What is Sustainability…Really?

What is sustainability really and what can you do about it? Well, I, Rochelle, would like to take this opportunity to tell you about it and some of the issues it is trying to address. Currently, I am studying to be able to incorporate sustainability into everything I do.

Rochelle and Earth

Disclaimer: Brief moments of utter disbelief and depression may be triggered during this post. However, this will be accompanied by eventual enlightened awareness and hopefulness for changing systems and their positive effects.

Sustainability refers to “sustaining” things for ourselves and for future generations, because believe it or not, our ability to sustain life in the future is being compromised. But, how? There are three main culprits: risks from global warming. environmental toxicity and natural resource depletion.

Risks from Global Warming

Let’s start with global warming…what is it really? Well, Earth pretty much has a blanket surrounding it called the Atmosphere.

The atmosphere keeps the planet warm enough to support life. Otherwise it would be a barren landscape, much like our moon, which has no atmosphere. The atmosphere keeps Earth warm by trapping warm gases from the Earth’s core and crust, instead of escaping into the coldness of space.

In the past, these gases were released by natural causes like plants and animals and volcanoes… But at a much slower rate than we release them today through the burning of fossil fuels, which really are the remains of prehistoric plants and animals that decomposed and pressurized over time into oil, coal, peat and natural gas. Hence the “fossil” in “fossil fuels.” This has caused Earth’s temperature to get much warmer, much faster, than ever before.

What’s worse is that future temperature is predicted to rise exponentially, as in much faster than it has been warming so far. Can you see the sharp rise in global temperature anomalies (a temperature departure from a reference value or long-term average) from 1980 on? Eek. 

Rising Temp

These global emissions from fossil fuels have increased by over 16 times between 1900 and 2008 and by about 1.5 times between 1990 and 2008. Like I said, exponentially.

So, I know what you’re thinking…if the Earth’s climate is getting hotter than ever before, why was last winter, like, the coldest winter ever? Well, there’s a major difference between climate and weather. Weather changes every season, every day and can change significantly from year to year.

But climate captures weather fluctuations over a much grander span of time, longer than we can really conceptualize, to detect the major trends of temperature. After all, do you remember how cold the winters were twenty (or 200) years ago? That’s the timeline that climate describes.

ClimateAlso, all the extra heat is causing more extreme weather patterns to emerge, rather than the rather peaceful conditions we’re used to. We are actually living in one of the most peaceful times of Earth’s history. Instead of being bombarded by earthquakes, active volcanoes and meteorites, things are rather calm geologically. Anthropologically, however, things aren’t looking as peachy.  The extra heat released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is causing storms, hurricanes and floods to hit with an unprecedented vengeance.

Extreme Weather

So, to recap, global warming is caused from too many greenhouse gas emissions heating up the planet by being trapped in Earth’s atmosphere. This warming is causing extreme weather to form like super storms, severe droughts and deadly flooding. And all of those extra greenhouse emissions are from human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels for energy and heat.

Environmental Toxicity

Whew, bummer. Global warming sounds like the worst. Well, it is, but environmental toxicity is up there too. What does environmental toxicity mean? It means our environment is becoming so polluted, it is unhealthy for plants, animals, and even people, to thrive in.

For example, you know you aren’t supposed to eat too much tuna or bigger fish like swordfish because of the threat of mercury poisoning. The main cause of mercury poisoning is from coal plants. Mercury is naturally found in many rocks including coal. When coal is burned, mercury is released into the environment and pollutes land, air, and waterways.

Mercury Cycle

One of the worst aspects of environmental toxicity is how sick it is making us become. If you think about it, everything we eat, drink and breathe is absorbed into our bodies and metabolized. Anything toxic our bodies can’t get rid of, is stored in our fatty tissue or absorbed. Because of this, our bodies have absorbed hundreds of different toxins, which has risen the rate of cancer development. More than 85% of cancer cases are not hereditary, but rather, have developed from environmental toxicity.

In 1950, a quarter of the population would be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes. By the 1970s, this increased to 35% of the population. Currently, it is expected that about 50% of the population will develop some type of cancer in their lifetime. That is half of us. Scary.

So, where are all of these toxins coming from? Environmental toxicity is from several sources including:

• Fossil fuel exhaust from power plants, buildings and cars

• Chemical toxicity from pesticides, fertilizers, industrial chemicals and even household cleaning products

• And others sources, like pharmaceutical wastewater, industry waste, and toxic leaching from landfills

The recent water contamination in Toledo, Ohio was from the vast amount of fertilizer and human and animal waste that added too many nutrients to the once pristine waters in that region. These nutrients provided food for toxic algae and caused a process called eutrophication, which is harmful to anything that isn’t a toxin-emitting algae. This actually happens all of the time, but generally not to such a large body of water that thousands of people rely on for drinking water. Below is an image of almost the exact same process causing a “dead zone,” or place where only the toxin-emitting algae can survive, in the Gulf of Mexico from fertilizer run-off down the Mississippi river.

Runoff Environmental toxicity is from releasing emissions or waste products that are toxic to living organisms. This causes living things, including humans, to get sick and die prematurely. Or, to live with chronic diseases like asthma, which is another disease that is on the rise and primarily caused from air pollution, especially smog. All of this environmental toxicity comes from human made materials that are harmful, or from human activity that causes toxic waste and emissions.

