The first time I heard the word sustainability was during a lecture in college, or perhaps let’s say that was my first memory of it.  Like many other students, I then attached the word to high level topics such as international and national environmental policies etc.  Before recent enlightenment Sustainability was indeed a complicated term that I associated with occurrences beyond my ordinary, daily life.

If somehow you have had a similar experience this article is for you, it will be a worthwhile journey to unpack the meaning of this seemingly popular word in terms of usage especially in discussions around the environment.

Sustainable development (SD) is a holistic and systemic phenomenon that. . . . No this is not that kind of article.  I will speak in a language that is not of professors and that is more colourful.  My aim is to bring sustainability closer to home and to also help you understand the concepts related to the term.  Let’s start off with defining the
word itself.

In dictionaries, sustainability is typically described as a capability of a system to endure and maintain itself.  Sustainability, however, has many more other definitions but that are not too far from this one.

The next definition I encountered was: Sustainable development consists of balancing local and global efforts to meet basic human needs without destroying or degrading the natural environment.

Another definition I encountered was that Sustainability is the process of maintaining change in a balanced fashion, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs
and aspirations.

What all these definitions have in common is that they all speak of the ability to thrive and with a balance within a system of dependency whilst there is a clear focus on the future. This simply means they all echo the need for a balance, highlight how economic, social and environmental aspects are connected and finally the importance of keeping the future in mind. This is what sustainability is about. Now let’s look at some concepts that will help us understand sustainability a little
bit more.

First let’s look at the word Development- This is the growth of an individual, society, a nation or entire world in terms of economic as well as non- economic activities. From the 1980s, sustainability as a term has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this leads us to the concept of sustainable development which is defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations (March 20.  1987) as follows: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainable development involves environmental, economic and social aspects and these are the three pillars. For a particular process to be sustainable, it should not cause irreversible change to the environment, should be economically viable, and should benefit society. This means the three pillars are interdependent or rather are connected and in the long run none can exist without the others.

The environmental aspect is about making sure ecological integrity is maintained, all of earth’s environmental systems are kept in balance while natural resources within them are consumed by humans at a rate where they are able to
replenish themselves.

The economic aspect involves human communities across the globe are able to maintain their independence and have access to the resources that they require, financial and other, to meet their needs.

The social aspect is about making sure universal human rights and basic necessities are attainable by all people, who have access to enough resources in order to keep their families and communities healthy and secure. Also healthy communities have just leaders who ensure personal, labour and cultural rights are respected and all people are protected from discrimination. Although all three pillars are important, the environmental pillar has been the most emphasised and often the other two are discussed in relation to it.

This takes us to the concept of Sustainable Development Goals-The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the current set of seventeen future international development targets, set by the United Nations that replaced the Millennium Development Goals that expired in 2015.

Another term related to Sustainable development is the Ecological Footprint – This is the measure of consumption of the earth’s carrying capacity. Here we are saying that the earth has its limits and we have to thrive to stay within that limit.  This concept emphasizes the need for us to save resources and be more responsible as we consume the earth’s resources.

Lastly we have the Carbon footprint- This measures how much you are contributing to the gases that cause global climate change; also known as “greenhouse gases”; such as Carbon dioxide usually attributed to the use
of energy.

So why should you be spending time reading about these concepts?  As I mentioned before, sustainability is more than just an agenda of high level meetings at the United Nations but something that should be considered as part of our daily decisions. Living sustainably or sustainable living is important in the light of climate change and global warming, the depletion of natural resources and the impact of these on all life on earth.  What this means is that as an individual there are repercussions of your everyday choices.  Sustainability means your life and your choices have a direct influence on the lives of others and generation s to come. What this means is that sustainability entails a responsibility we all have on a daily basis.

So for example, when you dispose of things, do you separate your waste, do you try to reuse whenever you can and do you try to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging? When buying products are you considering reusable versions? Let me help you reflect more by adding a few more questions.

In terms of water use, are you saving water as much as you can? Do you ensure that you close all taps after use or ensure minimal use when you do your dishes, laundry or when you shower? Have you fixed that “small” leak from the toilet or bathroom? Water conservation is critical in light of the growing population and the many drought cases in the world.

In light of bringing sustainability to your daily context I could also ask this: Have you made the switch to energy efficient versions that come with longer life span and a reduction on your energy bill? This is also because using these energy saving light sources will also have the benefit of reducing the amount of waste that goes in t landfills.

Another enquiry would be: Are you contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and more healthy soil by growing trees in your yard or simply having a small garden? Remember that growing your own food is also an economically sustainable practice.  Also of importance is minimizing the use of paper and moving towards a paperless homes or offices in a bid to
reduce deforestation.

Lastly has your car been serviced recently? This is important because keeping your car in a good condition can improve e your fuel efficiency and reduce emission of harmful gases.

All in all are you practicing a “minimalist life style” which is making sure that everything you own and use is put to maximum purpose?  Before you purchase anything ask yourself if it’s really something you need. The “Reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra is still very much important and it simply means reduce your consumption levels, reuse certain items you will have bought and recycle valuable material otherwise considered to
be trash.

Its ok if your answer to most of these questions was a No, assuming that you were not aware of the bigger picture, but with your newly found knowledge comes with a new responsibility.    We all need to take effective action to actually achieve the sustainability of all that we need or depend on and all that we love.

Altogether sustainability has multiple definitions and has many concepts related to it. Understanding the concept of sustainability is now more than ever important as we work towards saving key natural resources for generations to come, having healthy communities, clean air, enough drinkable water, cultivatable land and other resources. After all is said and done, looking after our social, economic and physical environment is something we should all be part of as we keep in mind the kind of future we want for ourselves and generations that are yet to exist.

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