In the spring of 2012, during a run of unseasonably warm weather, 3,000 scientific experts and decision-makers gathered in London at the ‘Planet under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions’ conference.
Convened by the Global Environmental Change Programmes and the International Council for Science, the goal of the conference was ‘to assess the state of the planet and explore solutions to impending global crisis’. The ‘State of the Planet Declaration’, summarizing the key messages from the proceedings, provided a clear and urgent call to global action to meet the world’s sustainability challenges.
It urged drastic changes in both political and scientific organizations to mitigate the worst effects of global environmental change (climate crisis, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, etc.).
A few years later in the United States, ads for “Sustainable Activewear” started popping up all over Instagram and Facebook feeds.
Thanks to an increase in public awareness about our environmental issues, marketers in nearly every sector have begun launching campaigns to advertise how “sustainable”, “ethical”, “transparent”, “eco-friendly”, or “conscious” their product is.
Sometimes the products are legitimately sustainable, many times it’s just greenwashing. It can be really difficult to tell whether or not you’re being duped unless you have a comprehensive understanding of sustainability.
But how do you know if something is truly sustainable?
How does a sports bra made from recycled water bottles fit into the discussion about solutions to environmental degradation?
In its simplest definition, sustainability represents the wide scope of issues and activities that, according to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
The goals and benchmarks of sustainability solutions are focused on what we can do today to ensure that the resources necessary for life to flourish on our planet will remain intact for generations to come.
The way humans are living on our planet right now is undoubtedly unsustainable –– we are actively compromising the ability for future generations to meet their needs.
Our modern global economy was built on the principles of colonization and exploitation.
Groups of humans have been moving to “new” lands and calling it “theirs” for centuries, most of the time taking it by force from the indigenous peoples who call that land home. This land is then cut, burned, drilled, or exploded with a careless lack of regard to the indigenous peoples and their culture, and the local ecosystems, wildlife and their delicate habitats, and the “natural resources” they arrived to pillage and control.
Today we live in a world whose natural systems are deeply broken.
Despite knowing for decades that issues like plastic pollution and climate change would be major issues today, our industries kept marching forward with a thumbs up from the government. Although I live in America, this isn’t only an American issue. I’ve had eco allies reach out to me from all over the world telling me that their experience is very similar.
In 2015, the United Nations developed a collection of 17 global goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the intention of leading humanity towards a healthy, equitable, and sustainable future for all.
The Sustainable Development Goals are:
- No Poverty
- Zero Hunger
- Good Health and Well-being
- Quality Education
- Gender Equality
- Clean Water and Sanitation
- Affordable and Clean Energy
- Decent Work and Economic Growth
- Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
- Reducing Inequality
- Sustainable Cities and Communities
- Responsible Consumption and Production
- Climate Action
- Life Below Water
- Life On Land
- Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
- Partnerships for the Goals
As human beings, we are a part of nature, whether we like to admit it or not.
We live our lives in line with nature’s cycles and influences; day and night, the seasons, the weather, and less and less notably the wildlife as their numbers collapse. Life on Earth has managed to thrive for this long because of ecosystems (biological communities of interacting organisms and their physical environment). These ecosystems have evolved over the last 3.5 billion years. Human society today is destroying the largest ecosystems on Earth by influencing the climate, the water cycle, the oceans, and our planet’s biodiversity. Scientists have been sounding off alarms for decades now that we are heading towards a collapse.
Today, we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction and have begun deeply feeling the effects of global warming and pollution.
If followed, the Sustainable Development Goals will keep our societies from collapsing our own environmental and social ecosystems. In this context, the broader term of “sustainability” can be a bit more clear.
the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.“the sustainability of economic growth”
avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.
The rest of this blog post will explain the details of how sustainability interacts with our water, air, habitat, and food.
NASA’S Kepler Mission to find other life in space starts with a search for habitable planets.
In order for a planet to be considered “habitable”, it must be in the belt around its star where temperatures are ideal for liquid water –– an essential ingredient for life as we know it –– to pool on a planet’s surface.
Here on Earth, we have two types of water: freshwater and seawater.
Although water covers roughly 70% of Earth’s surface, only 2.5% of all water on our planet is freshwater.
Technically, that’s more than enough freshwater for all of humanity to drink, bathe, and grow crops with.
However, because of the unequal distribution of freshwater around different geographic regions, it’s not easily accessible to everyone.
Altered weather patterns caused by climate change exacerbate this along with the sharp rise in global freshwater demand in recent decades driven by industry and population growth.
Right now, a third of the world’s largest groundwater systems are in distress.
We aren’t in danger of running out of freshwater any time soon, but if we continue to exacerbate climate change and use excessive amounts of water in industry, future generations will have a difficult time getting the water they need. This is especially true for regions that are already experiencing water stress.
