What is Sustainability & Why Should We Care?

What is sustainability? | Awara Diaries

Long before the pandemic, terms such as sustainability, Eco-friendly, bioproducts, carbon footprint and environmental impact were beginning to gain popularity in mainstream conversations. As a generation that thrived on the feedings of the internet, many began to jump on the bandwagon to be part of this new trendy movement, to save the planet. We had heard of these terms too and to be honest, we were as clueless about what any of this truly meant. We say ‘truly meant’ because the insights shared on social media were not nearly enough to be interesting or explanatory of the real picture.

Unfortunately, for common people like us, the entire conversation around sustainability was restricted to a few commercialized initiatives in different fields. Basically, sustainability became all about tackling a select few problems with a not-so-innovative approach to attain results. Even we jumped into it with a project that we were in the process of starting. Thank heavens for all the time and reflection that the pandemic forced upon us!

As if through serendipity, I found a Master’s degree in Sustainable Development and after 7 years of working and being away from the academic circles, I finally felt like I had a cause to truly learn about and explore better. Ever since I started working full time, I was always nervous about going back to studies. But this happened as if there was never another way around it. And I am so glad that it happened.

It is almost a year since I started my course and opted in for such a life-changing process and subject for myself. In September 2021, I started pursuing MSc. in Sustainable Development, Management and Policy from Modul University, Vienna. The journey since has been a mind-boggling one.

When I started this study program, I definitely had my own ideas and understanding of sustainability. But a year into studying it formally, I know that I was barely going by the hearsay and that there is a lot beyond the surface to scratch into. It’s going to be an extensively long journey ahead, one that will go beyond the boundaries of my degree education, one that will be beyond my master’s thesis, it will be about adapting sustainability as a way of life and helping others do so. In fact, one of the first things that hit me when I started studying this was how little we know about sustainability and that so much more focus is needed to create more awareness and help people understand what is sustainability, why is it important and how they can incorporate it in their daily lives and make a difference individually.

I want to do my bit, by using my voice and my platforms by making you a part of this journey. I would like to share my learning, my knowledge and understanding of sustainability, with anyone who’s willing to learn more, understand and adapt. Because sustainability is not a trend that’ll die, sustainability is a way of life that more of us need to own.

What is Sustainable Development?

I still remember the first time I came across the term ‘Sustainable Development’ in class IX or X, when the Economics textbook highlighted a concept called sustainable development. The concept was brought to light with the revolutionary Lester Brown quote, “We have not inherited this earth from our forefathers; we have borrowed it from our children”.

Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Our Common Future by Brundtland Commission, 1987). And to stress it further, there was this very famous quote included in the chapter:

“There’s enough for every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.” ~ M. K. Gandhi

Back then, as a class X student, I probably only comprehended this concept as the need to slow down and carefully use our natural resources, particularly non-renewable resources, so that these resources are also available to serve the needs of future generations.

Today, over 14 years later, sustainability is a more important, more significant concept that has already found its footing in some parts of the world and is slowly finding its footing in the rest.

We are always discussing development. Personal development, development of an economy, growth, money, GDP, technology and so much more. But does development have uniform goals for all? How can it, when the starting point for everyone differs, even today! Ironically, for most parts of the world, development has been a rather lop-sided process. For the present and the future. And this calls for sustainability in development.

The definition of sustainable development by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 still stands true, however, the scope has been drastically widened. A simple Google search will offer the following definition, “Sustainable development is economic development that is conducted without depletion of natural resources.”

The role of economic activity

Typically, development is measured globally, using key indicators such as the Gross Domestic Product of countries. This means that countries need to produce more in order to develop and provide for the needs of their population. This ‘growth is more’ attitude creates a series of problems for the environment and society. The irony is that this process more or less results in the growth of disparities and inequalities. Basically, the gap between the economically rich and the poor widens, further and further, all in the name of development.

The need for an increase in production, successfully aided by industrialization also leads to an increase in the number of emissions in the process. These carbon emissions along with various other gasses and toxins lead to a series of environmental impacts that are not only damaging but irreparable in near future. One of the commonly known problems arising out of these impacts is global warming. As per the current estimates, the temperature of the earth is likely to increase by 2 degrees Celsius. Various environmental bodies and organizations such as the UN, and IPCC are working with member states to limit the temperature growth to 1.5 degrees Celsius by capping emissions from numerous economic activities.

It is not just the product or the manufacturing processes that cause the damage. A large part of the problem is the leftover waste and the management of this waste has adverse impacts. It is almost as if the big industries and corporations have no responsibility to see through the end of the process with waste management. Particularly, in the case of plastics and other non-biodegradable material that proves to be hazardous to the environment, waste management is an alarming issue.

Did You Know?

