The True Meaning of Sustainability

In recent years, many terms have arisen in order to describe very similar environmental standards. Whether a product is green, eco-friendly, environmentally sound, organic, or sustainable, people are willing to buy on the premise that they are helping to preserve the earth.  Through this explosion of terminology, it is apparent that the true meaning behind these words is unclear to a majority of people.

Everyday we see sustainability initiatives that include buying “green” designer bags, recycling pop cans, and encouraging the conservation of energy.  It is also much of the same at the corporate level as manufacturers are lauded for decreasing the amount of packaging, or as Dell proclaims themselves carbon-neutral after announcing their plan to acquire 20% of their electricity from renewable sources.  Not surprisingly, the media is just as guilty of sensationalizing the critical issue of sustainability.  In one article in Fortune magazine, writer Zue Zesiger Callaway labelled the new Lexus LS 600h L “green,” despite the fact that it still will only travel roughly 17 miles per gallon of gasoline.  Contained in the article is the idea that you can now “go green” and “go upscale” through the purchase of an automobile.

While the term “green” can now be interpreted in many different ways, whether something is properly classified as sustainable is open to a more objective analysis.  In a general sense, being sustainable means conserving an ecological balance and preserving natural resources for future generations.  Many current sustainability initiatives fall short in a variety of ways.

First, it is important to understand the economic problem called Jevons Paradox.  Jevons Paradox states that increased efficiency will ultimately lead to an increased rate of consumption.  When efficiency in the use of a resource is increased, the price drops, leading to a higher quantity demanded.  This concept applies to the many environmental solutions that simply improve the energy efficiency of a process.  In a growth based economy, some of these “sustainable” initiatives could lead to increased resource depletion.  If one were to try to avoid the higher demand by keeping price at previous levels through taxation, the economic incentive to adopt the new technology would be minimal.  For thee reasons, solutions of this type fail to be sustainable if they are considered to be the only approaches to the problem.

At our current population levels, it is not sufficient to only improve efficiency in order to make a process sustainable.  We need to remember that “going green” and being “sustainable” needs to go beyond just doing things less badly.  Rather than focus on the end results of our daily processes, its paramount that we examine how we can re-engineer them.   These types of changes go against a lot of people’s constitutions.  If you notice, a lot of the more popular green options involve the further consumption of products classified as “sustainable” rather than lifestyle change.

So, in what ways can we reengineer our daily lives?  The main components of someone’s ecological footprint are transportation, shelter and food.  Some ideas to make these parts of life more sustainable include trying to eat locally, composting, home gardening, and living in denser arrangements.  Only thorough analysis of our daily life and the possible alternatives can we realistically talk about change in our impact on the Earth.


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