What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability

Anytime a movement gains traction within a culture, it develops its own vocabulary, and as those key words and phrases become increasingly widespread, their meaning often becomes blurred.  In the late nineties, as Silicon Valley was positively exploding, there pre-fixes ‘e,’ ‘i,’ ‘techno’ and ‘cyber’ seemed to pop-up in the unlikeliest of places.  I worked at a video store at the time, and my employer, whose grasp on the technological developments unfolding at the time was feeble, printed a banner declaring the store had gone ‘e-crazy.’  While to him the sign meant his shop was embracing the digital future, to others it simply signaled our appreciation for amphetamines.

Sometimes I worry this same phenomenon has taken place with the vocabulary associated with environmentalism.  Dozens of products on the shelf at the supermarket are ‘eco’ and ‘green’ these days, but for the common consumer, it’s hard to know how much these signifiers really mean.  Likewise, it’s easy to find organizations and services that are self-described as environmentally friendly, but when I see signs advertising “green shopping mall” or “eco-friendly dry-cleaning,” I really have to wonder.

In my opinion, the idea of sustainability is the bedrock of the environmental movement.  What is the point of environmentalism, if not to preserve our planet, and conserve its many resources?  We have a reached a point where it is simply irresponsible to deny that these resources are finite, and will disappear if we do not make conservation and sustainable systems a priority in the future.

Sustainability and conservation stand in stark contrast to the rampant consumerism that defines many Western countries and cultures today. So many of us live in circumstances in which we can simply throw our trash into a chute or bin, and have it disappear from our lives.  We do not have to confront the reality of overflowing landfills, and vast quantities of waste thoughtlessly tossed into the ocean.  The time has come for us to acknowledge how much waste we create, and what a detrimental impact that waste has upon the health of our planet.

If a system is sustainable, it has the potential to endure indefinitely, without needing external energy inputs or creating harmful outputs.  If we consider an industrial dairy farm, in which massive quantities of energy are entered into the system in the form of electricity, food and labor, and tons of waste are created and ultimately deposited back into the environment, it’s clear this system cannot sustain itself.  On the other hand, if we consider a small farm that relies primarily on natural energy sources and recycles all its waste, this seems like a system that could endure without harming the planet. Perhaps the era of “bigger is better” must come to an end, and we must instead look to the local, the small, and the sustainable as the path to a better future.

One of the reasons we started Sustainable Summer was to educate youth about the meaning and significance of sustainability.  Today’s teenagers will face incredibly difficult questions about the future of our planet when they reach adulthood, and we want them to be prepared.  If they continue to make the kinds of choices that our generation, and our parents’ and grandparents’ generations made in regards to the environment, our planet may pass the point of no return, and theirs may be the last generation that has any kind of choice at all.