What is Sustainability?

The Apple

What’s In A Name?

Often times when bringing up sustainability, I find myself having to explain the term. It certainly gets tossed around more often in Canada and the US, but here in Japan for instance, it’s contemporary understanding is still taking shape. That’s not to say Japan doesn’t “do” sustainability. Indeed, environmental protection and the application of good management principals (a Japanese forte), are long standing concepts in this country. In fact, there are plenty of great Japanese examples that the world at large can certainly benefit from (will be posting more about this in the future).

However, despite this historical connection, as a modern approach to the population’s choice of lifestyle, consumption, business and politics, it’s still very much a work in progress in Japan, as it is undoubtedly in many other parts of the world. As a result, attempting to address the meaning of sustainability offers an excellent opportunity for concerned citizens to participate in the discussion and hopefully motivate for change.

Water Drop

Simple Yet Complex

To begin with, sustainability is an approach. It is represented by a mentality and corresponding practice, that is simultaneously both simple and complex. Because of this dynamic characterization, we might become caught up in the definition and have to occasionally bypass the term for the sake of simplicity. This need not be the case. It’s worth introducing the term, and using it as a platform for further dialogue.

Engage with it! Sustainability is a powerful tool for reflection, foresight, and innovation. It is an essential component in our fight against climate change and the preservation of our precious resources. When applied effectively, it can demonstrate some pretty amazing results! The following post will attempt to shed light on a few elements of sustainability and explore how they relate to us.

Fortune Cookie

Thinking Ahead

In explicit terms, sustainability has to do with meeting our present needs without compromising our ability to meet those needs in the future. Essentially taking care of what we have now, so that we can continue to coexist with an environment that will provide us with what we need to survive and thrive in the future. Also known as not burning our bridges (we’re going to need them). Acknowledging this is vital! Not necessarily out of a sense of altruism and compassion, but self-preservation. Although compassionate motivations would certainly compliment our role as stewards of the earth, the reality is such that in preserving the environment we are in fact ensuring our own survival.

In considering the natural world, and all the other planetary inhabitants that don’t have a say in our governments, we are in fact also selfishly caring for ourselves, our future, and that of our children and grandchildren. It means thinking ahead and not maximizing all that we can take for contemporary gain. Rather, the notion of sustainability promotes the understanding that we should allow for such resources to remain so that we can continue to enjoy them in the future.


Agent Smith’s Discovery

Interestingly enough, an observation by the infamous Agent Smith from The Matrix pretty much hits this nail on the head. As highlighted in the epic Sci-Fi film, humans are the only creatures that take more than they need. The human behaviour to over-consume is unlike anything in the rest of the natural world. When surveying other animals, you can witness prey walk, swim, or fly past satisfied predators and not be in danger. Certainly, if said predators are hungry it’s a different story, but we don’t normally see animal attempting to kill unless they need to feed. If you haven’t witnessed this phenomena yourself, there are some great documentaries out there that offer up an ample evidence of this natural restraint (check out Planet Earth if you haven’t already).

Human society however has chosen to follow a different path when it comes to resource consumption (see Consumerism), but this doesn’t mean that we can’t also choose alternative practices that better reflect the natural world (see also¬†Rethinking the Modern Consumption Economy).

The 4 R’s

One way of adopting the sustainable approach is through the application of the 4 Rs. Namely to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. From the start, if you chose to refuse items you already controlling the amount of stuff you will have to manage in the future. This means not opting for everything that is free or complementary. Just because it’s free, or half-price, doesn’t mean that you need it. Gifts that might have sincere intentions also represent consumption burdens. Try saying, “no thank you.”

When it comes to gift-giving times, such as birthdays and holidays, explain that you prefer might prefer food items or experiences over material goods. The same goes with souvenirs.  Over the years we accumulate so much stuff, plenty of which we might not even have bought for ourselves. Try and opt out when you can! For more on this I invite you to check out my post on minimalism.

So Much Trash

Click the image to learn more about trash.

Re-evaluate Waste

Reducing your individual waste contribution is the next key component. This means using less when you can, and cutting down on what you don’t really, really need. Similar to the refusal part, it means evaluating what you need. Perhaps you don’t need the disposable plastic and can do without the straw or throw-away bottle. Similar to refusing the unneeded accessories, is selecting to reduce the amount of waste that you and your family generate.

One means off accomplishing this is by cutting down on the amount of plastics (see Exploring Alternatives), and reusing what you already own or have access to. Selecting materials that can be washed and reused or repurposed can help alleviate some of the environmental burden. That’s really the key. Doing more with less. Efficiency and sustainability go hand in hand. Finally, when you can no longer reuse your items, or they can serve no other purpose, you can choose to avoid the landfill and recycle the material.


Feed the Earth

Another means of avoiding the landfill and exercising sustainable behavior is through composting! It allows you to return the nutrients of your discarded food items back to the soil and assist with the growth of future foods. Even after you’re done with your plate, your food scraps and leftovers can help contribute to a healthy soil.

Protect It

Finally, a crucial element of sustainable practices involves protecting the current environment. Essentially hanging on to what we already have and actively working for the preservation of the earth’s natural wonders (see Defend Your World). Preventing further deforestation and erosion is immensely significant in maintaining the world’s delicate balance. We are immensely fortunate to live on this unique and incredible planet, and we need to ensure its conditions. This means coming to terms with the sustainable mentality, and supporting the complex natural systems that support us.

Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot

Leave a Reply