Make way for Sustainability

Sustainability is a broad discipline, giving insights into most aspects of the human world 
from business to technology to environment and the social sciences. Sustainability 
draws on politics, economics and, philosophy and other social sciences as well as the 
hard sciences. 
When we hear the word “sustainability” we tend to think of renewable fuel sources, 
reducing carbon emissions, protecting environments and a way of keeping the delicate 
ecosystems of our planet in balance. In short, sustainability looks to protect our natural 
environment, human and ecological health, while driving innovation and not 
compromising our way of life. 
We now live in a modern, consumerist and largely urban existence throughout the 
developed world and we consume a lot of natural resources every day. In our urban 
centres, we consume more power than those who live in rural settings and urban 
centres use a lot more power than average, keeping our streets and civic buildings lit, to 
power our appliances, our heating and other public and household power 
requirements. That’s not to say that sustainable living should only focus on people who 
live in urban centres though, there are improvements to be made everywhere – it is 
estimated that we use about 40% more resources every year than we can put back and 
that needs to changeSustainability and sustainable development focuses on balancing 
that fine line between competing needs – our need to move forward technologically and 
economically, and the needs to protect the environments in which we and others live. 
Sustainability is not just about the environmentit’s also about our health as a society in 
ensuring that no people or areas of life suffer as a result of environmental legislation, 
and it’s also about examining the longer term effects of the actions humanity takes and 
asking questions about how it may be improved. 

Three Pillars of Sustainability

In 2005, the World Summit on Social Development identified three core areas 
that contribute to the philosophy and social science of sustainable development. 
These “pillars” in many national standards and certification schemes, form the 
backbone of tackling the core areas that the world now faces. The Brundtland 
Commission described it as “development that meets the needs of the present 
without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own 
needs” . We must consider the future then, in making our decisions about the 

Economic Development 

This is the issue that proves the most problematic as most people disagree on 
political ideology what is and is not economically sound, and how it will affect 
businesses and by extension, jobs and employability. It is also about providing 
incentives for businesses and other organisations to adhere to sustainability 
guidelines beyond their normal legislative requirements. Also, to encourage and 
foster incentives for the average person to do their bit where and when they 
can; one person can rarely achieve much, but taken as a group, effects in some 
areas are cumulative. The supply and demand market is consumerist in nature 
and modern life requires a lot of resources every single day; for the sake of the 
environment, getting what we consume under control is the paramount issue. 
Economic development is about giving people what they want without 
compromising quality of life, especially in the developing world, and reducing 
the financial burden and “red tape” of doing the right thing. 

Social Development

There are many facets to this pillar. Most importantly is awareness of and
legislation protection of the health of people from pollution and other harmful
activities of business and other organisations. In North America, Europe and the
rest of the developed world, there are strong checks and programmes of
legislation in place to ensure that people’s health and wellness is strongly
protected. It is also about maintaining access to basic resources without
compromising the quality of life. The biggest hot topic for many people right
now is sustainable housing and how we can better build the homes we live in
from sustainable material. The final element is education – encouraging people
to participate in environmental sustainability and teaching them about the
effects of environmental protection as well as warning of the dangers if we
cannot achieve our goals.

Environmental Protection

We all know what we need to do to protect the environment, whether that is
recycling, reducing our power consumption by switching electronic devices off
rather than using standby, by walking short journeys instead of taking the bus.
Businesses are regulated to prevent pollution and to keep their own carbon
emissions low. There are incentives to installing renewable power sources in our
homes and businesses. Environmental protection is the third pillar and to many,
the primary concern of the future of humanity. It defines how we should study
and protect ecosystems, air quality, integrity and sustainability of our resources
and focusing on the elements that place stress on the environment. It also
concerns how technology will drive our greener future; the EPA recognized that
developing technology and biotechnology is key to this sustainability, and
protecting the environment of the future from potential damage that
technological advances could potentially bring.

History of Sustainability

Humans have, since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and maybe even
before then, been a consumer rather than a replenisher of environmental
resources. From hunter-gatherer societies that moved into an area to use up its
resources in a season before setting up camp or moving on, only to return the
following year to do the same, the development of a surplus economy saw
permanent settlements. Slash and burn farming replaced natural wilderness
often with uniform crop plantation and camps gave way to settlements, then
eventually villages, towns and cities which would put pressure on the
environment. Sometimes, the environmental pressures forced people into making these
changes in the first place (growing human population being one of those
pressures) and often eventually they had to move on to somewhere new where
the environmental could better sustain them and their practices, or make
further changes to their existing environment. There was no real concept of
sustainable living, even if the people of the distant past understood that soil had
a maximum fertility that could be exhausted and replenished with livestock.
It is widely acknowledged that many societies collapsed due to an inability to
adapt to the conditions brought on by these unsustainable practices. Whether
that was introducing alien species that upset the balance of the ecosystem,
cutting down too many trees at once or even a failure to adapt to natural
fluctuations in the climate, we are far more aware in the modern world about
the potential damage caused by human action. Cultural change often led to
survival of those societies beyond what might have been expected under the
circumstances. Though some Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers would express
concern about resources and over-population and whether these were
sustainable in the long term, these people were not taken seriously at the time
other than as a hypothetical question. It would take until the 20th century before
we would understand the impact that we could have on our environment.
Environmental damage, pollution, destabilising soils by cutting down trees, fossil
fuels and other environmental issues led to a growing concern about the
environment and whether we were or could damage our own ecosystem. The
United Nations was founded after World War II and in 1945, UNESCO was
established to promote the importance of human culture and of science (14).
Today, their remit is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of
poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education,
the sciences, culture, communication and information” (15).
By the late 20th century, the science of climate change was firmly established. We
knew by the 1980s about the problems of the greenhouse effect and the
destruction of the ozone layer (12) and coming very late in the century, an
awareness of the notion that some of our resources – particularly fossil fuels –
were finite and that we should make efforts to move to renewable methods of
power. It was then that we saw the the social, economic and scientific birth of
the environmental movement.

A Sustainable Future

It is not yet clear what our sustainable future will look like but with emerging
technologies and the improvement of older cleaner fuel sources, many people
now look to a post fossil fuel world – including businesses. Since the 1950s, we
have experienced unprecedented growth including intensive farming, a
technological revolution and a massive increase in our power needs putting
even greater pressure and strain on the planet’s resources. We are also far more
aware of the plight of the developing world and that facing our planet as we now
observe both natural and human-caused disasters and the effects that these can
have on the ecosystems and on human population. It’s vital that we develop
new, cleaner technologies to cope with our energy demands but sustainability is
not just about the environment.
The biggest social activism movement related to the social development side of
sustainability, has been programs such as Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance
in encouraging good farming practices while ensuring farmers who produce
luxury goods such as coffee and cocoa receive a decent living wage. Activist and
sustainability professionals hope to remove trade barriers in future so that they
may benefit everyone, contributing to the economic and social development
core of sustainability while promoting good environmental practice.

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