Meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – The Brundtland report, 1987
Sustainability essentially means living within your means – in this case our ecological means. We live on a planet with generous resources. It has fed us, warmed us, clothed us, amused us, moved us and accommodated us. But it is also a planet with finite resources. There is only so much water and land – so many trees and fields. And there are lots of us, not to mention the 5 to 100 million other species of flora and fauna that earth supports.
A good way to think more specifically about sustainability is by considering ecological footprints, which basically assess humans’ impact on the earth, by using an area of land as a measure; how much land in acres is needed to support the needs of a person, a household, a city, a country etc. Ecological footprints are a useful tool for measuring one’s own environmental impact and of demonstrating why, as a global community, we are failing to live sustainably. Mathis Wackernagel, Executive Director of Global Footprint Network, calculated that to live sustainably, every inhabitant of the planet can have an ecological footprint of 4.7 acres. Sadly, the average global inhabitant is presently exceeding this with a footprint of 5.4 acres. Sadder still, the average Briton’s footprint is almost twice this amount.
Compound this with a ballooning global population (which has already grown from 2.5 billion to 7 billion in the past 50 years and could double again in the next fifty) and consider facts such as we use, directly or indirectly, about 25% of life’s global energy flow, that half of the world’s forests have been cut down, that three quarters of the major ocean fisheries are either fished out or in decline and that human activities use over half of the planet’s available fresh water – and the message seems to be clear. We are using the planet up at a greater intensity than it can replenish itself – and there are going to be more of us fighting over what is left. Simply put, if we want any kind of inhabitable planet left for future generations, this unsustainable situation cannot continue. Something is going to have to give.
6 Reasons why we love sustainability
1) It makes sense – even if you are the most ardent climate change sceptic, living within your means is sensible. There’s no debate about this when thinking financially, so why should there be ecologically?
2) It makes people happy – the things associated with sustainability are positive. Looking after things, interacting with nature, maintaining, growing, protecting, sharing ….what is there to object to?
3) It saves you money – re-using what you use, using less of it and recycling – it costs you less.
4) It’s fair – without getting political, this planet belongs to all of us and we are all responsible for it. If we live sustainably we are doing our bit and maintaining an inheritance for future generations.
5) It teaches things – you could learn about gardening, building, energy, economics and science, for example.
6) It provides focus – climate change is a daunting, difficult and contentious subject. Sustainability is understandable, logical and gives organisations and individuals a focal point.