You’ve no doubt heard the term “sustainability” as the concept becomes more widespread. But what exactly is it? How does it affect our everyday lives? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
There are many different kinds of sustainability, says Steven Cohen, PhD, director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at The Earth Institute in New York City.
The United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals provide a good example of the variety. They include things like ending poverty and hunger while ensuring good health, quality education, clean water and energy, and reducing inequalities. “Pretty much everything that makes the world worth living,” Cohen says.
Environmental sustainability is drawing a lot of attention these days. Cohen defines this as “allowing us to develop economically without destroying the planet so that people in the future can still have the same ability to enjoy the material things that we have today.”
Sustainability efforts are underway worldwide. In the United States, federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are all working toward sustainability goals.
Laws like the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act have contributed to much cleaner air, water, and soil in the United States for decades. “One of the hopes I have for all of these issues is that the same technologies that created the problems can be used to fix them,” Cohen says. “We can solve this problem. We just have to use our creativity and imagination.”
How Sustainability Relates to Basic Human Needs
Sustainability can be applied to virtually anything, including food, housing, power, and health care. “All of these things are totally interconnected,” says Adrienne L. Hollis, PhD, a senior climate justice and health scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Bowie, MD. “People tend to put these issues in silos, and you can’t because during a situation like we’re seeing with COVID, all of those things are impacted.”
An estimated 30% to 40% of the food supply is wasted in the United States. In 2010, this translated to around 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food. Not only that, but more than 3 billion people around the world are malnourished.
Food sustainability involves reducing this food waste, making sure hungry people are fed, and improving nutrition, says Caroline Passerrello, a licensed dietitian, instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Other aspects of food sustainability include making sure food is grown with as little pollution as possible and finding ways to use food waste for things like fuel and fertilizer. “It’s trying to create the possibility of growing and consuming food with as little negative environmental impact as possible,” Cohen says.
It’s also about earning a living wage so you can buy food, as well as being able to get food during a time of crisis, like when you have to evacuate during an emergency, Hollis says. “It’s having the ability to address things that disrupt the status quo so that you can get back to what you consider to be normal.”
Sustainable housing involves energy efficiency and using green, healthy materials in buildings. As with food, it also means being able to earn a living wage so you can have a safe, clean, dry roof over your head, Hollis says.
Sustainability efforts also address clean water. “When you live in a place, you use water and you produce sewage,” Cohen says. “The idea here is to try to make sure that before the sewage is released back into the environment, it’s treated, and that the water you drink is healthy.”
For Cohen, power sustainability means using renewable energy sources like wind and solar instead of fossil fuels. These have less of an environmental impact.
Think of how long Puerto Rico was without power after Hurricane Maria in 2017, especially when the technology is available for renewable energy, Hollis says. “Sustainability also includes using the best available technology to ensure that people have what they need to not just survive, but to continue to thrive.”
Global movements to make the health care industry more sustainable center on making changes such as minimizing waste, building green, being energy efficient, and avoiding toxic substances like PVC and phthalates. These strategies can lead to savings that are invested in improving patient care.
Sustainable health care isn’t just about the environment, though; it’s also about having access to health care and preventing disease. Think about childhood asthma, Cohen says. It’s typically easy to treat with an inhaler and medication. Many kids even ultimately grow out of it. But if you don’t have access to that treatment, the asthma gets worse. Eventually, it becomes chronic.
Sustainability’s Role in Health
Human health is central to all sustainability efforts. “All of these (food, housing, power, and health care), and the stress that the lack of them generate, play a huge role in our health,” Hollis says.
They affect your mental health, too. “We also have to think about issues around stress from not being able to have any of these things, on top of stress from other things like climatic events or systemic racism,” she says. All these stressors can make you more likely to have illness and disease.
We need healthy, productive people so society can keep improving and developing. Unfortunately, all our advancements have taken a toll on the environment, causing water and air pollution. And it’s usually the poorest people who suffer the most from the effects of pollution. This can cause sickness, missed school or work, and less productivity.
To combat this, sustainability practices seek to ensure that all people, particularly poorer populations, have a safe, clean environment and access to health care. This enables them to stay productive and strong.
Threats to Sustainability
Ensuring sustainability sounds like a no-brainer that benefits everyone. But there are threats to sustainability efforts. They include:
- Being careless with waste and toxic substances
- Financial reasons to keep things the way they are instead of making changes that lead to sustainability
- Limited or no access to healthy food, homes, and/or health care
- Things like systemic racism, climate change, environmental contamination, and the COVID-19 pandemic affecting people’s health
- Losing insects that pollinate, such as bees, which affects the ability to grow food
How You Can Help
There are many ways to contribute to sustainability efforts in your own home and community:
- Grow your own food or support local farmers.
- Reuse glass and plastic, and recycle what you can’t use.
- Reduce food waste by shopping carefully and buying only food you know you will eat.
- If you have the space, try composting. This turns your food waste into nutrient-rich soil that’s great for gardens and plants.
- Use refillable water bottles instead of buying individual plastic bottles.
- Get involved in politics. Listen to what candidates say about sustainability issues. If you don’t like what you hear, find someone whose beliefs align with yours to back -- or consider running yourself.
- Join a community organization that addresses these issues and holds government officials accountable.
“The bottom line? Every little bit helps, and our individual choices do add up to impact the environment,” Passerrello says.