Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword for countries to use to make them sound like they’re being environmentally friendly, nor is it something the ‘elites’ are using to lower the average persons standard of living; sustainability is all about finding a long-term balance between money, the environment and society.
Sustainability can work across a number of scales. If we look internationally at the way countries generate electricity, the way people move around and how countries develop, for example. If you look at how countries in the global north developed through the industrial revolution, the economic advances were great and the standard of living for the majority went through the roof. However, that advancement has become at the detriment of the natural environment and has kept millions and millions of people, particularly in the global south, in poverty.
At the other end of the scale, it could be on a small, personal scale when we’re buying food for example. We balance up the cost of the items we buy and where we buy them from with the distance and time it takes to buy that food, whilst considering the amount of plastic we’re buying and having to throw away. We can also look at how we get around. Many people believe it is cheaper and more convenient to travel by car – if you live rurally or have limited access to public transport then it likely is – but it’s not the most environmentally friendly. Others will prioritise using public transport to reduce their environmental impact and get around cheaply (where possible) even if it isn’t as convenient as driving.
The consequences of the huge economic growth in recent decades is increasingly on show: the climate emergency is beginning to grip this planet and we’re seeing dangerous change in front of our very eyes, our use of plastic as a cheap, malleable but strong material has led to it being found at the highest peaks and the lowest depths of this planet because it doesn’t break down, and we’re deep into sixth mass extinction event in this planet’s history. As we gain a better understanding of the planet’s natural boundaries, we’re finding that we’re pushing those boundaries to their very limits. Eventually, we’ll reach a tipping point from which we cannot return from.
As a global society, the way we live is unsustainable. We’re heading straight towards a climate catastrophe and we’re still doing very little to make a change. Even if burning fossil fuels had no impact on the environment, we’re spending more and more money trying to extract them and we’re still so incredibly reliant on fuels that will one day run out. We’re destroying nutrient-rich soils through poor farming techniques and soil erosion, we’re overfishing and destroying marine ecosystems, we’re making whole regions become completely uninhabitable – I could go on!
We heavily rely upon all of these environmental systems to survive and to continue the way of life that those of us in more developed countries get to enjoy. Once you understand just how reliant we are on the natural world and understand the need to conserve it, you understand that the way we live as a global society is leading us towards collapse. The more damage we do to these systems, the more damage we are doing to ourselves and our ability to sustain the lifestyles we have.
We need urgent change all over the planet and we need to put sustainability at the heart of that change. As a human race, we have achieved incredible feats, we’ve harnessed everything that nature has to offer us and used it to our advantage, allowing us to grow and develop. Transitioning to sustainability isn’t an attack on Western lifestyles that have become so dependent on wealth and materialsm, nor is it an attempt for the rich to curtail your freedoms for their profit. Yes, there will be changes required, but only to ensure that people all over the world can enjoy a better lifestyle as well as those that come after us can too.
Tackling the many crises we face today will be the biggest challenge we may likely ever face. We have an idea of what we can expect if we don’t change, but we know what we can do to reduce our impact and that that reduction will likely be enough for us to avoid disaster. Now words need to turn in to action, and we need to achieve sustainability.