Natural Resource Depletion

So, now that you’re probably thoroughly depressed…why do you need to know about natural resource depletion? Well, this is pretty disconcerting as well. For example, we’ve always relied on our vast amount of resources—like trees, freshwater, nutrient-rich soil, minerals and lifestock— to help us survive and thrive. But all of these things are running low and running out. Especially because we are consuming them faster than they can grow back. Even things you wouldn’t expect, like…

Resource Depletion

Although we may be ok without oil, minerals and fish, there’s no way we can survive without clean air. All of our oxygen comes from plants—either from phytoplankton from the oceans (50%) or from the world’s forests. Deforestation and ocean acidification is literally taking away our breathe, plus any ability to balance out the ill effects from fossil fuel emissions. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, or absorb it, out of the air. When a tree is cut and dies, it releases this carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.


Tree Lungs

And it’s going to be very difficult to live without water. 

Of all the water on Earth, only 1.2% of it is freshwater. And most of that is from rivers, lakes, and aquifers that are being overdrawn and depleted. Many parts of the world already experience water crises where water is the source of geopolitical violence, like in Syria, India, Peru and Yemen, among others.

Even in the United States, we’ve heard about the drought in California that is drying up the “salad bowl” of the West. Due to the melting of the ice caps, glaciers have already melted away, and that precious snowpack that melts in the spring to replenish the waters in California is no longer there. This is causing everything from lakes to aquifers to reservoirs to reach dangerously low levels.

ReseviorNatural resource depletion is from mismanagement and overconsumption of natural resources like water, air and trees. This loss of natural capital threatens the very survival of our species. The depletion of wild habitat has already caused the extinction of over 35% of Earth’s amazing creatures. And this natural resource depletion comes from poor management of and taking too much from Earth’s bounty over too short an amount of time.


Phew, sounds terrible. What are we supposed to do about all these issues? This brings us back to Sustainability, which in many ways is the answer to these seemingly daunting problems. Traditionally, we’ve only focused on improving economic conditions, but sustainability aims to achieve better economic prosperity while respecting other people and their rights as well as being aware of ecological boundaries. Sustainability tries to reconcile these seemingly disparate interests into a “sweet spot” of sustainable action and development.

Susty Venn Diagram

Sustainability is a broad field and can pertain to pretty much anything, but there are several main facets of sustainability that you should know about. The first one is Sustainable Fuel that is fuel that won’t run out anytime soon and doesn’t cause harm to the environment, animals, or people when it is created.  Also referred to as Clean Energy. And there are some pretty cool examples out there. 

Clean Energy

Another awesome component of sustainability is sustainable technology, which is technology that helps humans increase their longevity in a way that doesn’t harm others or impair their chance at survival. Also known as Clean Tech. Check these out: 

Clean Tech But, even though these developments are impressive, they won’t truly be sustainable without collective Sustainable behavior. Also called Doing the Right Thing.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Do more with less, or recycle what you can’t use. Recycling not only saves a tremendous amount of natural resources from being cut down, pulled up, or demolished and saves many tons of emissions from being released—it also creates millions of jobs. Sending 10,000 pounds of waste to the landfill supports 3 jobs, while recycling the same amount supports 18 jobs, 6x the amount of jobs.

Responsible Consumership

One of the main reasons some things haven’t changed as quickly as they could, it that people keep buying things that are made unsustainably, make their families ill, or release millions of greenhouse gases—and they just don’t realize. Being a responsible consumer takes work, but corporations rely on people to pay their bills. If people want something different, then companies will change accordingly. The number 3 reason corporations don’t go sustainble: “Consumers do not consistently factor sustainability into their purchase decisions.”

And if these Sustainable behaviors sound like too much work, you can always help others do the work for you. Also called Philanthropy.

Support Non Proftis, NGOs, and Community Groups

More than 50% of public work is done by non profits and groups that rely on donations and grants for their funding. By donating just a couple bucks every month or a big chunk at the end of the year, you can help these groups do tremendous, impactful work.

Favorite environmental advocacy groups that get things done: NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Wildlife Conservation Society, the Nature Conservancy, National Coalition for Marine Conservation, Blue Ocean Institute, Earthjustice, and the Humane Society.


Sustainable behavior is proactive, positive and progressive, and helps you and the people you care about to create a better way of living in the world.

And be careful of these common pitfalls.

Climate Change Isn’t Real

Believe it or not, but there has been a concerted effort to diffuse misinformation into public media in order to confuse people into believing scenarios that are not factual and are based purely on opinion. For example, the Heartland Institute is funded by fossil fuel companies to put out studies and advertising against global warming and other environmental concerns. They also work with Phillip Morris to decrease public concerns about cancer risk from tobacco. It is a non profit with revenues in the millions—$4.7 million in 2011.

Our climate is changing from increased warming of our atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, which poses serious risks to businesses, communities, nations, families and the environment. Blindly disbelieving in it, rather than looking at the facts, is actually harmful to you, your neighbors and the population at large.

Us vs. Them Mentality

Whether it’s the city people vs. the country people (just fyi, city dwellers often use less than half the electricity of country dwellers and 1/4th the amount of gasoline), developed countries vs. developing (China manufactures more solar panels than the rest of the world), or liberals vs. conservatives (we’re all people who need the same things—clean air, water, and a safe home), choosing sides is not the answer. We are all in this together and need to work collaboratively to solve…essentially…the biggest challenge in human history.

And the worst is…Apathy and Nihilism.

One of the biggest obstacles to becoming more Sustainable, is people just not believing in themselves, or in each other. Many of the issues surrounding Sustainability are immense challenges that reflect uninformed choices that were made over time, or made without thinking of the consequences on other people.

Instead, we must sow better seeds, and look forward to reaping a different kind of world where we don’t have to worry about droughts and hurricanes, becoming sick from our surroundings, or running out of precious resources.

We are all in this together and there are so many things to do, everyone has a special role to play. You definitely matter, and you should definitely belief in your ability to make a difference.

Better World

I hope this helped explain why sustainability is important these days and what it’s trying to help with. Thank you for paying attention, and never fear to ask more questions. You know where to find me.