There are five Garbage Patches in the oceans across the world that carry large amounts of marine debris and trash left out in the oceans. These are the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre.

 

Where do you come in?

Of course, this is about you. All that is being produced majorly for you, you’re continuously enticed to shop more, update to the latest trends and empty your pockets in the process. The bottom line, the more you consume, the more you burden the planet.

Humans, both directly and indirectly have the highest carbon footprint, which also means that they have the maximum impact on the environment.

Carbon Footprint

As per the Nature Conservancy, a carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons.

As a consumer, your responsibility and power are much greater than you can imagine. It starts with understanding the impact of your decisions because your choices don’t just impact the planet that you live on but the society that you live in and the people who are a part of this society.

My Learning

A year later, after some serious studying, I can safely say that sustainability is mindfulness. It is about being aware of your choices and actions. Sustainability is knowing the source of what you consume- where it comes from, how it was produced, how many resources were utilized, the impact it had on the environment, the impact it had on the producers. It also means knowing where your product goes at the end of its life cycle- how you dispose of it, can it be recycled, is it damaging the environment.

Sustainability means knowing or at least attempting to know if your coffee produce involves fair trade practices. If the coffee farmers were compensated correctly for their produce. If the labour conditions were fair and ethical.

It means understanding that choosing the best quality product and extending its life is not just good for your pocket but also the environment.

I know, it sounds like a lot of work. But it wouldn’t feel that way when you incorporate the mindfulness in your conscience, that speaks to every time you make a buying choice. In a world where business models and advertisements are made to push you to buy more, it’s time you started making choices to buy right.

Three Pillars of Sustainable Development

While sustainable development sounds awful like it opposes economic growth, the truth is that it doesn’t. Sustainable development focuses on three pillars, that are interconnected:

  1. People: People are not just decision-makers, but they form the society that we live in and hold the greatest value in this mix. But there is also a large section of this society, that is part without the power to decide or even help themselves. Social sustainability is focused on the sustainable development of the people- gender equality, reducing poverty, access to food, water, health care, sanitation, education, justice, social communities.
  2. Planet: Let’s please remind ourselves each day that the planet we live on is the reason why anything and everything exists in the first place. Caring for the planet, air, water and life within is another important pillar of sustainable development.
  3. Profits: While the excessive industrialization and heightened economic development has definitely contributed to environmental degradation, we need the profits to keep funding research, to aid bridging this gap, to really do the necessary for sustainable development. What we need to keep in mind while pursuing these profits is the social and environmental cost involved and identify and implant alternatives and repair measures to compensate.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

In June 1992, 178 countries adopted the Agenda 21 aimed at building a global partnership to build a comprehensive framework to enable global sustainable development, at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil. The goal was to promote peace, prosperity for the people and the planet. Over the years, the collaboration worked to identify problems and potential solutions that could be used to tackle these problems. In 2012, at the United Nations Conference for Sustainable Development in 2012, member nations adopted the outcome document ‘Future We Want’, which was aimed at developing and implementing processes to set global sustainability goals in order to enable sustainable development globally.

In 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted as a part of the United Nations Agenda 2030, with the aim to invite global participation for growth.

17 Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development Goals | What is Sustainability?

The aim of the SDGs is to grow together, sustainably and inclusively, where each member contributes towards the development of their region, without leaving anyone behind. Those with a greater affluence and resources could contribute further towards the development of the global goals and member states.

Why should we care?

Because there is just one planet and it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s also all we realistically have, for us and to pass on to our future generations. Loving the planet and caring for the environment may not be a top priority for many of us given the barrage of responsibilities and tensions that we carry. However, studies have proven that the impact on the planet, on the environment is circling back by degrading the quality of life on earth. All those toxic gases released from industries, artificial elements in your food, poor air quality, etc are impacting your health and your quality of life, in ways that you cannot imagine. Despite the medical advancements, the impact on human lives, mental health is drastic. Some side-effects are openly shared, some still in the process of discovery and some still fully ineffective.

So if you ever wonder, why does sustainability matter? It matters because your life, health and happiness matters to you and that of your loved ones too.

Is this all there is to know about sustainability? Definitely not. Sustainability, by its very definition cannot have a fixed formula. It evolves a little bit each day, with research, experiments and with conversations. Through this Sustainability Series on Awara Diaries, I hope to keep touching upon the various aspects of sustainability that I encounter. The aim remains to spread awareness and start a dialogue. If we start comprehending and understanding it through our own life choices, we may be able to identify the hurdles and the solutions better. If you have something to add or ask, do drop a comment. Let’s get the conversation started. Because this is about you and me, and yet it is beyond you and me.

I live in the movies (in my parallel world). I travel in search of stories. So I explore- experience- express my trysts with people, places, food, culture and their stories!

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