Sustainability, Simplified

The Five Ws of Sustainability

Published 2020/06/15
Images by Jon Flobrant, Steve Johnson and Ryoji Iwata from Unsplash

The concept of sustainability is one of the most pressing topics of modern times, but it’s such a complex idea that it’s often hard to understand what it all means. It’s especially difficult to understand how it affects us, as individuals. There's no right answer or any perfect definition, but let’s try and break it down with some simple questions.

Who is sustainability for?

Short Answer: For the future of you and the future of others.

Long Answer: Although there are some known immediate health benefits of being more sustainable, you’re not going to experience most effects of sustainability today. It has taken years to develop our unsustainable habits, so it will take years to reverse them. Sustainability is a commitment to a healthier, more conscious lifestyle that will benefit people living in the future (some of which haven't even been born yet).

Unfortunately, given the structure of our current economic system, true sustainability is really expensive. This makes it only viable for the richest people and countries, since they can financially support the transition to these new systems while still maintaining their current quality of life. However, just as our current consumer habits have created these issues, more time, awareness and dedication can eventually make sustainability readily available and common for all people in all places.

What is sustainability?

Short Answer: It’s not just for the environment. It’s knowing how to borrow.

Long Answer: Sustainability is about understanding balance. Whether it’s environmental (e.g. plants, animals, and natural resources), economic (e.g. money, business and commodities), or social (e.g. relationships, services, and community), sustainability involves two parts:

1) Understanding what is being used, and

2) Making a conscious effort to give back the same amount that was taken.

The goal of these two steps is to "sustain" the finite environmental, economic and social resources that we have, so that other people can have access to the same resources when they need them.

While it is much easier to only fulfill Part 1 of this equation, sustainability is a challenge that can only be overcome when we can also complete Part 2. The real trick is understanding how to accurately “give back” what we borrowed. Instead of planting a tree every time we use a piece of paper, innovative sustainability can map out all of the complex systems that fill our world, and find equal exchanges that make it easier for us to return what was taken.

When is sustainability important?

Short Answer: As soon as possible.

Long Answer: As mentioned above, sustainability is an investment. Like any investment, the earlier we invest the higher the future gains can be. Starting this investment in the future will delay (and might even prevent any of) the future gains that we might see from transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle. So it's important that we begin this process as soon as possible for the future of ourselves and others.

"We should have started becoming sustainable before now" is another common reaction people have when discussing many of these topics. While true, dwelling on regrets in the past wastes time acting in the present. There are still actions we can take today that can help people live better, more sustainable lives in the future.

Where could we be sustainable?

Short Answer: In our thoughts, our voices and our actions.

Long Answer: People want to be more sustainable. That's fantastic! But the truth is: there's really no easy, guaranteed way to be sustainable. So to start making the transition to this new lifestyle, we have to build awareness for ourselves by:

1) Comparing our sustainable thoughts to our current actions,

2) Talking about our thoughts surrounding sustainability with others, and

3) Acting on our thoughts to create real change.

More about this later.

Why should I care about sustainability?

Short Answer: You shouldn’t. That’s why you need to.

Long Answer: Humans are hardwired to only care about themselves. That's why, up until now, everyone has naturally taken what they need without first thinking about how it will affect others.

That's why sustainability is so important. Modern humans are not naturally sustainable, and yet require sustainable systems to continue surviving. If crops are not regrown, if water is not recaptured, if wealth is not reinvested, and if people are not respected, life would not continue. So it is up to us, and our developing understanding of sustainable living, to encourage and act responsibly towards a life that can continue both by our contribution to and our consumption from the communities we live in.

How can I be sustainable?

Short Answer: Lead by example. There's no right answer, so don't be afraid to be wrong.

Long Answer: The fact that you’re reading this article means that you care about being sustainable in some way, whether you’re already involved or wanting to learn more. In either case, you should be proud of yourself. The world needs more people like you who understand and care about how each of us is living in an equal and comfortable way.

But this is where we can do better. The harsh reality of the situation shows that sustainability is not easy to implement, it is not well-defined, it is not well understood and there is no one solution to the problem. This makes finding ways to be sustainable, as an individual, really difficult.

Don't let this discourage you, though. Sustainability is a growing field and our understanding of how it functions in our world is constantly changing and adapting. This means that any actions you take in becoming more sustainable are experiments that expand the possibilities of what sustainability can mean.

So instead of claiming to have all the right answers, I want to provide you with a suggested way of thinking about the "how" of sustainability that you can use to become more aware of living a sustainable life:
1) Think about what you do, what you buy, what you use and what you interact with every day. Think about where these objects and systems came from, what they're made of, how they got to you, and where they're going after you use them.

2) Think about how you give the resources needed to create these objects and systems back to the world. Is it through your job, a hobby, volunteer work, money, time? There's no right answer here, so don't be afraid to make seemingly unrelated links between what you use and what you give.

3) If you can't think of anything you give back, don't worry. Now that you've recognized a place where there's room to improve, you can work to make those improvements.

4) Think about how you, as a person, with the skills, intelligence and resources that you have, can create a way to give back to someone else what you've used. Remember, it doesn't have to be an exact exchange. You don't have to trade money for money, or time for time. Think of your strengths and what you enjoy doing, and think about how you can justify giving that to repay what you've used.

5) Once you've come up with an idea or two about how to give back, talk to someone about it. This can be the most difficult part, (it certainly is for me) but getting out of your comfort zone and hearing someone else's thoughts helps you consider other ideas you may have never thought of. Remember, sustainability is a team effort. None of us can do it on our own.

6) Once you've rebounded your ideas on giving back off of someone else, you need to go beyond just talking about it. Do it! Make it happen. Start small, and work your way up to your full vision over time. Try recruiting friends and family members to help. No matter what, remember that sustainability is accomplished in the real world, through real actions.
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