But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What does sustainability even mean? While it’s not my personal favorite definition, here is probably the most broad and well-known definition of sustainability, paraphrased from the 1987 Brundtland Commission report :
Sustainability: Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.This definition has a few key components:
Physical limits: Front and center in the definition is the recognition that there are physical limits to what we can do without hurting those who come after us. To live sustainably is to live in a way that could be continued for one, ten, or a thousand generations. To live unsustainably is to live in a way that is physically impossible to continue, and furthermore, actually undermines the possible quality of life in the future. Burning fossil fuels is a paradigm example of an unsustainable practice: first, fossil fuels are physically limited and thus their burning cannot continue indefinitely, and second, burning fossil fuels contributes significantly to global climate change, which will very likely have negative consequences long into the future.
Justice: Also explicit in the definition is a concern for how well present and future needs are being met. This is a question of justice and equity. Meeting the needs of the present and the future is not about meeting just some people’s needs, especially not at the expense of others. To live sustainably is to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met. Currently, we live in a world with an increasing gap between the rich and the poor (both globally and within the United States), where, for example, one human being makes 28 cents an hour producing garments for a corporation whose CEO, another human being, makes $104,000 an hour . Poorer people (both globally and within the United States) also bear the brunt of wastes and toxins that are created mainly to benefit wealthier people . A world that doesn’t even meet the needs of the present is neither just nor sustainable.
Flourishing: As helpful as the above definition of sustainability is, though, it’s missing something truly vital. If the previous two paragraphs were all there is to sustainability, then living sustainably would seem to be about sacrifice, giving something up, or living like a martyr. It would seem to be a world of restrictions, of coolly calculating limits and resources and waste and money. But this is not at all what sustainability is about.
To me, at the heart of sustainability is the idea of flourishing. Flourishing is about health and well-being, for both communities and individuals. It applies to both human and non-human communities, which is something that proponents of sustainability often ignore. A flourishing community is an active, vibrant community, where its members are healthy, secure, and connected to each other and to the place. A flourishing individual also lives a fulfilling life rich in relationships and meaning.
A new way of being: And that, ultimately, is what I think sustainability is about. It’s about a whole new way of being. A flourishing, healthy way of being. Buying food at the farmer’s market, for instance, is not about giving up the convenience of the grocery store, but about a new way of being that values local food and the people who produce it . It’s about an ecologically healthier way of producing and transporting food. It’s about an economically healthier way of supporting small farmers and contributing to a strong local economy. It’s about a nutritionally healthier way of eating more fresh, whole vegetables and fruits. It’s about a socially healthier way of preparing and eating food together with friends, family, and neighbors.
And that’s why I think sustainability is the single most important, and satisfying, challenge we have.