What is Sustainability?

Forest scene.
Written by Mahonri Gibson

And why is it so important? A brief overview of what it means to be sustainable, with practical real world examples of ways to lower your impact on society and the environment.

American society is speeding towards a brick wall. Residents of the U.S. currently consume a massive amount of resources, so many that if everyone on earth lived like an American, 5 earths would be needed to provide support for the current world population.

And everyone on the planet is, in fact, attempting to catch up and live at the same standard of living as a U.S. resident. This growth simply cannot go on for much longer. Very serious impacts to the natural environment, which sustains us all, are already happening.

The people of earth, especially those in the United States, need to make some changes in their lives to ensure a comfortable life both for themselves and future generations.

So What is Sustainability?

The basic idea is simple — only consume the amount of resources that the natural environment can replenish indefinitely. Implementation of this idea is difficult and complicated. Just how much of any given resource can be used? Is it possible to be sure that even responsible exploitation of those resources now won’t have unforeseen consequences 50 or 100 years down the road?

There are many questions that need answered, and more research is always needed, but one thing is clear — reducing resource consumption and improving energy efficiency is the best first step that can be taken right now. But no one wants to return to the stone age, so how to reduce consumption while maintaining the present standard of living?

What Can We Do?

There is no magic bullet, just a variety of small and medium-sized changes that can add up to a very large reduction in total impact. Following are some examples of changes in personal habits that can have an immediate impact, and will likely have the added benefit of saving the average consumer a good deal of money.

Buy Higher Quality Goods

Many products are designed these days to shortly end up in a landfill. It’s called planned obsolescence. The idea is to keep people buying over and over again. What a massive waste of resources this is. Higher quality, longer lasting alternatives are nearly always available.

While probably more expensive in the short term, purchasing higher quality products will save money in the long run. Jobs creating these quality products are also usually better paying, and help remove the burden of poverty on society.

Buy Used if Possible

Purchase these higher quality products used whenever possible. A lot of perfectly good products end up in a landfill, due to an inability to find a buyer. Why create more of a product when useful ones are being thrown out everyday?

Hand in hand with this, don’t throw something out simply because there is no longer a personal need for it. Make an effort to find a buyer, post it on a ‘Buy Nothing’ community, or donate it to a reputable charity.

Cover for There is No Away, a children's book by Ariel ShultzInterested in teaching children how to reduce, reuse, and recycle? Ariel, one of the founders of Sailing Dog, recently wrote a children’s book to do just that.

Buy in Bulk

Avoid items with a lot of packaging. It takes a lot of energy to create this packaging, and it’s destined for the landfill. Buy in bulk when possible, reusing containers. Recyclable packaging is better than non-recyclable, but since it takes a lot of energy to recycle, it’s better to simply not use it in the first place.

Vegetables grown in a greenhouse in the local area usually have an energy footprint larger than if they were shipped from an area with a suitable climate.

Buy Local, Seasonal Foods

Pay attention to where food comes from. Products shipped from overseas or grown in a greenhouse have a much higher impact on the environment than seasonal foods grown in the local area. Surprisingly, vegetables grown in a greenhouse in the local area usually have an energy footprint larger than if they were shipped from an area with their natural climate.

Eat Less Meat

Limit the amount of meat eaten, it takes a lot more energy to produce the same number of calories as meat than other foods. This doesn’t mean everybody has to become vegetarian, simply that there are cheaper (and more efficient) ways to get the majority of needed calories.

Increase Your Energy Efficiency

The other area to attack on an individual basis is personal energy usage. It is possible to drastically reduce energy consumption (and save a lot of money) by making some simple changes.

Make the Switch to LED

Switch old light bulbs over to LED. LED light bulbs are cheaper than ever, currently double the efficiency of fluorescent bulbs, and ten times the efficiency of old incandescents. They also last practically forever. Even with those gains, turn the lights off whenever they’re not being used. Related, is to unplug or turn off the power-strips for appliances that are not being used. Many consumer devices draw a significant amount of power even in ‘standby’ mode.

Change the Thermostat

Pay more attention to the thermostat. Even a change of 5 degrees (lower temperature in winter, higher in summer) can make a huge difference in energy costs. Wearing a light sweater indoors to make up the difference can be just as comfortable.

Use Mass Transit or Bike Whenever Possible

Take the bus or ride a bike instead of driving, if commuting in an area where this is available. Carpooling can be a great money saver if a bike or bus trip is not practical. Combine trips for various errands whenever possible.

Some Bigger Steps

These are just a few of the easy options available. The next few items will have a higher benefit, but take longer term planning and/or a higher initial investment.

Buy Only Fuel Efficient Vehicles

When buying a new vehicle, get the most fuel efficient one possible. New hybrids are great, but currently very expensive. Older diesel cars get great mileage, and have the flexibility to burn biodiesel, a fuel made from vegetable oils.

Biodiesel has much lower harmful emissions than regular diesel, and when made from recycled oils, a very low environmental footprint. In the next few years, pure electric vehicles are going to become much more affordable, and are a perfect option for most commuters.

Green Home

If buying / remodeling a home, a lot can be done to make the house as sustainable as possible. Solar power can be used to both provide electricity and heat water. Good insulation, combined with a ground source heat pump, can drastically reduce heating and cooling costs.

If building a new house, there are various designs to provide what is known as ‘passive heating’. With passive heating, the building absorbs heat during the day, and stays warm all night. And of course, living as close to work as possible can save a lot of time and energy.

This is Just the Start

Some major systemic changes need to be made in American society to truly enable us all to live a sustainable life. The power companies need to completely remove coal power plants from the electrical supply.

Public transportation in most major cities needs to be improved drastically. Consider joining movements that are working toward making these changes.

If individuals will start taking control of the aspects of their lives that it is possible to immediately change, while working for the larger changes in society, revolutionary changes can be made.

About the author

Mahonri Gibson

Mahonri Gibson is a social entrepreneur, environmentalist, sailor, and photographer. He spent 6 years in the U.S. Air Force as a pararescueman, before deciding to do something more useful with his life.