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We have all heard this word before, especially in the last few years as it has become a hot topic in the media. Sustainable development; clothes made in an eco-factory using sustainable products; local farmers markets campaigning with the slogan “shop sustainably.”

But what does “sustainable” really mean? How can we be sustainable?

There are many different definitions to the word “sustainable.” If you read my blog, you may have noticed that I use this word a lot in various contexts. For myself, I am big on practicing environmental, social and mental sustainability. To understand what I mean when I use the word in these contexts, first you need to understand what sustainability really is.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, sustainable means being “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” In another sub-statement, they say that it also means “Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”

Rephrasing this, sustainability basically means preserving what resources we have, using it at appropriate levels in which “x” product can replenish itself naturally, so there is enough for us and our future generations. It also means having enough for everyone and everything that lives now. This idea of ‘universal equity’ is the most challenging part of sustainability, mainly because our world is split into developed and developing countries with very different economic and social statuses; developed countries like Canada, the United States, Germany, China, France, Australia, etc. have an overabundance of resources like food, water and energy. Meanwhile, as we overexploit these resources, there are people in countries fighting in civil wars over resource pools that are so small they can hardly support their people with them. I talk about food insecurity in this post, which is just one example of society’s unsustainable practices. Not only does food insecurity (not having enough food to support oneself or their loved ones) affect developing countries with limited access to food, but it also impacts us here in Canada, the States and other developed countries because there is a huge economic divide between our poorest and wealthiest citizens. The culture, values and beliefs across countries vary greatly, as well; those with abundance tend to overlook the intrinsic value of what we have and act like it has been put on the earth for our disposal. Those who have limited access to said resources behave quite differently, appreciating what they have and acknowledging that they cannot take advantage of the earth and its resources.

Our current world is unsustainable, simple as that. There is an extreme imbalance between overexploitation and insecurity all over the world. As a result, the environment, local communities and our mental wellbeing are suffering.

Here’s a good question: why should we seek sustainability in our lives? Especially here in Canada—a wealthy, plentiful country—the impacts of our unsustainable practices are hardly felt by us, if it all. The answer to why we should seek sustainability is this: all our “wealth” can’t last forever. You may be thinking, how can our supermarkets ever run out of food? For all the talk about the world’s water only being 3% freshwater (the water that we drink and use), most of which is inaccessible to us, the taps still run and the toilets still flush, and will continue to do so for what seems like an infinite number of times. Some may think that it’s all a hoax, that we do have endless access to resources, all for our taking. For those of you who think this way, what will you think when the taps shut off here, when food prices start to soar like they are in Northern Canada?

Look at gas prices in Ontario: I remember years ago when they barely reached a dollar a gallon; now we are pushing $1.40 per gallon. We’re running out of affordable, accessible fossil fuels to produce our gasoline with, instead sourcing less accessible resources that are costlier to extract. Prices will only continue to increase as we overexploit these resources, relying more and more on intensive practices to meet societal demands for these products. This is unsustainable. Sadly, many of our non-renewable resources are following this unsustainable trajectory and will run out if we continue using them as intensively as we are now.

Now that we understand what sustainability is, let’s look at how we can be sustainable. It’s quite simple: whatever it is that you’re doing or using, you need to adjust the amount so that it provides you with enough to work effectively now, while also leaving enough so that you could continue working at this pace for the future. In addition, you need to leave/do enough that other individuals can carry on the same practices without compromising the quality of their efforts.

Let’s say you work in forestry, chopping down trees to provide logging for houses being built in the area. You cannot just chop down all trees in site indefinitely—this practice, known as clear-cutting, has only very recently been recognized as unsustainable, and the damages caused by it are being felt all over the world. If you chop down every tree in a forest, what happens when you cut down the last tree? You need to keep up with demands, so you move on to the next forest. But what happens to the birds, animals, plants and insects that relied on those trees to live? Some of those trees could be thousands of years old, with an intricate root network reaching all throughout the forest. To understand how intricate this pattern is, I recommend that you check out this podcast. I listened to it for a class this term and it has really opened my eyes to just how connected every single organism in an ecosystem is.

Cutting down a forest equates to thousands of years of growth, gone in a few minutes. You’re providing the materials needed to create housing for other people, but at the same time you’re destroying so many organisms’ habitat. In addition, eventually you’re going to run out of forests to cut down, having to travel farther and farther to find the resources you need until eventually your business crashes. In the end, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Logging can be sustainable, or at least be done in a more sustainable manner than clear-cutting. Selective logging, for instance, is the practice of studying and assessing the ecosystem existing in a forest before you begin cutting. You can identify which trees are old-growth and which trees are home to keystone species (species that essentially hold the ecosystem together, like honey bees; the community will fall apart without them) to ensure that you don’t cut the most important ones to the network. You can calculate how many trees you need to thrive as a business while maintaining the forest’s integrity. Even better, you can plant a tree for every tree that you remove. Although you can’t technically replace the tree’s years of growth and interaction in its ecosystem, it’s still a small change and better than leaving the land barren.

Sustainability also means acknowledging the social, cultural and economic impacts of our actions. Are we inflicting on a community’s culture by cutting down a specific old growth forest? This has been a common issue in Canada, where many of the cleared forests have belonged to the First Nations people for centuries. Removing the forest is removing a piece of them at the same time. Economically, we see unsustainable inflation in many products on the market today. In Northern Canada, you could be paying as much as twenty eight dollars for a bag of grapes, because food and other resources are so scarce there. Prices will continue to rise on food, gas and other resources as they grow scarcer. As you can see, while sustainability is very important for our environment, sustainability encompasses all aspects of life. Striving for sustainability will only enhance our wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet.  

According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition perfectly showcases how important it is to think about things in the long-term. We are so focused on short-term gain, buying in to the consumerist schemes and materialism of our culture because it makes us feel “good.” What happens when we can no longer afford our lavish lifestyles, or when we run out of the fundamental resources, like food and water, that we need to survive?

Sustainable Development Goals 

The United Nations created the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which act as guidelines for individuals and corporations to curb their habits towards sustainable practices. The 17 Goals are:

GOAL 1: No Poverty

GOAL 2: Zero Hunger

GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being

GOAL 4: Quality Education

GOAL 5: Gender Equality

GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality

GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

GOAL 13: Climate Action

GOAL 14: Life Below Water

GOAL 15: Life on Land

GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions

GOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal

The UN hopes to achieve every Goal by 2030. Will we reach them? Maybe. I really don’t know. I hope that we can, but seeing the current state of our planet and the inequality we face, I find it a very ambitious target. The best way we can strive for these goals are to educate as many people as we can on what is means to live sustainably, and teach others to think about the long-term implications of our actions instead of just thinking about the short-term, personal benefit. Only then may we even have the chance at a plentiful, healthy future.

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