What Is True Sustainability?


"We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security. The restorative economy unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes."

— Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce 

Every day we hear about topics like sustainable growth and sustainable building, but what does it really mean to be “sustainable?” In broad terms, sustainability quite clearly means that each new year finds the earth in at least as good of a condition as the last one. No increasing degree of deforestation, no fewer fish in the ocean, no higher levels of toxic pollution, and the concentration of atmospheric pollutants the same or better the next year as it was the prior one. Classically, many native American tribes had a high respect for the sustainability of the world, making collective decisions about whether or not to continue a particular course of action based upon if it would have a negative effect seven generations into the future.

Two modern day thinkers,  the economist Herman Daly and Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, have given sustainability much thought, offering us clear definitions to help us along our journey towards this goal. After all, if we are to develop an effective plan and roadmap for creating a sustainable world, we must first have a clear idea of what it truly means to be “sustainable”!

Herman Daly has suggested three simple rules to help define sustainability:

  1. For a renewable resource –– soil, water, forest, fish –– the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate of regeneration of its source. (Thus, for example, fish are harvested unsustainably when they are caught at a rate greater than the rate of growth of the remaining fish population.)
  2. For a nonrenewable resource –– fossil fuel, high-grade mineral ores, fossil groundwater –– the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate at which a renewable resource, used sustainably, can be substituted for it. (For example, an oil deposit would be used sustainably if part of the profits from it were systematically invested in wind farms, photovoltaic arrays, and tree planting, so that when the oil is gone, an equivalent stream of renewable energy is still available.)
  3. For a pollutant, the sustainable rate of emission can be no greater than the rate at which the pollutant can be recycled, absorbed, or rendered harmless in the environment. (For example, sewage can be put into a stream or lake or underground aquifer sustainably no faster than bacteria and other organisms can absorb its nutrients without themselves overwhelming and destabilizing the aquatic ecosystem.)

Another way of looking at sustainability comes from Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Robèrt’s passion for sustainability developed in the late 1980s when he was working as a medical doctor and cancer treatment researcher. He felt a deep sorrow and fear in his heart concerning the destruction of the Earth’s environment. Working with his microscope, he saw that there were environmental limits that must be maintained within and around each cell and that when these limits are breached, the cell’s death is absolutely certain. The parallels to our Earth’s perilous condition of continuous environmental degradation became obvious, and Robèrt’s passion for the issue of sustainability turned into an obsession.

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