Sustainable energy, sustainable development, sustainable business practices—it’s virtually impossible to go a day without tripping over a sustainable-something. The definition of the word is simple: (adj.) “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” But achieving true sustainability requires humans to consider the consequences of their actions beyond mere convenience, according to Karen Higgins, adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and author of Economic Growth and Sustainability: Systems Thinking for a Complex World.
She says simple steps, such as recycling and renewable energy, help reduce environmental damage and set a positive example. However, it’s only a prelude to the beginning of the extensive and dramatic changes necessary to make true sustainability possible.
“I don’t want to bad-mouth the efforts that we’re doing, the awareness that’s being raised. Those are really good things and really necessary,” Higgins says. “It tells people, ‘There’s an issue, think about it. Think about your behavior.’ It is a stepping-stone.
“Our biggest challenge is to redefine what we mean by sustainability and in doing so, alter our cultural/individual value system. Without this shift, I do not believe ‘sustainability’ in the current sense is attainable. Real sustainability means that we must ensure that it will be possible for future generations to flourish in ways that are different from our current, materialistic perspectives.”
Keep It Simple Stupid
The most common view of sustainability focuses on maintaining or improving our lifestyle while reducing the negative environmental impact. Higgins calls that “doing things around the edges that are easy.” That can mean conserving water, participating in a roadside trash cleanup or riding a bike instead of driving. What it doesn’t include is the harder work of introspection.
“That small-s sustainability has become commercialized,” Higgins says. “The big-s Sustainability is about sustaining life as we know it. That’s a big deal.”
The big-s Sustainability requires people to actively consider every choice relating to the human population, animals, plants, air, water and other social and environmental considerations. That feels overwhelming. We just want to go through the drive-through to get a drink because we’re thirsty. We don’t want to think about that single-use drinking straw ending up in a dump, falling off a barge taking trash to Africa, then breaking into tiny bits of plastic in the ocean until an endangered sea turtle swallows it and dies from ingesting plastic.
Our actions can have unintended consequences we don’t see, resulting in harm to the planet. It takes thoughtful consideration to connect the dots between something like unsecured rope falling off a boat and the harm it can do to a marine animal.
Photo by David Rich
And yet, all those individual straws and water bottles and fast-food wrappers add up when billions of people use them. Higgins says those actions that caused these problems can easily become an essential part of the solution.
“As human beings we have a limited span of attention as well as a scope of attention. It’s too complicated; therefore, let’s just give up,” she says. “ ‘What can my little effort do? This is such a big problem; I can’t do anything about it. I’m not going to fix the CO2 level in the air by not driving so much.’
“Just ask yourself with whatever behavior, ‘Is this adding to the problem, or is it helping to reduce the root cause?’ That simple awareness about things that you do will expand your horizons to the bigger picture as you go along.”
10 years ago, ride-share bike stations like this one didn’t exist. This idea combined with others creates an opportunity to make a positive impact in the long-term health of the planet and all living beings.
Photo by Stefano Ferrario
By focusing on what we control – our actions – it becomes possible to see that individual actions can accumulate to cause greater positive effects. It also begins to make the consequences of our actions part of our automatic, everyday thought process.
“I love French fries and I would just eat them every day,” says Higgins. “I also know that it increases my cholesterol, but I don’t see that. If I eat the French fries it doesn’t bother me today, I’m fine. But over the long-term, it does. And it’s the same thing with the earth. You can poison the earth and it can take care of itself – it’s self-regulating – to a certain point.”
Things That Really Matter
Existing systems also create environmental problems because they disregard long-term consequences. Every summer algae blooms form in nitrogen-rich water, contaminating drinking water and marine habitats. This is a direct result of fertilizers used to increase crop yield (short term) without addressing unintended consequences such as water pollution (long-term) of commercial farming. The interconnectedness of multiple systems – farming, water distribution, politics, capitalism – and the interdependence between humans and the environment are easy to see in such a scenario.
We already know these things due to years of experience and research, so there’s plenty of evidence available to immediately update policies and systems to mitigate current and future damage. What’s missing in the will to act, according to a host of scientists. Higgins believes the easiest change to affect is leveraging technologies and policies to make sustainability a priority. Environmental protections, energy, food, water, etc. are “the most powerful” even though it’s “the bottom level of effectiveness.”
Lobbyists might argue these are economy-destroying practices, but Higgins says it’s time to challenge that assertion.
“Everybody says economic growth is most important, but it hasn’t raised our standard of living and it hasn’t made us happier,” she says. “Think about the things that really matter; how can you preserve and grow those things? Relationships, learning experiences – those are the things that are fulfilling.
“If your values are that a new pair of shoes makes you happy, and the new pair of shoes requires cutting down rain forests to (have) more cattle for leather, maybe you don’t need that pair of shoes.”
Empathy and spirituality make an individual “feel a part of something bigger than yourself,” according to Higgins. These give anyone the power to move away from the current,social and individual mindset, which “is extremely self-interest-oriented, consumption-oriented,” she says.
Developing an awareness of the impact our actions have and the recognition of our mutual pursuit of comfort and happiness can make it possible to address the larger, messy issues such as population growth and the demand for food and water.
“The challenges ahead are huge,” says Higgins. “But when we work together and think about the future we can make a difference.”
Top photo by Andrew Martin
Margo is a science writer poking her nose into everything that piques her curiosity, from NASA and sea turtles to climate change and green tech.