Monthly Archives: March 2013

What is sustainability?

The other day, I had a revelation that changed the way I’ve always thought about sustainability.

And to think, it started out like a thousand other totally mundane conversations. You know the drill. Your parents drag you to a social event and ditch you, leaving you to answer the same question to the same smiling, polite and utterly unmemorable adults ad nauseum. “How’s college?” Yikes.

After the umpteenth conversation of the night, someone broke the script. When I explained that I was a journalism and sustainability major, I was met with something other than a blank stare and a head nod. This gentleman actually looked at me, puzzled, and asked, “What’s sustainability?”

I was thrown. I’d grown up in such a sheltered bubble that the idea of someone who had no idea what sustainability was seemed unfathomable. But I was also thrilled. Here’s my chance! I get to explain something so important, so overwhelming linked to our daily lives, to someone for whom the concept had never even registered. It also sprang to mind that trying to be as politically neutral as possibly would probably help my case as well. So, drawing on my best journalist skills, I gave him as unbiased and simple an answer as I could muster.

Sustainability, I said, is a big word for a simple concept. There are a finite number of resources in this world, and sustainability teaches you how to be the most economic with what you’ve got.  It’s not abut politics, it’s about people, and making sure that there’s enough energy and resources to sustain everyone. It’s about being efficient with your materials, and in the long run you usually end up saving some money and the environment as well.

Family friend nodded and smiled. But not the usual, vapid reaction you’d expect, he actually lit up and showed interest. And that’s the story of how I ended up talking to a 50-something lawyer about sustainability for half an hour at an otherwise dull event.

Sustainability isn’t just something that you study in class and talk about with other sustainability majors. It’s an intrinsic facet of our lives that is interdisciplinary. The knowledge you learn applies to much more than just the examples you cover in class, it applies to every part of the world around you. If people had talked about sustainability more, shared it with everyone they met, then there would be a greater awareness of the subject, one that isn’t linked to politics or politicians.

I encourage everyone to come up with their own “sustainability elevator speech” for those occasions when you talk about it with someone outside of the college. I encourage people to start talking about it with someone outside the college. You’re learning about it for a reason, so why not start applying it to your life now?

Here’s another, more professional explanation, courtesy of the EPA, that might give you a little inspiration.

“Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have,  the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.”

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