Day 39: What does “sustainable” mean?

People often use the word “sustainable” to describe ecologically friendly actions.  Is using renewable energy sustainable? Sure. Using real forks and knives instead of plastic ones? That too. How about eating food that is in season? Definitely sustainable. These are all great “save-the-world” actions that entertain the notion of sustainability – but they don’t complete it. A sustainable individual, society or planet is  more than just being friendly to the environment. It’s about living a lifestyle that doesn’t harm others.  

The definition of sustainability first came up in the “Our Common Future” report in 1987, written up by the Brundtland Commission (established by the UN):

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. –Our Common Future, 1987

Now, if we compare this definition with the ecologically-friendly actions I mentioned in the first paragraph, we can affirm that all of them are sustainable. Using renewable energy means that energy will not be limited for future generations, so it is sustainable; not using plastic helps to not compromise future generations’ needs by not polluting oceans and sea life which others depend on, so it is also sustainable; and eating food that is in season means we’re emitting less CO2 and not compromising the health of our planet. But there are other ideas in the big picture that fit into sustainability, like promoting social equity (everyone gets a fair share, and not just the rich countries), not leaving an impact on the planet, and developing our economy in a way that people and environment are respected.

Together, these three concepts form the pillars of sustainability.


Image from Wiki Commons: Par Andrew, Sunray, based on “File:Sustainable development.svg” by Johann Dréo — created in Photoshop, GFDL,

This is what the Brundtland Commission outlined in their report, “Our Common Future”. In order to promote sustainability, you have to think about sustainable economic development (economic development that does not harm the planet and promotes an equitable distibution of resources), social equity (making sure that your actions don’t harm others, and that everyone has the same access to social privileges and a clean environment) and environmental protection (making sure that we’re not overshooting the resources we can use from the Earth, so that future generations can enjoy the same Earth we did). It’s not just having ecologically-friendly actions – it’s about fitting all your actions as an individual so that they fit in the global scheme of respecting others. Yes, you do have to be a good person to save the world – it’s not just about preaching environment protection. It’s about respecting everyone and everything on Earthn and forgoing your own selfishness so that everyone and everything can enjoy life without being impacted by others.

Now, you don’t have to be perfect – there are several ways to practice sustainability, and people pick the ones they’re most comfortable with and build on the ones they’d like to have.  You can be part of an organization that helps redistribute resources so that there is social equity, like Water for South Sudan. You can be vegetarian and walk to school so you emit less CO2 to protect the environment. Or you can make sure your company develops economically in a way that helps people or the environment. Some of these actions are easier to adopt than others – I like to think that everyone is doing their part to change the world at different paces. The trick is to eventually reach a stage where none of our actions leave negative impacts on the people or the planet, and we still have room to grow. That’s my dream – wouldn’t everyone love to live on a planet like that? I hope that by writing a little everyday, I’m doing a little bit of my part to change the world so we can reach that dream and become better people.


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