What is Sustainability?

At its core, sustainability is about interconnectedness between three systems: economics, society, and the environment. This sustainability model shows the human developed systems of society and economy are embedded within environmental systems and that each is a component of the larger interconnected system analyzed via sustainability. No one aspect of sustainability is separate from other aspects, i.e. everything we do in one area, economy, society, and environment, has an effect on other areas. Sustainability is a lens to explicitly discuss the connectivity between economic, social, and environmental systems and a framework to develop solutions where no one system is prioritized at the degradation of another.

Like many buzzwords, sustainability is often used incorrectly. The misuse of sustainability is called ‘greenwashing’ which leads people to minimize sustainability challenges and believe false ‘solutions’ are enough. In ‘greenwashing’ the focus is often on one small aspect of a particular system with no consideration of interconnectedness to the other systems. This perpetuates ‘business as usual’ and restricts the human capacity for change and innovation, limiting the possibilities of future generations and future life on this planet.

The professional and academic field of sustainability is:

  • An examination of the interaction of economics, society, and the environment.
  • A systems thinking approach to solving complex problems.
  • An analysis of dominant paradigms in society that maintain ‘business as usual’
  • A lens to understand interconnected problems and how they influence one another.
  • A dynamic and action-oriented process.
  • Community/collective driven & bottom-up.
  • An understanding of the importance of diversity for co-created solutions.
  • A practice on a continuum, not an end goal.
  • Incorporated into everything we do, not an ad-hoc add-on.
  • A social transformation.
  • Local-oriented, global-focused, and scalable.
  • A recognition of individual leadership potential to be empowered, empower others, and co-create change.

While economics is a core component of sustainability, sustainability is not inherently pro-capitalism. Unrestrained capitalism prioritizes unlimited human growth (Rull, 2011) and consumerism, where ‘progress’ and ‘development’ is justification for social injustice and environmental degradation. In the current capitalist system, just 100 companies are the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since 1988 (Griffin, 2017), allowing companies to profit while polluting the environment for the global population. Additionally, in this paradigm, the world’s richest 1% hold 43.4% of the world’s wealth while the world’s poorest 53.6% hold 1.4% of global wealth (Inequality.org, 2021). Rather than development and short-term financial gain for the privileged few, sustainability demands an alternative system to capitalism and considers what other economic systems exist or can be developed that prioritize equity and the environment.

The economic aspect of sustainability also considers if potential ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis are equitable. For example, an all-electric car may emit less GHG and be deemed sustainable, but if it is too expensive for most of the global population to purchase, it is not a sustainable solution and instead perpetuates the ‘business as usual’ paradigm.

Sustainability is inherently systems thinking. Both require looking at the individual systems while simultaneously considering the larger system to understand their “relationships, patterns, and context” (Capra, 2014). Expanding on systems thinking, Munro (2021) states, “In Western traditions of problem-solving, we tend to break things down, or reduce them, to their parts and then look at the parts individually. This approach ignores the interconnections between the different parts that result in at least some of the characteristics of the whole.” Myopic or reductionist attempts at solving sustainability challenges fail to understand the complexity of the system and perpetuate ‘business as usual’ rather than holistic, inclusive solutions. Systems thinking, ‘is aimed at understanding relationships between components and their overall impact on system outcomes (i.e., intended and unintended) and how a system of interest fits within the broader context of its environment” (Amissah et al., 2020). As sustainability requires analysis of the relationships between economic, social, and environmental systems, systems thinking provides an ideal framework to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of current environmental and social justice issues and pathway to potential solutions.

We are in a period on time where human actions are causing irreversible damage to the environment that risks human and more-than-human survival known as the Anthropocene. We have been warned about this for decades. At the first Earth Day in 1970 Walter Cronkite said to the public, “the unanimous voice of the scientists warning that halfway measures and business as usual cannot possibly pull us back from the edge of the precipice” (Tortell, 2020). Fifty years later, the message is more dire. Humanity is threatened with global temperatures rising 1.5 to 2 degrees if we do not achieve global net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) by 2050 with 45 percent reduction by 2030 (IPPC Summary for Policymakers, 2018). Warnings by scientists are met with skepticism by those in power leaving the public disillusioned with feelings of overwhelming grief and powerlessness. Individuals believe that technology will save us from climate change therefore we do not need to act in the present, or denial that climate change exists entirely. Meanwhile, Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction (Pierce, 2015), wars are fought over diminishing resources (Klare et al., 2011), climate change refuges are fleeing homelands that are no longer habitable (Berchin et al., 2017), and BIPOC individuals are feeling a larger portion of the burden of climate change via famine, extreme weather events, and chronic health issues (Bullard, 1993). The Anthropocene is unsustainable, we must have a paradigm shift.

