What is sustainability

Sustainability is key to our survival. What does it involve?

The definition of sustainability tells us that the key to sustainability is our ability to meet our needs, both present and future.

But what does that mean? Let’s break it down…

All needs

What needs? All of them. Literally everything we consume… housing, utilities, food, clothing, transportation, education, health care, entertainment, government, etc.

Of all people

Whose needs? Everybody’s needs. Not just our own, but our neighbors’, their neighbors’, the city’s, the country’s, the world’s… from presidents and captains of industry, all the way to indigenous tribes in the most remote locations of our planet.

Now and forever

We also need to make sure that all future generations can meet their needs, too. This includes all the people who are currently alive plus all the people who will ever live, until the end of time.

Resources

In order to meet those needs, somebody or something must produce the necessary products and services, deliver them to those who need it, and then dispose of them after they are used.

To do all that, resources are needed. Everything we consume is created by extracting something from the environment around us and then applying labor to it.

However, if everything we consume requires us to take something from our environment, it’s only a matter of time before we run out of resources to create new products from.

Trends

The good news is, our planet and its ecosystems have an amazing ability to regenerate and regrow most resources. But, if we consume too many resources too fast, and destroy the ecosystems responsible for the regeneration of those resources, there will not be enough left for the future.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have been doing for the past 50 years. And, the current trends are not in our favor…

Resources depletion

The Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity’s demand on nature has been exceeding Earth’s ability to regenerate since the early 1970s.

For example, in 2021 we’ve used 74% more resources than the Earth’s ecosystems could regenerate. This basically means, we would need more than 1.7 Earths to continue consuming at this rate and remain sustainable. Except we don’t have 1.7 Earths. We have only one. There is no Planet B.

But it gets worse, far worse.

Population growth

Right now, there are 7.9 billion people on Earth. This number is expected to grow by another 37% and then stabilize at around 10.9 billion. The timeline for this to happen is by the end of the century. To put it in perspective, that’s still within our children’s and grandchildren’s lifespan.

Increasing consumption

But, the consumption is expected to grow much, much more. How so? Simply, as countries develop economically, their citizens tend to consume more.

It’s only natural that everybody wants to live in prosperity. The living standards in the most advanced economies offer a benchmark of what prosperity looks like. That means higher consumption.

Challenge

With 11 billion people, all consuming the same amount of resources as the average American today, we would need not 1.7, but 8 Earths to supply the resources needed!

Did I mention we only have one planet?

So, the first challenge of sustainability, is to establish a balance between the resources we need and the resources we have.

This could be done by:

  • Reducing consumption
  • Improving resource utilization
  • Discovering new resources

The next challenge of sustainability is to maintain that balance into the future. This requires a harmony between 3 pillars upon which sustainability is built.