What’s “sustainability”?

Living sustainably is living to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[1]

When I say sustainability, I speak of three types: environmental, economic, and social. Environment is what most people think about when they hear sustainable or green, but the other two don’t often come up in mainstream discourse. We usually hear “going green”, which means buying a brand new bamboo dining set and throwing out the acrylic one you had before.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of capitalism (ha), but since money makes the world go round, changes in how we live and do business must be economically sustainable in the marketplace. Of course, if there are incentives to produce/sell/distribute products and services in a more environmentally sustainable way (because consumers demand it), businesses should, in theory, get on board. Social sustainability is of course tied to social justice: with this green hype, we can’t forget the marginalized folks who end up making our “eco bamboo socks” (and the toxic chemicals they’re exposed to) in sweatshops, nor can we chomp down on chocolate without taking to heart it was most likely produced by child/slave labor. Even the fact that toxic waste facilities tend to be in low-income neighborhoods falls under the social-sustainability branch.

So there you have it, my working definition of sustainability, with a mild injection of political sentiment. To be honest, sustainability at its core is political. What is deemed “sustainable” or “unsustainable” (and who benefits/languishes because of it) depends on who has the power to do so, and that is the most basic definition of “political”. I could go on, but you get the idea: sustainability isn’t just about the environment; it intersects with probably everything you can think of.

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