According to the UN, over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and that amount is expected to grow in the coming years thanks to climate change and humanity’s unsustainable water management practices.
Contaminants ranging from birth control pills and opiates to pesticides and even paint have made their way into our planet’s streams, rivers, and lakes, creating a sort of chemical cocktail.
Human sewage and agricultural waste also find their way into our river systems and end up in the ocean.
Although we don’t drink seawater, our oceans are one of Earth’s most valuable natural resources. They govern the weather, clean the air, help feed the world and provide a living to most of the life on earth.
Dangerous carbon emissions, plastics, leaking oil, and even noise pollution are all degrading the health of our oceans at an alarming rate.
The majority of the waste we produce on land eventually reaches the oceans, whether intentionally or not, and there are various ways by which this happens. For example:
- Agricultural runoff
- Toxic chemicals
- Air pollutants
- Ocean mining
- Oil spills
- Maritime transportation
By cutting down on single-use plastics, purchasing local goods, reducing your carbon footprint, and removing seafood from your diet, you’ll be living your life in a much more sustainable way for the oceans.
You can also make a difference by purchasing products made from recycled materials rather than new ones, like that sports bra made from recycled water bottles I was talking about earlier. Also, do your best to avoid fast fashion!
Although the impact of a single individual may not make much of a difference for our oceans, if we move towards sustainability as a society we can create a better life for ourselves and for the ocean’s inhabitants.
How clean do you think the air you’re breathing right now is?
If you’re curious to know, you can find out here.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 91% of people breathe polluted air, which results in roughly 4.2 million deaths every year.
The burning of fossil fuels is a serious contributor to our planet’s air pollution problem.
When fossil fuels are burned, they emit a number of air pollutants that are harmful to both the environment and public health.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, primarily the result of burning coal, contribute to acid rain and the formation of harmful particulate matter.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) poses a serious threat to our air quality as well.
Although many living things emit carbon dioxide when they breathe, the gas is widely considered to be a pollutant when associated with cars, planes, power plants, and other human activities that involve the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline and natural gas.
Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, meaning that it contributes to the Earth’s greenhouse effect –– the process by which radiation from a planet’s atmosphere warms the planet’s surface to a temperature above what it would be without its atmosphere.
Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy, are driving our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content way above the zone of what our carbon levels should naturally be at right now.
In May of 2019, the monthly peak amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere jumped by a near-record amount of 414.8 parts per million (ppm), which is the highest level in human history and likely the highest level in the past 3 million years.
The excessive amount of carbon in our atmosphere is driving global temperatures up.
Right now, our planet is roughly 1.0°C warmer than it was in the pre-industrial era due to human activities.
One degree celsius (1.8 °F) doesn’t seem like much, but that amount of warming is already instigating harmful impacts worldwide.
While climate change is a global process, it has very local impacts that can profoundly affect communities, not the least of which is air pollution.
Other contributors to air pollution include:
- Transportation (traffic, air travel)
- Industrial activities
Like water quality, air quality needs to be addressed on a global scale in order to make a full impact.
Individuals can do their part in reducing air pollution by choosing to live a more sustainable lifestyle, like choosing to limit the use of cars and airplanes and taking the time to make purchases from organizations that make a commitment to sustainable industrial practices.
Humans are pretty resourceful. Over the last few hundred thousand years, we’ve made all sorts of different types of homes for ourselves to keep us out of the elements and give us somewhere to sleep at night.
Many of us have running water, electricity, and air conditioning to ensure our safety and comfort.
Animals, on the other hand, completely rely on the stability of their outdoor habitats to find their food, mate, raise their young, and take shelter from weather and predators.
As humans pollute the oceans, cut down forests, open mines, build dams, and cause weather patterns to change, animals are having a harder and harder time living within their altered environments.
This recent report on biodiversity loss (which was based on roughly 15,000 academic studies and reports) details the rapid decline of our planet’s species due to changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive species.
The report concluded that nearly a million species face extinction due to human activities.
One of the most egregious examples of habitat loss can be seen in our forests, where roughly eighty percent of the world’s land-based species reside.
Every year, we’re losing 18.7 million acres of forests –– that’s equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute.
The main cause of forest destruction is animal agriculture and illegal logging.
Illegal logging is a multi-million-dollar industry, built on the increased demand for cheap lumber, paper products, and fuel. Cleared forests are then used to replant cash crops like palm oil and rubber, or for cattle ranching.
Just in the Amazon, around 17% of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years –– mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching.
That’s a huge problem, considering that forests are a necessary part of the carbon cycle.
By eliminating our forests, we’re basically destroying the only way our planet has evolved to naturally regulate the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.
At the same time as we are destroying our forests, we’re also pumping more than 36.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year. This, paired with our planet’s natural greenhouse effect, is causing our planet to warm at an alarming rate.
