Wednesday, March 25, 2009

10 Myths About Sustainability

In a recent article for the Scientific American, Michael Lemonic wrote about the Top 10 Myths About Sustainability. The article is a great reminder that we still have a ways to go - not only in our understanding of what sustainability is, but in how to live a more sustainable life. The following is a summary of Lemonic’s Top 10 Myths.

Myth 1: Nobody knows what sustainability really means.

Our current understanding of sustainability was created back in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development or the Brundtland Commission. Sustainable development means “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So, we do in fact have a great understanding of what it actually means to be sustainable - we just may not how to achieve that.

Myth 2: Sustainability is all about the environment

We should know by now that it isn’t just about saving the polar bears and baby seals. It isn’t just about switching to renewable energy, reducing our carbon footprint. Sustainability encompasses so much more than environmental degradation - it also included managing water and natural resources, population, food supplies, money, waste, our economy and our health. True sustainability requires us to efficiently and mindfully manage our whole planet.

Myth 3: “Sustainable” is a synonym for “green”

Something that is “sustainable” is clearly “green,” but the reverse is not true. Green is a loose, vague term that generally means more environmentally friendlier than the other options out there. It is used to describe things that are natural, healthy, eco-friendly, organic, fair-trade, low-impact, or local. A Prius is green because it gets better fuel efficiency than most cars, but it is still a car, and cars are not sustainable. Be careful how you use these two words, because they are definitely not equals.

Myth 4: It’s all about recycling

Recycling is great and it’s incredibly important to do so, but it’s only part of the answer. To have a lower environmental impact you also have to be aware of what you are buying, how you use it, how your travel or commute, the foods you eat, etc. Absolutely keep recycling, but you won’t get your green citizen patch if that’s all you do.

Myth 5: Sustainability is too expensive

We all think that sustainability and green things cost more and they are just a tad bit more expensive. But as newer technology comes online, consumers demand more and competition increases, prices will drop. There are also lots of ways to save money through energy efficiency, eating local, fuel efficient cars.

Myth 6: Sustainability means lowering our standard of living

Sustainability isn’t about living with less or having to turn down our heat and put a sweater on like Jimmy Carter asked for. Sustainability is about doing more and using less energy, less materials and less resources. It’s about keeping your thermostat at the temperature you want and having a lower environmental impact.

Myth 7: Consumer choices and grassroots activism, not government intervention, offer the fastest, most efficient routes to sustainability

Governments play an important role in state of the environment. Without their intervention, rules and regulations big companies and people would be allowed to do what they please. The government’s job is also to encourage and incentivize products, technologies and ideas that hopefully have a positive impact. Grassroots and local action are the other side of the coin and are equally important though. We can’t disregard either as a vehicle for positive change.

Myth 8: New technology is always the answer

We don’t need to wait for the next generation of batteries to be designed or for more advances in solar power. We have great technology now that can be quickly deployed and used to help us stop climate change. For those who say sustainability isn’t possible until we’ve invented better technology, we say, look around you right now. Energy efficient technology already exists that can save energy and money now, why wait?

Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem

The world’s population is projected to increase another 2.6 billion by 2050. Population certainly is part of the sustainability equation, but it is unlikely that we can alter the population increase by any significant amount to make a difference. While we must do our best to educate women and raise the standard of living in third world countries to minimize the increase, we will get the best bang for our buck by focusing on the efficient use of our resources.

Myth 10: Once you understand the concept, living sustainably is a breeze to figure out.

Just because we know what being sustainable means doesn’t mean we know exactly how to do it. Achieving the point where our actions do not negatively impact the planet or others is a worthy goal, but very difficult. There are also tradeoffs that come along with the changes we make along the way. These new and more environmentally friendly options aren’t always as convienant, cheap or easy, but ultimately we know that we’ll be making the right decision. We just have to keep trying and day by day we will lower our environmental impact.