What does sustainability mean to you?

The word ‘sustainable’ has been appearing everywhere recently. New eco-friendly products, certain fisheries, agricultural and land management programs, even new housing developments bear the sustainable brand. People talk about leading more sustainable lives, buying sustainable food, and using sustainable energy. What do we really mean when we says sustainable? Is something sustainable just because it is renewable or is there a deeper sustainable ethic?

For the first Science and Sustainability open thread, we want to know what sustainable means to you. When you decide that something is sustainable, what qualities do you value? Where do you draw the line between sustainable and un-sustainable? Is there a binary, or can some things be more sustainable than others? And finally, when decide what is and is not sustainable, who do you trust?


  1. becca · April 4, 2011

    Sustainability goes beyond renewable- specific components of rainforests are nearly all renewable, but slash and burn agriculture in them is not sustainable.
    Sustainable is more of a continuum than a binary, with an ideal gold-standard of sustainable meaning ‘we can do this just as we are doing this for as far as we can project’.
    In general, I assume local is going to be more sustainable than non-local, and less frequent use of pesticides or antibiotics is probably good (thus, the USDA organic label is better than non-organic, but not necessarily by a huge margin). There’s so much ‘greenwashing’ that I really don’t know who to trust on this issue though, which is probably the biggest problem. It’s not easy to tell what is sustainable.

  2. Mark Gibson · April 4, 2011

    I am constantly striving for a sustainable lifestyle, which I define as living in a way that yields greater, not less, environmental benefits and services for future generations.

    But I don’t think such a lifestyle is yet possible for us. So it is an ideal to strive for. And by striving, we can push technology and social norms further towards those truly sustainable solutions.

    I also think how we should live differs for each person. It is really about what each person’s capabilities are given their geographies, government policies, local infrastructures, incomes, etc. So we all should regularly ask ourselves, are living as sustainably as possible? I try to set aside a little time each month to look into a new area for improvement. My focus is always on the “lowest hanging fruit.” I’ve gotten great inspiration from the Zero Waste Home blog as of late (though it’ll be a long time till I get anywhere close to what they do).

    In practice, I bike and take only public transport. I eat local and organic when possible and budget permitting. I never eat fish from poorly managed fisheries. I minimize my plastics use and take shorter showers. I make my own home cleaners. I try to buy less and borrow more. I live in a small apartment because I don’t want the footprint. And as my income goes up, I’ll focus on carbon offsets for my travel, getting a small home powered by renewables, growing my own veggies, and donating to pro-environment causes (including anti-poverty work).

    Some suggest that going “off the grid” or living a hyper-aware, singularly eco-focused lifestyle is the answer. But I really disagree here. To appreciate our planet, we can’t check out of human society, nor can we spend every moment micro-managing our behavior.

    • Alarm · April 8, 2011

      Sometimes I feel very pessimistic about hope for the future; that people won’t be able to make the changes needed in time. Since the pressure is on, and one of the primary points of sustainability is that the changes needed must be done in a timely matter since, essentially, we’re running out of time here on earth. It’s a huge, mind-boggling problem; how do we get billions of people to make meaningful changes to their lifestyles? How does ANYONE get huge companies to change their exploitative and environmentally (amongst other things)-harmful ways of making money (and maybe the “world” go round?)? Frankly, it’s discouraging and might cause people to want to throw in the towel ahead of time without putting in sustainable effort all the way.

      I fall prey to this defeatist attitude sadly, quite often. I hear about -certain religious zealots- in the USA talk about how all nonrenewable resources can be consumed to their hearts’ content since God will “take care” of the problem, so there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be depressed at all the extravagant waste that’s being made daily in everyone’s lives; the wrappers, plastics, napkins, little trinkets designed for one-use-only prevalent everywhere! In any restaurant! Any food or drink shop! Any grocery store! ANYWHERE! It’s just a mass-produced collage of junk that has become a part of the industrialized-world’s life – how can we undo that in the timely manner required?

      I should mention then what I feel defines sustainability. Besides the obvious dictionary-esque “rate of consumption does not exceed the rate of production and waste,” I also feel it extends into the foundations of any society or population. Consumption, production, and waste should ideally be a functional cycle where all works in harmony, not harm. However with the century’s last boom of toxic and non-biodegradable daily items, and the huge boom of human population everywhere, it appears that essential cycle is severely lopsided.

      I know a defeatist attitude won’t go any good, but I’m acknowledging that it’s very plausible, especially if one is wanting to have hope and to help the cause! But it seems such a gargantuan issue that can only the meaningful chunks can be made by the huge corporate and money-hungry companies that run the world, and lead it headlong into a non-sustainable disaster. We can only start small as individuals but, when are the big players going to really help and give us hope in turn?