As climate change continues to become more prevalent, the natural habitats of our wildlife are warming unnaturally fast.
Every living organism has an ideal temperature that they need to survive either on land or in water.
Across the world, we’ve already seen species shifting their ranges in response to climate change.
The warming climate is impacting animals’ ability to find food, mate, and migrate.
Animals take many of their cues from temperature to mate and migrate.
All species have evolved in ways that allow them to perfectly fit into a role within their habitats, with each member being important for the survival of the others.
Typically, animals are able to evolve and adapt in relation to natural climate change. However, since the current human-driven warming of our planet is happening unnaturally quickly, animals are unable to keep up.
That’s why you might hear climate change referred to as “climate breakdown” or “climate crisis”.
It’s a crisis for everyone, regardless of species.
Oceans absorb most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions, leading to rising ocean temperatures.
This increase in ocean temperatures affects marine species and ecosystems, causing coral bleaching and the loss of breeding grounds for marine fishes and mammals.
Rising ocean temperatures also affect the benefits humans derive from the ocean –– threatening food security, increasing the prevalence of diseases and causing more extreme weather events and the loss of coastal protection.
4. Food (nutrients)
All living things need energy to function. We need energy to grow, reproduce, move, and basically do anything and everything.
The good news is that the world currently produces way more than enough food to feed everyone. The bad news is that people are still going hungry.
In 2016, 815 million people (roughly 11% of the global population) went hungry according to the U.N.
Why is this happening?
In line with the trend we’ve now established with the mismanagement of our water, air, and habitats, the answer is predictable: unsustainability.
Half of the world’s habitable land has been converted to farming land, with about 33% of that agricultural land being used solely for livestock feed production.
Globally, about 2.5 billion tons of grain are produced each year.
With roughly one-third of all grain being fed to livestock, approximately 800 million tons of grain end up in the bellies of farm animals instead of people every year.
Assuming that a person needs to eat roughly 0.5kg/day, that grain could support about 4 billion people annually (assuming they also have access to water and essential nutrients).
But doesn’t that grain end up on our plates anyway since humans eat animals too? No, for two reasons:
1. Meat isn’t really cost-effective with our resources. For example, a single kilogram of beef is about 30-times more demanding on the environment than a kilogram of plant protein.
2. Typically, the richer someone is the more meat they eat. The United States, Australia, and Canada top the tables for annual meat consumption.
Animal agriculture’s extensive use of land, water, and grain makes it an extremely unsustainable industry –– especially when you consider that it’s responsible for 18% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
That’s more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together.
If that’s not enough of a reason to reconsider our farming practices, all of the waste from the animals’ (usually antibiotic-laced) dung is making it into our groundwater, too.
As climate-related issues like water scarcity, drought, and rising temperatures worsen, we’re going to see crops greatly suffer and cause harvests that provide many with their basic nutrition to be lost.
Plants –– most notably, crops –– also need a stable habitat and temperature to grow.
Bees and other insects, which are dying at an alarming rate, are also necessary for plant life by enabling their reproduction through pollination.
Right now, we have an opportunity to modify our agricultural practices to prepare for a rising population and a changing climate –– and it all starts with the people who purchase the products of the agricultural industry.
Limiting or removing animal products from our diets, purchasing local produce, and avoiding palm oil are a few ways to start eating more sustainably.
So, what can we do to minimize our negative impact?
This question brings us back to sustainability.
The focus of sustainability is to determine what we need to do more efficiently and how in regards to using our natural resources.
Every single issue that has been mentioned in this post so far already has lists of solutions that have been proposed by scientists, entrepreneurs, philosophers, and politicians who value our planet and see the (obvious) merit in making sure that Earth remains habitable for life.
Architecture, urban development, national and international law, business, and even fashion are among the diverse set of disciplines and parts of society that can be influenced and improved by sustainability.
Sustainability not only allows us to minimize our negative impact, but it also allows us to maximize our return on fewer resources and often opens the door to new innovations and creates an opportunity for our institutions to provide for us much longer.
By ensuring that our habits, purchases, businesses, and homes are as sustainable as possible, we can make sure that we aren’t adding to the growing list of environmental issues we’re experiencing and are instead living in integrity with our shared home: Earth.
Why should we bother to pursue sustainability and make changes in our lives?
Limiting our negative environmental impact sounds great, but are the efforts of a single person really going to make a difference?
When you hear statistics like just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, and that we have just ten years to make major societal shifts on a global scale before we reach a point of no return, taking the time to carpool to work instead of driving by yourself seems pretty fruitless.
Don’t let alarming headlines lead you to a place of nihilism. Trust me, that helps nobody –– including you.
I wrote another article answering this exact question. Check it out here: Is “Sustainable Living” Possible in an Unsustainable Society?
What benefits do you think sustainability can bring into your own life? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it!