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Sustainability – the Good, the Bad and the Freakin’ Ugly


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Sustainability Definition



To sustain… ability. Sustainability – one of the most overused words in environmentalism, and whilst some organisations are well-intentioned and seek to be environmentally aware, it is, for the most part, a term that is misused, misunderstood, misappropriated and misapplied. The reasons for this are complex and shadowy but for many companies the confusion around what sustainability means, in terms of changing their approach, means that they can successfully continue with ‘business as usual’.


We can take a closer look at the swirling debate and confusion around sustainability to try and understand what it really means and how we can all make a stand to colour our lives a shade greener.

Sustainability – What Does it Actually Mean?

What is sustainability and what does it mean for those who want to have a lifestyle that’s more in harmony with the planet?

There is no universally agreed definition as yet, largely because it’s likely been beneficial for companies and governments to avoid a clear definitions, which could lead to clear targets or goals that require commitment. This also means it is not always easy to have a clear framework about how to implement sustainability at a corporate, individual and community wide level; the entire infrastructure for living a more sustainable life is missing. In fact it could be argued that the definitions of sustainability have been obfuscated so that powerful, corporate-led governments could crowbar their way into the resource rich, underdeveloped, wildernesses of the world under the ‘green’ auspices of sustainable development. 

Rich countries have evolved into using trade, boats and ideology (instead of guns) against poorer nations in the 21st century. And now there is an off-the-shelf ideology that helps to empower this exploitation: all rise to the alter of ‘sustainable development’. The gun-ships might have transformed into oil tankers and the empires into corporations but capitalism is a beast that knows how to evolve and is fantastically adept at adapting to change. 


Whether or not we’re even ready for a revolution in sustainability is growing debate and there are some developing, if not quite universal, themes about what true sustainability must address. We can use these to guide our actions on a day to day basis to work toward a more sustainable lifestyle.  Wikipedia offers up it’s definition of sustainability, questioning the use of the term in environmental circles:

The term ‘sustainability’ should be viewed as humanity’s target goal of human-ecosystem equilibrium (homeostasis), while ‘sustainable development’ refers to the holistic approach and temporal processes that lead us to the end point of sustainability.” (305)[8] Despite the increased popularity of the use of the term “sustainability”, the possibility that human societies will achieve environmental sustainability has been, and continues to be, questioned—in light of environmental degradation, climate change, overconsumption, population growth and societies’ pursuit of unlimited economic growth in a closed system.

The core question here: Is Sustainability Still Possible exposes the basic lack of foundation in the idea of sustainable development. It also links the concept of degrowth with consumption to explore whether the two conditions can coexist within a closed loop system – one of the very two solutions that could potentially address the impacts we’re making on the natural world.

‘A closed loop… what!?’  A closed loop system is simply that; one in which elements within that system are not transferred out of that system – effective, pure recycling for example (and one which, judging from the levels of plastic in our world, as been proven abundantly impossible to achieve).

So the question remains is this achievable? And more explicitly should the development of humanity come at the expense of the planet?

It’s a thorny issue that explores in more detail, offering an alternative definition of sustainability in which three core sustainability pillars are highlighted:

  • Environmental sustainability which is the ability to maintain rates of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely.
  • Economic sustainability which is the ability to support a defined level of economic production indefinitely.
  • Social sustainability which is the ability of a social system, such as a country, to function at a defined level of social well being indefinitely.

And they ask….

Should poverty really receive “overriding priority” over environmental sustainability? No, because if the environmental sustainability problem isn’t solved, then no other problem will matter due to catastrophic collapse. If the poverty problem isn’t solved, the world changes little. The poverty problem has existed for as long as Homo sapiens has. It’s nothing new. But the global environmental sustainability problem is new and threatens existence of our species. That’s why it deserves top priority.

Ok, so lets take a pause and swerve the poverty debate for just a sec. The point I’m bluntly attempting to address is not that we should consider poverty as a means for reducing the human impact, but that sustainability should consider the health of the planet. Commercial development is not always a ‘good’ thing and nature, warts and all, must also be given space and time to develop. 

If we don’t seek to ensure the sustainability of this (not ‘our’) habitat then this habitat will not sustain us.