  3. Eric · April 4, 2011

    So this then was the crux of the recent 10th anniversary meeting of Marine Stewardship Council. What is sustainable, and what should MSC logo mean re: sustainable seafood. to say the least it was an interesting meeting with people from all over the stakeholder space involved.

    To me there is a gold standard of sustainable which Becca nailed in spirit, but given issues such as climate change, bottom contact fishing etc I think it needs to be qualified which unfortunately makes it messier to convey.

    “We can continue this activity as for at least 100 years at current levels, without further changing the ecosystem, even when we account for current and projected species / ecosystem / habitat changes due to activities besides our own particular extraction and natural variability and processes.” is a lot messier than ‘we can do this just as we are doing this for as far as we can project’ but it precludes the caveats that have been used historically too often. If I have a stand of 100 old growth trees, I can cut 1 per year, and even without replanting it is a long term sustainable operation if we don’t consider wider ecosystem implications of the target species and its removal. Yes that line of reasoning actually was used to justify a timber operation as sustainable, only much larger stand of trees and much shorter timespan.

    I also agree with Becca, it’s a continuum, not binary choice. It doesn’t need to be gold standard to be good. More sustainable is better than less, and for our family we look to try and find the most sustainable option within a given price range (hey, we’re graduate student family, $$ are nearly non-existant for us which points out major issue of economics sustainability as well.)

    Renewable contributes to sustainable, but life-stages of plants and animals have different ecological roles and shifting a large population from older to younger individuals could have significant impacts on non-target species and processes (it could also have significant unforeseen impacts on the target species, thinking of recruitment cues, habitat engineering etc)

    As for who to trust, that is hardest of all to me. Too much mis-information, a lot of biases, too often the full basis of decisions not open to public. I operate on a trust but verify principle, thus only trust organizations that make their full reports publicly available including citations, not just the final judgement. Generally speaking I trust MSC, Monterey Bay, and Blue Oceans (all ocean realm) In non-marine realm I trust FSC though it is much lower trust than for MSC etc.

  4. Mike Lisieski · April 4, 2011

    I want to point out that the words “green” and “sustainable”, when applied to products or packaging usually actually mean “somewhat less environmentally devastating than the other choice”.

    I think there is a fundamental conflict between large-scale industrial and post-industrial society and environmental sustainability. It is hard for us to understand or even care about consequences that we don’t see, especially when negating those consequences would involve unpleasant changes to our lifestyle (like taking an hour to get to class on public transportation vs. 20 minutes via car, to use an example from my own life.) Because the most significant environmental damage from “unsustainable” practices happens from the aggregated action of millions of people, it’s hard to see how one’s individual actions might change anything; indeed, it’s hard to think about what might be there to change if it’s not right in your face. Thus, I am pessimistic about whether initiatives on the part of individuals is a very effective way to make environmental change (although I try to do live in a less rather than a more environmentally damaging way, and I do encourage other people to do the same.) Until something happens to make the consequences of using plastic bags or eating rare animals (or environmentally disruptive foods of any sort) more imminent to people, I don’t think we’ll be very motivated to stop.

    That said, I don’t think that “sustainable” is really a good goal, if it is a good marketing concept – I think that “conscientiously efficient” is a better one. We shouldn’t waste resources that don’t need to be wasted, but we also shouldn’t pretend that we’ll ever be able to set the environments and ecosystems we’ve spent hundreds of years disrupting in balance to the point where they will be static and stable, or that we’ll ever develop processes for using resources that don’t need to be monitored and improved. “Sustainable”, in the best case, means something like “sustainable given the X, Y, and Z don’t change for the foreseeable future, our hypotheses about V and W are right, and we constantly monitor and correct for U.”

  5. Katie McKissick · April 4, 2011

    Before I can say what sustainability means to me, I’ll say a little bit about what it’s not. It’s definitely not the “disposable” culture that we’ve created. I think having disposable everything shows how just how far removed we’ve gotten from any sort of semblance of sustainability. It seems to keep getting worse. I lost it the first time I saw the ad for the disposable bathroom towels. I mean, I use paper towels in public restrooms, but crimony, people use them at home? The ad drove me crazy because it was suggesting that your bathroom hand towel might be gross, as it showed an increasingly used-looking, dingy towel. Then the ad asks something along the lines of “who knows where it’s been?” YOU DO! IT’S IN YOUR BATHROOM! If it’s dirty, you WASH it. Sorry, I get a little angry when I think about disposable bathroom towels in the home.

    But seriously, we need to stop using so many disposable products. We need to think about how we can reuse things. I’m shocked when I see people at Trader Joe’s who don’t bring their own bags. It’s the easiest thing to do, and it can cut down on so much “paper or plastic.”

    I’m especially concerned about all the plastic we use. It’s so hard to avoid, and it never goes away. I’m happy about the compostable plastic-esque products we have now, but we have a lot of plastic uses to replace, and we’d better do it fast!