In the current unjust society, the narrative of ‘business as usual’ has led to a time of unprecedented environmental degradation and social injustice. “Business as usual’ is the notion that the planet is not currently facing a climate crisis and that humans can continue to consume at our current levels. The dominant paradigm of “business as usual’ results in an inadequate response to climate change. Through a sustainability lens, the dominant paradigm is examined to conceptualize how this narrative permeates society and perpetuates ‘business as usual’ despite scientific research confirming the current climate crisis. Sustainability challenges the dominant paradigm to speak honestly about global crises, provide solutions, and offer a new paradigm centered in equity, mitigating environmental harm, and climate action. This paradigm shift is integral to sustainability education and climate action.

When many people hear the word sustainability, they inherently think about the environment. While the environment is a component of sustainability, so too is equity or social justice.  Sustainability requires that diversity, equity, and inclusion are centered in conversations about the environment and that we will only find solutions to climate change when all voices are at the table and free from racism, oppression, and marginalization. As Toni Morrison (1975) stated, “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Individuals and communities are unable to participate in sustainability conversations and solutions as they focus their energy on fighting for basic human rights. Sustainability efforts must emphasize social justice and equity as essential to ensuring human future on this planet. As Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (2020) discusses on NPR, “if you would just stop killing us we would be able to help a little bit more with the (climate) crisis we are all facing.” Racism and social injustice limits the potential futures of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals and communities, restricts diverse perspectives in sustainability conversations, and reduces the ability to co-develop innovative solutions to climate change. Diverse perspectives, experiences, and ways of knowing are essential in rethinking ‘business as usual’, challenging the dominant paradigm, and finding sustainable solutions to climate change.

The environmental movement has been dominated by upper class White individuals and shaped the understanding of what it means to be an environmentalist. This privileged understanding of environmentalism negates the experiences and voices of BIPOC individuals and communities as less than White ideals. This forms the paradigm that White individuals care more about the environment when in fact, according to 2020 research by Yale University, 49 % of White folks are alarmed or concerned about global warming compared to 57% of African Americans, and 69% of Latinx/Hispanics. While White environmentalists are more prominent in mainstream media, as a whole BIPOC individuals are more aware and concerned by climate change and related sustainability issues. The removal of BIPOC communities from environmental conversations was (is) intentionally designed by White individuals in power to perpetuate ‘business as usual.’

Historically, BIPOC individuals and communities have been (and continue to be) intentionally left out of environmental conversations and have (are) directly targeted by governments and industries to receive a disproportionate burden of health and environmental risk than the rest of society. This is known as environmental racism. “Race is a powerful predictor of many environmental hazards, including the distribution of air pollution, the location of municipal solid waste facilities, the location of toxic waste sites, toxic fish consumption, and lead poisoning in children” (Bullard, 1993). BICPOC individuals are more likely to live in a neighborhood where pollution causes the greatest risk to their health, have reduced social capital from decades of disenfranchisement, and care about climate change and how it effects their communities. The environmental movement must shift from its racist roots and center the BIPOC experience in current and future sustainability efforts.

The reality of the climate crisis is overwhelming. Humans need to act now (decades ago) to mitigate further human and more-than-human suffering, environmental degradation, and greater class divide that will occur as the climate warms. When we learn about sustainability challenges and climate change, we realize we are complicit in a system that is destroying humanity’s chance for a future. Emotional resilience is fundamental to grasp the current reality and not become paralyzed in fear and anxiety. Essential to learning about sustainability challenges is self-work, emotional resilience, and spiritual resilience (Rimanoczy, 2021).

If you have taught about sustainability or read about sustainability issues, you have seen or experienced the existential dread of truly realizing our current crisis. Going through eco-grief is a natural response to such information, an understandable process that proves our empathy and desire to call into being a better world. However, it is not a space one can occupy for long. Emotional well-being and resilience must be included in sustainability education and work to take care and honor ourselves, our community, and to continue this fight. The cure for eco-grief is action.

Sustainability is a practice. We are all in different stages of (un)learning on our sustainability journey. Once learning about environmental degradation, social injustice, and climate change one must act. This includes action on the individual level to shift toward sustainable behaviors and more importantly, engaging in systems level change within the community and/or political sphere. Individual behavior change is not enough, the systems that perpetuate ‘business as usual’ must also be challenged. Avoid the notion that one must do it all, which leads to burnout and is unsustainable. Individuals should be encouraged to find their passion and do the work while practicing emotional resilience. Others passionate about sustainability will work in accordance with their calling. As a collective, we have the power to change a system that does not serve to protect humanity.

Integrating sustainability into curriculum has the opportunity to facilitate student growth from unaware or paralyzing eco-grief to active participation in social change. By incorporating sustainability challenges into class materials, centered in local examples, focusing on the holistic student, and providing opportunity to act, students are inspired to co-create solutions to local and global sustainability challenges. Further information on why sustainability pedagogy is crucial to education and how to incorporate sustainability into your course can be found in Why sustainability pedagogy.