It is essential we think about sustainability at a much greater level of detail than we do currently. We must be obsessive in our attention to detail and we should widen the debate and have an honest discussion about the radical changes that need to happen; a rethink of our current rate of resources exploitation; a look at closed loop systems and major de-growth and a massive, massive transition from our current model of consumer capitalism to something new. 


When it comes down to it; what do we want from life? More gadgets, fashion, tech, toys and the total annihilation of our planet? Or more forests, wild animals, rivers, oceans and oxygen. You decide. Wait. iPhones…

The question that hovers over the sustainability end-goal is whether or not humanity is yet ready, willing or able to start working together towards global sustainability (would you be able to give up your iPhone, take no flights and lead a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle?). I know I would struggle.

The history of sustainable development shows us how previous iterations of sustainability agreements have worked out, or not-worked-out, in the past.

InteRnational Sustainability

The World’s first International Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 originally defined development sustainability as:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Bruntland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development (1992)

Sustainability Rio SummitAlthough the Rio Earth Summit was the first time that member states of the UN came together to cooperate internationally on development issues and sustainability, critics have argued that it focussed big-time on development rather than sustainability. The summit was a way for members to discuss issues around production, alternatives to fossil fuels, transportation and the supply and use of fresh-water.

It ultimately failed to live up to the high expectations. It brought together 172 countries with more than 100 leaders present and it set in train a number of organisational and institutional developments, such as UN conventions on biological diversity, climate change and desertification but the major roadblock to the legacy of this summit (and many others) has been the inability of government’s around the globe to commit to the changes agreed.

And this is all simply because all the important people who attended the summit failed to cut through the chorus of confusion to discuss very simply a path toward sustainability,. Facing pressure at home and abroad governments that committed to the aims of the Rio Earth Summit did so without the will to follow through and may have been out of power in a matter of months and years and so, through the process of conferences and summits, we have seen countless times the commitments made by leaders that have not been sustained.  

Even now, nearly 30 years later, as climate change begins to take root, we see President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate change agreement and demonstrating the inability of countries to commit to international agreements. 

International summits, conferences and agreements provide an essential tool not just in terms of raising environmental issues to the forefront of the public agenda, but in also providing a forum to ignite the debate and draw attention to corruption, solution, challenge counter arguments and rarely agreement around the best way forward; what history shows us however, is that they have largely failed and it is much more difficult to bind governments to the commitments that they agree to.

How can governments commits their populations to a radical new way of thinking around sustainability when they are dominated and controlled by big corporate interest, media and corrupted individuals?

If we want to start making changes to a more sustainable way of living we can do so right now. Developments in technology and communities are proving that we no longer need to wait around for big government to make the sustainability leap; we can start the revolution from the ground up!

Our Hidden Impact & Sustainability Problem

Unfortunately we have also created a worldwide system that helps to hide the devastating impacts our consumer choices have on peoples, communities and natural ecosystems on the other side of the planet.

Dirty, filthy, money is the facilitator of this system…  a promissory note to pay, not ‘I have’ but ‘I will’; part of a system that we’re all hooked up to. And it keeps the damaging impacts of our purchasing habits hidden from sight.


If we knew the shocking impacts the the Palm Oil Industry had on Orangutans or the problem of plastic pollutions in the oceans then we would perhaps think twice before using either product.

Money provides an invisible barrier to the daily damage and violence that is inflicted around the world on natural species and spaces as a result of the production and manufacture of the products we consume. And the damage continues when we throw away the shiny packaging that everything we consume comes wrapped in. All to enable the modern convenience of our lives whilst obscuring the impact our actions can have on the natural environment.

If we accept that sustainability is only the ability to continue a system, or course of action forever, then we have to accept that at some point our current mode of capitalism is defunct, rapidly hurtling towards it’s own demise to one day be as dead as a dodo.

Our current, widely accepted definition of sustainability is sustainable development and growth and you this is writ large into every corporate mission, vision, values (and other nonsense) that companies use to brainwash normal people into dedicating their lives to their company’s corporate agenda.

Sustainability is the buzzword of the 21st Century; a overused term that has lost meaning in the cacophony of commercial voices desperate to imply some kind of environmental awareness to their paying customers.

And yet Capitalism has proven that not only is its economic development utterly degrading to the environment but that it is a model which cannot continue, in its current form, if the environment is to be protected.


