The Short Answer: The ability for human civilisation and the environment to co-exist forever. But what does this actually mean?
What is Environmental Sustainability?
Environmental Sustainability by definition from the United Nations means acting in a way that ensures future generations have the natural resources to live an equal, if not better life than the one of current generations. It is essentially ensuring that the natural world and all the living plants, animals and ecosystems it contains live in harmony with human civilisation so that neither one causes long lasting damage to the other.
"If it cannot be continued indefinitely then it is not sustainable"
However, as the human population increases, the need for a place to live, food, water and natural resources to heat our homes also increases. The problem is that the scales have been tipped to favour the needs of human kind while the health of the planet that sustains us has been neglected. Environmental sustainability focuses on balancing these scales to the point where we have the ability to exist continuously and consistently for generations without long lasting damage to the environment.
Why do we need to focus on sustainability?
The natural world is a fascinating and resilient place containing an abundance of life with intricate patterns and methods of survival. In fact the natural world has a tremendous ability to look after itself and take care of itself such that it can flourish in a sustainable way for eternity when left alone. When a tree falls in the woods, it decomposes over time to provide nutrients in the soil allowing new life to take its place – the true form of sustainability. Similarly, forest fires may seem like a force that only bring destruction and chaos within a whirlwind of fire which may seem counter-intuitive for encouraging life. However, certain plants and animals have evolved to depend on periodic wildfires as their destruction removes unwanted organic material to make way for new life.
The problem occurs when humans interact with the natural world and take more than we need without replacing what we take, so that the natural cycle of the world becomes disrupted. As we remove our worlds woodlands for timber or farmland, or as we dispose of our waste in our planets rivers and oceans, we are interrupting the natural cycle of the world and the scales of sustainability become unbalanced.
How can we act sustainably?
Reduce our waste – The average UK household produces a tonne of waste every year, and every year the world produces approximately 3% more waste than the year before. If we carry on at this rate we will be living in a world of rubbish, our waters will be polluted and our lands will be infertile. This is not sustainable. When you go to the supermarket take your own reusable bags, buy your veg loose instead of pre-packed and recycle anything that is recyclable.
Save Energy – By using less energy we can reduce our carbon emissions. Simply turning off lights that we aren't using, use less heating by wearing warmer clothes and hanging our washing to dry rather than using a tumble dryer.
Use Reusable Alternatives – Single use products, particularly plastic ones usually end up in landfill or the ocean in which they take hundreds of years to decompose, if they decompose at all! Make use of refillable water bottles, reusable shopping bags, wooden toothbrushes and rechargeable batteries and think before throwing something away.
Wear Sustainable clothing – The fashion industry is one of the main polluting industries in the world caused by fast changing styles & tastes. Buy sustainable fashion brands that use natural and recycled materials or aim to support sustainable causes.
Recycle – We use five billion aluminium drink cans every year which could be recycled back into new cans which could save a tremendous amount of raw materials, waste and energy. We can also make new products from different recycled ones. For example, 25 two litre plastic bottles could be recycled to make one adult fleece jacket. How good is that!
We are at a crucial moment in our lives whereby the world is racing towards the point of no return, where the scales of sustainability will be tipped irreversibly causing the world to become a boiling pot of disaster. It is our job as a conscious collective of humans to make the right choices and steer the world in a direction that enforces sustainability and leaves the world a better place for future generations to enjoy.