When you hear someone use the word "sustainability," turn on your B.S. meter to gauge whether the person is talking about the real deal or a snow job. Here's why: There are many definitions for the fuzzy term.
At one end of the spectrum, there is "Seventh Generation sustainability." Credited to the Iroquois, the concept means that when we make decisions, we should consider their impact on people seven generations to come.
Its described in this quote from Oren Lyons, an Iroquois tribal leader: "In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It's our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world no worse than ours and hopefully better. When we walk upon Mother Earth we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them."
Most people mean something short of that.
A general definition: "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Notice theres no mention of making the world "hopefully better.")
Generally speaking, the term "sustainability" conjures up the notion that any particular activity growing crops, building homes, generating electricity, whatever can continue indefinitely without causing undue side effects. We can live in harmony with the environment without warming the planet by sending more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and without contributing to the current ongoing mass extinction of animals and plants. Great concept. Not easy to implement in an industrialized world with nearly 7 billion people (up from 3.7 billion in 1970).
Often adjectives are glommed onto the term "sustainability" to create offshoot terms. Two examples:
Finland ranks first in the world in environmental sustainability out of 146 countries, according to the Environmental Sustainability Index produced in 2005 by environmental experts from Yale and Columbia universities. The term envisions the environment functioning well indefinitely.
Guess how the U.S. ranked? Nope, not in the top five. Norway, Uruguay, Sweden and Iceland rounded out the top rankings, thanks to substantial natural resource endowments, low population density, and successful management of environment and development issues. The United States ranked 45th, just behind Armenia. Thats because the U.S. did great on issues such as water quality and environmental protection capacity, but snagged bottom-rung results on other issues, such as generating tons of waste and greenhouse gases. In short, the U.S. has a long way to go to become No. 1.
To critics, the term is an oxymoron. To others, its the wave of the future.
What is sustainable development? As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines it, "Sustainable development marries two important themes: that environmental protection does not preclude economic development and that economic development must be ecologically viable now and in the long run." In other words, this concept of sustainability encompasses ideas and values that inspire public and private organizations to become better stewards of the environment while also promoting economic growth.
In the end, your concept of sustainability likely will veer from others' during conversations. So be aware that you may be talking about two completely different ideals.
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