    I’ve also been inspired by the Zero Waste Home blog. She said she’s been inspired by her children and her thinking about their future.

    So perhaps to me, sustainability means actually thinking about what you’re doing and how what you do, buy, use, reuse, recycle, don’t recycle, and throw away affects the world today, tomorrow, and 1,000 years from now. It’s the concept that the 7th generation line of products is named after, but even though it’s now cliche, it’s no less of a great way to think about your footprint.

    We all impact the earth, but we can have a positive impact if we concentrate on reducing or consumption and reusing what we have.

  6. Thorsteinn Masson · April 5, 2011

    What a great question.
    If I may I’d like to approach this matter from a fishing point of view. (I will keep it short 🙂

    We often think that fish farming is the sustainable way and in in some cases it is. But the problem with fish farming is that to much of the “food” comes from fish that is not caught in a sustainable matter. so we are saving “one” by sacrificing another

    We are also facing similar problem in commercial fishing. We may not be overfishing but we are in some cases not using sustainable fishing gear and/or using to much fuel.

    So my conclusion is that to be sustainable we have to think thing to the end and consider every aspect of the matter.

    Thanks for bringing out this interesting topic.

  7. Calmac · April 5, 2011

    The fundamental truth is that it is we, ie humans, that are not sustainable and until we address this issue, then everything else will pale into insignificance.

  8. vacougar · April 5, 2011

    In response to Mike’s points, I have to agree when he says I don’t think we will be very motivated to stop until something happens to bring the consequences to our attention. I can’t speak for everyone but I have often heard the “funny” quote, “who cares if my grandkids don’t get to see a polar bear? I didn’t get to see dinosaurs…” and I have to say, I personally do actually care. I joke with my suitemates when one of them leaves their cell phone charger plugged in when they’re done charging their phone (which still uses as much energy as a charger with a cell phone attached) or leaves the lights on when they leave the room for class, hey turn that off I want my grandkids to see a polar bear someday. But as much as I do joke, I realize that I barely do anything to be “sustainable” because I do not see any serious affects in my day to day life. I am well aware of the problems of global warming and the crisis we have put ourselves into by being the disposable culture Katie discussed, yet I feel as though all the small things I do, do not help. To discuss this disposable culture further, I would just like to first thank you, Katie, for noticing those absurd commercials for the disposable towels in the bathroom. My friend and I saw that commercial for the first time together and both commented on the same things you did; the dingy towel they compare the disposable towels to, the absurd idea that you have no idea where the towel has been in your own bathroom, etc. People use these products for convenience and they convince themselves that it is cleaner, better, faster, easier, etc. All of the infomercials out there are astounding. One of the most ridiculous ones I have seen yet is the Holy Bible on DVD (NOT BRINGING RELIGION INTO THIS). Honestly? If you have an interest in the Bible, READ IT. Is it necessary to watch it on tv? The answer is clearly no, but there are arguments that this invention and ones like it are more convenient and time efficient. While this is seems ridiculous, there are actually some inventions out there for your convenience that are sustainable.

    The convenience of a bottle of water for example is a novel idea, but is there really a need to throw away your plastic water bottle once you use it once? It is a small effort, but I reuse a water bottle for weeks before getting a new one (even though I really should just invest in one of those ones for hiking). I know there are plenty of more things I could do, but I am guilty as well of convincing myself that I do things for convenience. As a college student every penny and every minute counts. I recently started purchasing organic milk for my cereal because the taste really isn’t all that different. There are pros and cons to it. It lasts forever, but it is so much more expensive. So much more expensive, I almost considered switching back to my old milk. I only reconsidered because I realized that the amount of milk that I throw away because it has gone bad in my fridge is ridiculous. It really is worth the extra money for organic.

    I guess everything here that I’m trying to say all adds up to agree a lot with Katie in that sustainability to me means your effort to reduce your carbon footprint. The degree of sustainability is the overall effort one puts into being “green” or reusing or recycling. As for who I trust? I don’t know who to trust or what to believe anymore. I do not trust the media or the far right or far left extremists for that matter. I trust my own instincts when it comes to sustainability. Deep down I know what I can do to reduce my impact on the planet. It is really the question of do I trust myself to act on my instincts. When I decide something is sustainable and do follow my instincts, I find that I continue to act on it. The line between sustainable and un-sustainable to me is blurred because of all of the different opinions out there on “going green” and all of the controversy behind it. That comes back to the specific situation and my instincts and my own opinions on it. For example, I value supporting local farmers because foremost it helps them and the environment more, and to top it off it usually tastes better. So this is something I act on and see a distinct line between sustainability and un-sustainability. But there are some things that are not so binary for me. As I stated earlier buying organic was not so binary for me, it took me a while to decide even though organic is better because it may not necessarily have been better for me. So to conclude, sustainability to me is a lot of instinct when one is so informed on both sides of such a controversial subject as going green, being environmentally friendly, sustainability, whatever you choose to call it, and a lot of desire to make an impact and act on your instincts.

