Sustainable Living

Sustainable Living – Fad or Necessity?

Alison Winston
Written by Alison Winston

We’ve got vegan celebrities, eco-friendly hedge funds, and organic fair-trade fast food. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey and Al Gore to Arnold Schwarzenegger endorses the importance of sustainable living. These days, it’s cool to go green. The wave of green hysteria has all the telltale signs of a pop fad. Should serious people who prefer to ignore the Next Big Thing pay any attention to the sustainability question?

Sustainability has become a ubiquitous buzzword; there’s no shortage of hype surrounding the issue. But sustainability is no mere fad. It’s not like a diet, in one year and out the next. It’s not even limited to just one area of life. The sustainability imperative is relevant to everyone in every sphere – individuals and communities, workers and consumers, children and adults. We’re all in it for the long haul. We have to be.

Overdrawing Our Ecological Bank Account

“The ecological crisis and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity…threaten the very existence of the human species.”

Those are the words of the Catholic Pope Francis, an outspoken supporter of sustainable living and business practices. The “ecological crisis” he references is the logical outcome of unsustainable development and lifestyles. But why is there a crisis caused by unsustainable living? Is it truly a threat to the human species?

Think of the environment as a great big bank account. Because this is a very special kind of account, we can expect it to fill back up again on its own, given enough time and space to recover. All we have to do is patiently wait for the recovery, like letting a farm plot lie fallow so the soils can regenerate between harvests.

When we extract energy and resources, we are making a withdrawal from our ecological account. Unsustainable living means we are withdrawing resources too fast for the coffers to naturally refill with quality intact. It means that the way we live requires too much be taken from the account, too quickly, and with too little concern for how much is needed to sustain everyone else on the planet that needs to make withdrawals.

Left to plow ahead without restrictions, unsustainable practices rapidly deplete natural resources and dangerously weaken the environment’s ability to replenish itself. Ecological crisis means we are officially at critical levels: Immediate preventative action must be taken to ensure we do not permanently overdraw the account and enter a kind of ecological bankruptcy in which humans and their descendants can no longer meet their own needs with a measure of dignity.

Recognition of humans’ interdependence with the environment is the first step on the road to sustainability. We need to move toward a more sustainable culture, economy, and relationship with nature so that humanity and the other living beings with whom we share this planet will have a hospitable place to live for millennia to come. There is no doubt: Sustainability is life. Caring about it necessarily means caring about human health and well-being.

Origins of (Un)Sustainable Living

How did things get to be so ecologically destructive and unsustainable?

About two hundred years ago, the onset of the industrial revolution in select countries marked a major turning point. A handful of economies began to dramatically increase the demands they made on global ecosystems; others followed suit. Economic growth, and thus ever larger and more frequent withdrawals from our ecological bank account, became the new global standard for prosperity. From an ecological standpoint, it was the beginning of the end.

Unfortunately, no built-in restraints were introduced to ensure all our withdrawals would not one day exhaust the environment’s biocapacity. Industrialists of the day simply assumed Earth’s vast resources would continue to service human needs, desires, ambitions, and waste forever. Today, we know that the Earth’s wealth and its capacity to absorb shock are not infinite. People understand there must be limits to environmental withdrawals, and that everyone, especially those who take the most from our common ecological account, must greatly cut back their consumption – or risk squandering it all.

Enter sustainability. Sustainable living involves a more frugal approach to environmental withdrawals, one explicitly designed to help our ecological account stay solvent, healthy, and productive in the long term.

The amounts we can withdraw from the environment without jeopardizing our base and borrowing from future generations can be precisely calculated. According to the Global Footprint Network, the human race has already used up its total global share of energy and resources for 2015. If we calculate how much the Earth can realistically provide us in a single year, it turns out, on average, we are consuming some 1.6 planets a year. We are running a dangerous deficit, one which is now playing out as a great ecocide in natural systems our children will inherit.

Year by year, humans have been consuming more than the planet has to offer since the 1970s. That decade proved a major turning point in the level of public awareness about the threat of unsustainable economics. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and everywhere you can find affected individuals, groups and societies stepping up to reduce total consumption, end unsustainable practices, increase energy efficiency, and reduce waste, pollution, and carbon-based GHG emissons.

Lifestyles of the Sustainable: Individuals Taking Action

While environmental impacts occur on huge scales, it remains true that sustainability starts with individuals – ordinary people like you and me. Take food, for instance. Food is a great example of how a single person’s lifestyle can deeply impact the planet.

Today, people are greening their eating choices with an eye toward improvements in environmental health and sustainability. From farmer’s markets and localist farm-to-fork initiatives to organic community gardens and community land trusts, Earth-friendly food projects have seen a near-meteoric rise in popularity in recent years due to spiking consumer demand. Similarly, no-meat meals have hit the mainstream in a big way as more Americans learn about the substantial health and environmental benefits of vegetarian (meat-less) and vegan (plant-based) diets. Even one or two meat-less meals a week is extremely beneficial for the environment, and it’ll save you money to boot.

