When a word becomes so popular you begin hearing it everywhere, in all sorts of marginally related or even unrelated contexts, it means one of two things. Either the word has devolved into a meaningless cliché, or it has real conceptual heft. “Green” (or, even worse, “going green”) falls squarely into the first category. But “sustainable,” which at first conjures up a similarly vague sense of environmental virtue, actually belongs in the second. True, you hear it applied to everything from cars to agriculture to economics. But that’s because the concept of sustainability is at its heart so simple that it legitimately applies to all these areas and more.
Despite its simplicity, however, sustainability is a concept people have a hard time wrapping their minds around. To help, Scientific American Earth 3.0 has consulted with several experts on the topic to find out what kinds of misconceptions they most often encounter. The result is this take on the top 10 myths about sustainability. And after this introduction, it’s clear which myth has to come first....
Myth 1: Nobody knows what sustainability really means.
That’s not even close to being true. By all accounts, the modern sense of the word entered the lexicon in 1987 with the publication of Our Common Future, by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland commission after its chair, Norwegian diplomat Gro Harlem Brundtland). That report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Or, in the words of countless kindergarten teachers, “Don’t take more than your share.”
Note that the definition says nothing about protecting the environment, even though the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” issue mostly from the mouths of environmentalists. That point leads to the second myth....
Myth 2: Sustainability is all about the environment.
The sustainability movement itself—not just the word—also dates to the Brundtland commission report. Originally, its focus was on finding ways to let poor nations catch up to richer ones in terms of standard of living. That goal meant giving disadvantaged countries better access to natural resources, including water, energy and food—all of which come, one way or another, from the environment. “The economy,” says Anthony Cortese, founder and president of the sustainability education organization Second Nature, “is a wholly owned subsidiary of the biosphere. The biosphere provides everything that makes life possible, assimilates our waste or converts it back into something we can use.”
If too many of us use resources inefficiently or generate waste too quickly for the environment to absorb and process, future generations obviously won’t be able to meet their needs. Says Paul Hawken, the author (his latest book is Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw it Coming) and entrepreneur (he’s a co-founder of the Smith & Hawken garden tools company) who helped to found the sustainability movement: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP [gross domestic product].”
If people continue to pour carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air, for example, we won’t necessarily exhaust resources (there’s plenty of coal still in the ground), but we will change the climate in ways that could very likely impose huge burdens on future generations. The same, of course, goes for the poisonous by-products other than CO2 from all kinds of human activity, from manufacturing to mining to energy generation to agriculture, that get dumped onto the land and into streams, oceans and the atmosphere.