What is Sustainability?
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What’s In A Name?
Often, when bringing up sustainability, I find myself having to explain the word itself. I’m no longer surprised by this, but committed to sharing the message and awareness. Despite the growing attention to the term, the definition of sustainability can often appear vague and perhaps difficult to decipher. Although that doesn’t prevent it from getting used a lot! At least, that was the case in the Wester Hemisphere (back in North America & Europe). Here in Japan on the other hand, the recognition is just beginning to take hold.
In the Land of the Rising Sun
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 has already benefited from (will be posting more about these in the future)!
However, despite this historical connection, Japan has a lot to do when it comes to sustainability. This is clearly evident in Japan’s contemporary approach to lifestyle, consumption habits, business practices and political will. There is much to be gained from it, as the Japanese slowly recognize and reconnect with the vast potential inherent within sustainability. This is undoubtedly true in many other parts of the world as well, but it is almost painfully obvious here.
A Golden Opportunity
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. There are plenty of interesting layers, so I’ll just get right to it.
Simple Yet Complex
To begin with, sustainability is an approach. It’s 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. When that happens, those familiar with the term may occasionally bypass the word for the sake of simplicity (myself included).
I’ve since learnt however that I really didn’t need to that. It is totally worth introducing! Even if it takes some explanation and examples (don’t assume), sustainability is a brilliant medium for conveying an array of ideas. Leverage the growing recognition and use it as a platform for further dialogue.
After countless discussions, fascinating conversations, and heated debates, I can tell you this in all sincerity, 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!
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 definitely 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. Protecting the earth’s biodiversity and natural life support systems, we are essentially safeguarding our future, and that of our children and grandchildren. This was powerfully expressed by Swedish teenager & environmental activist Greta Thunberg through her closing remarks at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24).
Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” -Greta Thunberg, COP24
Preservation & Conservation
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 made 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. Human behaviour has become linked to overconsumption. It’s incredibly destructive, unsatisfying, and 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).
Applying 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.”
An Ecological Buying Hierarchy
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.
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. The amount of trash we generate, especially in wealthier countries, is pretty obscene (see The Washington Post).
One means of 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.👌 In addition to reducing landfill waste, it actually assists with the growth of future foods (win-win). So after you’re done with your plate, your food scraps, coffee grounds, tea-bags, eggshells and other leftovers, can all help contribute to a healthy soil. It makes total sense!
For those of you who don’t have access to a garden, increasingly there are compost share programs popping up all over the place (try ShareWaste, CompostNow, or The Compost Exchange). You might not want start off with a lot, but if and when you do start, you’ll see firsthand how easy it is. As you take greater notice of all the things you used to trash, you might just begin to reevaluate how much we are demanding of the earth. It’s an enlightening experience.
Protect Our Blue Dot
This increased awareness and appreciation for our world leads me to my final point on sustainable practices. Namely, the critical need for protecting the environment. As well as finding new and innovative ways of reusing waste, maximizing what we do use, and resupplying what we can to the soil, we must work on conservation. 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 incredibly fortunate to live on this unique and amazing planet, and we need to ensure its continued conditions for habitation.
This means coming to terms with the sustainability mentality, and supporting the complex natural systems that support us. We already have so many indications on how to figure out many of the problems facing humanity. Sustainability offers us the outlook for approaching these challenges and transforming our most destructive tendencies into something better.