More people are composting their home food scraps, too, helping to keep methane-burping materials out of landfills while enriching local soils. When you grow your own vegetables in composted soil, you’re actually performing a vital ecosystem service. Your hard-working cultivars pull excess, globe-warming carbon from the atmosphere back into the biosphere. As sustainability activist Vandana Shiva says, we must return to the Earth the carbon that belongs to her. Climate stability depends on it.

There are innumerable ways individuals can make positive changes that reduce their ecological footprint. How do your consumption choices of food, fiber, energy, and land affect the environment?

Sustainability begins at home – wherever you live and work, that’s the best place to start. What if you wanted to take action for the land, resources, and wildlife around your neighborhood? You could, for example, join the Green Neighborhoods program offered by Audubon International. Program members receive experience-based assistance implementing a cost-effective community sustainability project such as a garden, environmental education for kids, carpooling, and water reuse projects.

Sustainable Communities: New Models for Eco-Social Wellness

Sustainable communities have taken off in recent years. More and more planned communities, business groups, homeowner associations, and college campuses are actively looking for ways to cut resource use and waste and eliminate barriers to sustainability on their own turf.

Eco-savvy neighborhoods and suburbs are popping up left and right. In the enviable suburban community of Serenbe, for instance, denizens of Georgia’s Chattahoochee Hill Country have eliminated through vehicle traffic, planted lush garden landscapes bearing organic and native flora, and introduced cozy outdoor fireplaces near which residents socialize late into the evening.

Over in California, residents of UC Davis West Village are happily living as test subjects for the nation’s largest planned zero-net energy community. These folks are proving that zero-net energy communities are viable on a large scale. Their formula: Cut your energy use in half through efficiency improvements. Then meet your leaner energy needs with renewable power sources, like solar. It’s simple and brilliant.

These local initiatives hint at a larger trend. Big changes are sweeping American cities – more urban shade trees, less lawns, more public transit; aquaculture, cohousing, eco-districts, water-cycling, bike rentals, and more. These changes are certain to provide big benefits, like increased social cohesion. Happily, the best community-level environmental problem-solving also supports neighborhood integration and social engagement.

“I think people are longing for this type of environment. They miss knowing their neighbors and being able to interact with them on a frequent basis,” noted Peggy Gillespie, one of the co-planners for Village Hill Cohousing in Western Massachusetts.

The successes of sustainability-positive communities continually inspire the folks at Audubon International. They now offer a Sustainable Communities Program that provides a handy framework for enhancing community sustainability using evidence-based assessment tools, strategic planning assistance, and technical implementation support.

Community associations that complete the Program are awarded an Audubon Certificate of Recognition demonstrating their commitment to local sustainable development and resource use. Their Sustainable Communities Program makes it easier to achieve meaningful environmental goals at minimal cost and with maximum efficiency.

Sustainable Businesses: Pioneering Sustainable Economics

When it comes to the relation between 21st century businesses and the environment, Forbes writer Jeremy Oppenheim perfectly summarizes the state of the marketplace. “Like it or not, sustainability is now core to your business,” he writes. “What used to be considered green virtue has now morphed into a crucial competitive tool.”

Like end-use consumers, retail and wholesale businesses have a huge impact on the demand for different environmental products. Many are now tweaking their purchasing choices to favor sustainable firms, avoiding B2B relationships with environmentally destructive companies and actively seeking out those with eco-conscious commitments.

Huge companies are now taking up sustainability efforts that both benefit their bottom line and help preserve natural resources. Even Wal-Mart is calculating its greenhouse gas emissions these days, but you don’t have to be a Wal-Mart-scale operation to reap cost-savings and profit opportunities from environmental action.

Small and midsized businesses are cutting costs by switching to high-efficiency machines, sourcing more materials locally, avoiding toxics, going paperless, recycling, and finding ways to save energy and cut water use. Of course, all this translates into green credibility that businesses can use in their marketing to reel in new customers. Many consumers reward sellers that enthusiastically demonstrate their respect for the environment.

Every industry is different; each company has its own unique contraints and priorities. It’s up to business stakeholders and planners who know their field to identify creative ways to modify their operations or decisions to support the environment. But you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Audubon International offers business owners professional guidance on how to effectively and efficiently green their businesses while enhancing their bottom line. Learn more about the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program here.

A Beautiful Thing

Audubon International can help if you’re interested in implementing your own environmental initiative. They have multiple affordable support programs for folks who want to take action for the environment and receive formal recognition for their efforts. Find one that suits your green goals.

Sustainability brings big benefits to those who embrace their own potential for a low-waste, resource-mindful lifestyle. Being able to take great gulps of clear air and clean water, and knowing your kids can too, is truly priceless.

Of course, there will always be some people trying to cash in on the latest fad or play up the cause du jour for their own gain. But the threat posed by unsustainable practices is real. It’s a major problem that demands innovative solutions from imaginative and forward-thinking people that care.

Sustainability is more than a fad; it’s a movement, and a bit of a revolution. Each of us has a role to play. What’s yours? How can you make a positive impact in your own neighborhood or workplace?

About the author

Alison Winston

Alison Winston

Alison is passionate about conservation and the environment. With a Master’s degree in Environmental Geology, Alison has written dozen's of papers focusing on hydrogeology, water quality, and hydrogeochemistry.

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