The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level
Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain ecological balance
To the Oxford dictionary, the definition of sustainability can be seen above.
For me, sustainability refers to the effective management of the finite natural resources on our planet to ensure the ability to maintain life without compromising ecological balance or any potential future needs.
Governments, like that of the UK, acknowledge the dire circumstances of climate change but only consider sustainability in situations where it would provide an easy transition for job and economic growth opportunities. Similarly, for Singapore, minimal natural resources and lack of land availability leads to other issues like food security, urban planning, affordable housing and economic development to compete for prioritization against climate change solutions, despite their interconnectedness.
With the recent shift to hold corporations accountable, companies have begun transitioning towards sustainable practices. Most of them are aware of the crisis we are in but their efforts aren’t exactly thorough, leading to greenwashing accusations. They may not genuinely care about the environment, they may only do it due to pressure from consumers, they may not have the resources to commit to a green transition or they may not even know what they need to do or where to start.
And of course, we have fossil fuel companies - the leaders in the destruction of the environment. They bear most of the blame for climate change, given that they contribute to roughly 78% of total greenhouse gas emissions. There is no denying the numbers, yet, how might these companies justify their work? You might have heard of the recent ExxonMobil scandal exposing ExxonMobil lobbyists for admitting to knowing about anthropogenic climate change, yet continuing to advocate for oil while planting seeds of doubt about global warming. The Hydrocarbon Processing magazine defines sustainability as the process of managing available resources, investments and technologies to maintain and optimize operations for greater safety, reliability, efficiency and environmental and social awareness. For example, investing in chemical technologies to recycle plastics, employing digital technologies to improve plant reliability and safety and more.
Overall, it seems simple enough, right? Sustainability = Do not mess up the only planet we have. But it’s slightly more complicated than that. Within sustainability, there are 3 main areas: Environment, Society and Economy.
Environmental sustainability is about protecting the earth’s natural resources by finding renewable alternatives, preventing climate change and conserving species and the ecosystem. In order to achieve these aims, we need to control the rate of resource harvest, pollution creation and depletion of non-renewable natural resources which would create a balanced relationship between the natural resources available to us and the human consumption of those resources. By achieving this balance, we can prevent a global food crisis, energy crisis and global warming crisis while not restricting technological and economic advancement.
A sustainable economy, also known as a circular bioeconomy, is an essential balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability which couples two transformations within our economy: transitioning it from a linear system to a circular system and deviating from the use of nonrenewable materials to renewable natural resources. ‘Circular’ refers to repurposing, reusing or recycling existing products to not only prevent the unnecessary exploitation of natural resources but also diverting waste from arriving at landfills, while ‘Bioeconomy’ refers to products sustainably made from renewable and bio-based materials.
According to the World Economic Forum, the circular bioeconomy offers a conceptual framework for using renewable natural resources to power the economy because it contains the ability to adapt and is therefore crucial for ensuring resilience and sustainability of our natural resources. By implementing necessary conservation measures and market instruments, we can transform our economy by incentivizing farmers, biobased companies and carbon-intensive industries to invest back into biodiversity.
In the greater context of society, sustainability increases people’s coexistence with the environment. A majority of society has grown apart from the natural world, considering it as a separate entity rather than living in cohesion with the environment. This separation has caused a pandemic of indifference towards environmental degradation, despite numerous scientific findings backing the benefits of living within nature.
Bonus: Intersectional Environmentalism
Intersectionality refers to an analytical humanistic approach to issues by spotlighting racial, gender, cultural, class, social disadvantages and privileges which exist within an issue. By taking these lenses into perspective, we can formulate solutions to the environmental crisis without neglecting the needs of communities that are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Developed with the aim of minimizing the disadvantages of climate solutions is the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is not an unknown fact that to lessen the impacts of climate change, we need to improve the quality of life for people around the world, without increasing our carbon footprint. This is why several UN SDGs focus on eradicating poverty, improving the quality of education and striving for gender equality amongst other goals.
Written by Zara Shilakis