Can we, as individuals, reject consumerism? That might be a tall order, given that we need to, you know, eat and clothe ourselves! But we can be less ‘consumerist’. We can make a start today, right now and live less capitalist lifestyles, whilst the philosophers, social engineers and ideological revolutionaries come up with a better alternative.

A Sustainability Mindset & The Golden Rule

Making choices with an awareness of those impacts at the forefront of our decisions means that you, as an individual, can start to limit the impact that you have on the planet.

And it requires a total mindset shift, influencing everything and I mean… everything; from the clothes and products we buy, to the energy we use and the food we buy. Because if the goal for us is a planet full of life, then we need to do everything we can to help to planet live.

Of course, it’s not possible to completely eliminate your impact because all life depends on other life. But we are on a rock, hurtling through space and we have some beautiful wild creatures as our companions for the ride.  We can live in a way that is more accepting of our natural place in the universe and one in which we do not destroy other living things when we don’t need to.

This means a lifelong commitment to the principles of sustainability and a change in our individual, day to day behaviours that can reduce the impact we have on the natural world. And the question looms large about whether or not we can continue our current course of action and avoid catastrophic climate change, or whether we can change our behaviours to make them sustainable.

Governments, organisations and institutions are far to confused about what sustainability actually means. They’ve failed to realise that sustainability and development cannot both work at the same time; it’s like living on a diet of chocolate and expecting to lose weight.  

Fortunately behaviour isn’t motivated by government agreements, or international treaties. Behaviour starts here and now, with each and every one of us. This is something that has traditionally come naturally to human beings and ancient cultures have long paid respect and homage to the natural world. GoBareFoot describes the links between ancient cultures, their beliefs and the natural world:

Whether we look at paganism, shamanism, astrology, or ancient civilisations from distant parts of the world their imagery, myths and proverbs all have a strong link with the elements. In comparison, our modern lifestyle and attitudes often consider the planet’s living system as a separate entity to our species. In truth we have been inherently connected with and valued the energies of the natural world for centuries – something not to be forgotten as we try to adopt a more sustainable and equal society.

With greedy abandon and a profit making imperative driving us forward, the relentless march of commerce has bulldozed these ancient cultures onto the scrap heap of tradition. The time now is not for regret of cultures gone past, but to use them as inspiration. It’s the time to look at the issue of sustainability from the roots up. From the heart and soul of our relationship with the natural world and our connection with the planet.  

How do each and every one of us think about and interact with the world on a daily basis? What is the cost of those interactions and can we change these to make sure they are done in a state of equilibrium?

Throughout human evolution major religions and cultures around the world have employed, in their teachings, the principle of The Golden Rule. Yep, it sounds like some cheesy, smug self-help book, but if you give it a chance you’ll discover.. it’s actually self-help. For all of us. (Ok, that was quite cheesy)

The Golden Rule is:

a unilateral moral commitment to the well-being of the other without the expectation of anything in return.

Psychologically, it involves a person empathizing with others. Philosophically, it involves a person perceiving their neighbor also as “I” or “self”.[9] Sociologically, “love your neighbor as yourself” is applicable between individuals, between groups, and also between individuals and groups.

We are encouraged to think about the needs of those beyond the confines of our own bodies. And it’s a mindset we need to start using in order to think about the needs of Earth.

If we all accept that other living things have the right to live as much as we do, including all flora and fauna, than we have to start looking at our impact and abuse of natural resources and habitats for commercialisation and profit.

At around this point in the article I was going to provide an in-depth analysis of the problem of plastic pollution and how each bit of single use plastic leaches toxins and poisons into the atmosphere, the land, oceans, wildlife and potentially out bodies, but if you’ve gotten this far then your most likely on board with that. And it makes for pretty grim reading.

Right now our commitment to sustainability ultimately means living a less consumerist lifestyle. This is something we can all begin to implement immediately and, whilst it can be hugely challenging and definitely more of a journey then a destination, it can have unexpected benefits as you choose experiences over possessions and start living life instead of buying stuff.

How can we bring these principles into our everyday lives? Check our Principles and Steps Towards a Simpler, More Eco Friendly Way of Life for the top ways you can start to live more sustainably and in a way that respects the natural world we share this planet with.


Further Reading:





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