic. Probably the best current example is the rush to produce ethanol for fuel from corn. Corn is a renewable resource; you can harvest it and grow more, roughly indefinitely. So replacing gasoline with corn ethanol seems like a great idea. Until you do a thorough analysis, that is, and see how energy intensive the cultivation and harvesting of corn and its conversion into ethanol really are.
One might get a bit more energy out of the ethanol than was sunk into making it, which could still make ethanol more sustainable than gasoline in principle, but that’s not the end of the problem. Diverting corn to make ethanol means less corn is left to feed livestock and people, which drives up the cost of food. That consequence leads to turning formerly fallow land, including, in some cases, rain forest in places such as Brazil, into farmland, which in turn releases lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Eventually, over many decades, the energy benefit from burning ethanol would make up for that forest loss. But by then, climate change would have progressed so far that it might not help.
To conclude, I would say, it is high time we understand the concept of sustainability, clearly and thoroughly , coming out of our self created hurdles and barriers, false beliefs, myths, misconceptions and dogmas. There is a wealth of advice available to individuals wishing to reduce their personal impact on the environment through small, inexpensive and easily achievable steps. But the transition required to reduce global human consumption to within sustainable limits involves much larger changes, at all levels and contexts of society. The United Nations has recognized the central role of education, and has declared a decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005–2014, which aims to “challenge us all to adopt new behaviors and practices to secure our future”. The Worldwide Fund for Nature proposes a strategy for sustainability that goes beyond education to tackle underlying individualistic and materialistic societal values head-on and strengthen people’s connections with the natural world.
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