If you are reading this, you are among the admirable people who are trying to keep up with everything that’s going on in the world of sustainability. Thank you for that! We need all of our eyes and ears, all of our heads and hearts working hard to get our messed up world figured out and sorted out. It’s a daunting task, particularly because it’s gotten mired in confusion. It’s hard to even know what questions to ask.
Which is better: reusable plastic bags or recycled paper bags? If cows are bad, is it bad to raise any animals, including my dog? How many trees do we need to plant to mitigate climate change?
There’s a lot of information to sort through, and it’s hard to filter when it’s presented as hyperbole, click-bait, and myopic headlines. How do you know what to believe and how to make decisions?
It’s not that hard to understand if you go back to the basics about what is — and what is not — sustainable.
The Natural Step was founded back in 1989 in Sweden by oncologist Dr Karl-Henrik Robèrt. This framework defines success (in sustainability) through their four basic Sustainability Principles:
In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…
1) …concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust (such as fossil CO2, heavy metals and minerals)
2) …concentrations of substances produced by society (such as antibiotics and endocrine disruptors)
3) …degradation by physical means (such as deforestation and draining of groundwater tables).
4) And in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning.
What do these principles tell you? A lot, of course! I’ll let you start to consider them as you continue to read headlines and struggle to make sustainability-based decisions. To get you started, here are just a few things to think about, in relation to the questions posed above.
Plastic is not sustainable. Now that we’re swimming in it, we need to find ways to manage all of that waste and pollution, but it is clear that there is no way to sustainability produce petroleum-based plastics — that directly violates TNS principles #1 and #2, and indirectly violates #3 and #4 (which taps into issues of environmental justice).
Cows are sustainable, if raised in alignment with nature’s cycles. People have been blaming cows for climate change; however, cows do not violate TNS principles #1 and #2 — people do. And they only violate #3 if ranchers choose to manage them that way. The same holds true for all forms of farming.
Trees are sustainable — and permanent deforestation is not sustainable — however, it is also not sustainable to expect our existing forests to sequester the “concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust (such as fossil CO2)” that we continue to create through the mining and burning of fossil fuels. Thus it is not sustainable — or even vaguely appropriate — to set aside an acre of trees so that we can drive our fossil fueled cars another 26,000 miles. And if we did, would we build our homes out of concrete and steel?
There’s so much to think about and it is easy to feel discouraged and disempowered when you read the headlines. Hopefully, this gives you a little bit of grounding to move ahead with more clarity.
Again, I thank you for the time and energy you are spending to try to figure out how to make the world more sustainable. If you want to dive deeper — much deeper — please explore our (fully online) MA in Sustainable Design program. I’m happy to explore ideas with you!