  9. peaceandlove · April 8, 2011

    Sustainability is how a person chooses to live his or her life. In response to Mark’s comments, I would have to agree with the fact that a sustainable lifestyle differs for each person. Not only a person’s income, but also one’s culture plays a drastic role on how they choose to live their life. Americans, for instance, are more likely to live a life of leisure than those living in the slums of Haiti. It seems as if people in America take what they have for granted more often than not. If it’s taking long showers or taking our cars an hour to work each day, Americans have the luxury to do what they please. Just this past week, in my college biology class, we calculated the average amount of water and electricity a person in the United States uses on average, and the results shocked me. I had no idea that most Americans use approximately 150 gallons of water a day. It is absurd to think that this is looked past as nothing. There is no doubt that little changes to lifestyle can have an impact on our future. For example, not watering your grass everyday or running the dishwasher so often will cut down the amount of water used considerably.

    Furthermore, I would have to also agree with Mike’s comments. Mike stated, “It’s hard to see how one’s individual actions might change anything.” Humans like to see what is going to happen right away. People know that there is not a set of guidelines or rules to follow, so they simply do as they please, often times with what is most convenient for them. Being vice president of my high school’s Go Green club opened my eyes to how people honestly do not care. Sure, they recycle if you are walking around with a bag for plastic containers, but are they going to do the same day after day? Individuals always say that they are going to do this or they are going to do that, but when is that change actually going to occur? Like Becca said, it is a continuum. It is ridiculous to see the type of culture we have all become exposed to. Though I may only be a college student, I know that there is much more that I could be doing to live up to a sustainable lifestyle. I cannot count the amount of times that I have asked for a ride a few blocks down the street or bought something without thinking twice. Sustainability can be closely related to “going green.” The 3 R’s of recycling are vital in today’s society: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Instead of buying, borrow. Instead of driving, ride a bike. These little things add up especially if everyone is doing them. Reducing one’s carbon footprint can really put things into perspective for other individuals.

    Trusting who decides what is and what is not sustainable is an extremely hard decision. People ultimately have it in them to decide for themselves. We want to live as we please right now, but we also want our children and generations to come to do the same thing. Overall, it is a person’s own experiences that justify what sustainability means to them. However, what is clear is the fact that individuals need to start making adjustments to their lifestyle in order to ensure that we have resources for the future.

  10. kbmurphy09 · April 11, 2011

    I believe that sustainability is the effort to maintain a balance between what we need, our population, and the resources we have. Now two of those things are really out of our hands, as an individual. We can do studies and figure out how much of a resource we have, and we can have census surveys about the population size and it’s growth from year to year. But as an individual, we cannot do anything that would affect those two things as a whole, besides promoting our ideas for how to live in a better world, and how to save what we have. The one thing we can affect is what we need, what we have, and what we want. I believe that maintaining a degree of knowledge about our resources and how to conserve them is very important. I agree with the post above mine in the sense that it is hard to determine who decides what is sustainable and what we need. And even if something is deemed harmful to our sustainability, it doesn’t mean that things will suddenly change and people around the world will discontinue its use. A lot of people live in the right now, as the person wrote above me, and sometimes its the startling facts, such as those from the carbon footprint experiment where you see how many acres you would need to survive, to make people realize that changes must be made. No one person can make big changes and reverse the depletion of resources and the expanding population, but every single person can do their part in trying to slow down the process. Education is the first step. From that education, let people take from it what they will.

  11. Paul · May 3, 2011

    Hello Peeps its Paul from good old England.

    I’m new here and have Just been reading a few posts as I find them all very interseting and so to is the throw away society that thinks it can spend, spend, spend and therefore consume, consume consume until it comes out of their ears. Indeed if sustainable is about preserving what we have and creating what we don’t then our capatalist values must change right now.

    I mean it seams as if our efforts are like pissing on a raging fire up wind making all things appear hopeless but alas I don’t think it is. Our efforts are working and more people are deciding to address this raging flame that threatens to engulf us all and this goes for all Yanks and Brits and the rest to boot. Yes I think sustainable is about preserving what we have and creating what we don’t so lets not stop being creative in our means to be more earth friendly.

    For example: I am what is called a freegon here in the UK using food that super markets throw away. Its truly amzing the stuff they discard which is perfectly fine and edable.
    There really is no excuse for this criminal waste whilst millions starve and our leaders say there’s a food shortage. To address sustainability we must tackle the illusion of the idea of plenty then we will get somewhere.

    All the best Paul

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