What is Sustainability?

April is Earth Month, so let’s revisit the term sustainability. Sustainable development as it is commonly defined by institutions, corporations, and governments in terms of policy is based on the following principles: 1) no fixed limits to economic growth; 2) equity among generations; 3) regulation of environmental resources; 4) resources can be conserved and extracted if managed properly; 5) consideration of environmental justice issues (Arts et al., 2010). I want you to consider this definition as it plays a role in the day-to-day policies that govern our society.

In my view of sustainability, there are limits to economic growth because resources are finite, and capital should not be centered on development as a measure of success. I think this also applies to sustainable lifestyles, in which your productivity does not determine your worth. To me, sustainability is…

...for everyone

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something or upholding oppressive systems. Sustainability is about living in balance with consideration for the future of our planet and human generations to come. Not everyone can be as “sustainable” as everyone else due to systems of oppression, differences in ability, and barriers to access, and that’s okay. Sustainability is not about moral superiority or perfectionism. If you plan to engage with sustainability, remember that your practices will not be the same as someone else’s practices. Check out Isaias Hernandez’s post about affordability and eco-friendly living to learn more. 

Note: This does not apply to criticizing corporations or governments for broken promises and greenwashing. I wholeheartedly hope you never leave Jeff Bezos alone. 

...rooted in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) practices

This is important to remember any time you engage with environmentalism, mindfulness, veganism, and related subjects. Sustainable development was coined in 1987, but BIPOC communities have been incorporating sustainability into their livelihoods and societies since time immemorial. As a reminder, colonialism, racism, and capitalism are the result of white supremacy. These three systems have caused (and continue to cause) the climate crisis and environmental degradation worldwide. Sustainability as it should be practiced hinges on divorcing our way of life from those systems. I highly recommend checking out Ericka Hart’s highlight about white veganism as a case study for approaching sustainability.

I want to acknowledge that my learning of sustainability largely comes from BIPOC educators and that in my experience, the discourse around sustainability as it is taught in universities and textbooks fails to criticize the systems that drive environmental issues. I encourage you to find activists and educators like those I have linked in this piece and learn from them. 

...on the individual, corporate, and government level

When most people think of sustainability, they think on a personal level: the conscious consumer or becoming a vegan. While these are a part of sustainability, it is 100 percent a fact that sustainability in this form will not solve the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, or change the world. We know this because, during the pandemic, most people stayed at home, and yet we still hit record carbon dioxide emissions in 2020. This last year was record-setting (again), as seen here. Individual sustainability pales in comparison to the impact of addressing, criticizing, and holding corporations and governments accountable. Please do both. Need help identifying greenwashing? Kristy Drutman has a great checklist (here) to help you identify which brands to support.

 ...not compatible with capitalism

One of the largest misconceptions about sustainable living is that you need to invest in new items, like glass mason jars and French market bags, to get started. This is false and counterintuitive. It’s also rooted in capitalism and consumer culture. To truly be sustainable, we need a circular economy that allows us to use what we already own, what has already been produced from fossil fuels, and focus on waste reduction -- reuse and reduce firstly. For example, thrifting for a pair of jeans rather than buying new from an eco-friendly company or using your plastic toothbrush until it has to be tossed rather than immediately buying a bamboo or silicon option to replace it. Sustainability is about resourcefulness, not aesthetics, profit, and perfection.

Sustainability is a way of life. It’s about striving to an ideal, to tread on the Earth lightly. It should not be defined by how much money you spent on a water bottle or whether you are a vegan for the animals. Sustainability is finding a place to thrive that contributes to the betterment of people and the planet. It is the happy medium between what is best for you and what is best for everyone else. The balance of short-term and long-term thinking. Need a little inspiration? Check out this post by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson to find where you fit in the sustainability and environmental justice movements.