The Pillars of Sustainability
By: Stephanie Becerra
When it comes to sustainability, there are many definitions. Two definitions that really hit the nail on the head are, “Sustainability is the responsible interaction with the environment to avoid depletion or degradation of natural resources and allow for long-term environmental quality” and “sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Essentially, we want to be able to sustain the quality of the environment and our own lives. The two are closely tied and there is no separating the success of one from the other. For sustainability to be successful its concept is built on three pillars: economic, environmental, and social, also known as profit, planet, and people. The three pillars must be balanced to achieve true sustainability and create harmony between the three. One cannot be prioritized over another.
To achieve sustainability within our economy, a business or country must use its resources in a responsible and efficient way. The goal is to sustain its profits and long-term use of its resources. Without careful consideration of its resources there is no way its production can be sustained well into the future. Strategies must be put into place to encourage a fair distribution and adequate allocation of resources. In the end, economic sustainability involves safeguarding the profit of the business, but also ensuring the operations do not create social or environmental issues that would harm the success of the business in the long term.
On the plus side, if said business focuses on social and environmental issues, profitability will follow. Environmental sustainability consists of living within our means when it comes to natural resources. We need to ensure that our rate of consumption and use of natural resources, such as raw materials, energy fuels, land, water, and air, are not used faster than they can be replenished. Environmental sustainability also intends to improve human wellbeing through the protection of natural capital. To come back to our definitions of environmental sustainability, initiatives and programs are determined environmentally sustainable when they guarantee that the needs of those living today are met without the risk of compromising the needs of future generations. A pioneer in environmental sustainability, Herman Daly suggests that for renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration. For pollution, the rates of waste generation from projects should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.
Lastly, for nonrenewable resources, the depletion of the nonrenewable resources should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource. Social sustainability aims to achieve the well-being of everyone in the long term. The needs of the individual are balanced with the needs of the group. This supports a larger view of the world in relation to cultures, communities, and globalization. To be able to preserve future generations, we must acknowledge that what we do now has an impact on everyone and everything. The focus here is to maintain and improve the quality of society with concepts such as unity, cooperation, and the importance of relationships amongst people. It can be strengthened and supported by laws, facts and core beliefs of equality and rights.
When it comes to sustainability and sustainable development, they should both address social and economic improvement that protects the environment and supports equality. Consequently, the economy, society and the ecological system are all equally dependent. Overall, the main aim of sustainability encourages people, politics, and businesses to make decisions based on the long term rather than the short term. The pillars of sustainability are reliable, essential, and supportive.
How are the pillars of sustainability holding up now during the pandemic? Economies are being hit hard by the halt of production and consumption. The environment is seeing improvements in air quality and waste production because of the halt of production in the short term. Then there is the social aspect, people are understanding that no matter where in the world, all societies are ultimately connected and physical isolation is not social isolation despite a global crisis. We have reached a critical point, where we can redesign the way we do things. We can actually make profit, people, and the planet more sustainable than ever.
However, during this crisis, ecologists believe that the environmental concerns we face today will be put on the back burner. Before the coronavirus, the momentum of climate efforts and raising awareness was growing. Now, everyone is concerned with the pandemic and no one is thinking about climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Due to the crisis we are dealing with right now, the climate crisis of the future does not seem to be as important to most people. We can not however sit back and think once the pandemic has passed, the momentum will once return. Government subsidies will not help to make things as they once were. Once the pandemic is over, the economic and social crisis we are facing must be dealt with properly. It is predicted the economy will suffer more than it did back in 2008-2009. Efforts will focus on the economy rather than the environment and with a huge amount of money injected into the banks, consumption will be encouraged rather than conservation of our resources.
The boost in economy and society will be short term rather than long term. It is not cheaper to invest in sustainable options right now, because they are usually more expensive. Many people are facing financial stress and with less money, they will be choosing industrial products that are less sustainable but more times cheaper. People will be focused on making it to tomorrow rather than beginning to adopt green behaviors. To propel sustainability forward and the three pillars that it is built on, we must focus on unity, redistribution, and strengthening resilience in long term public services and financing. There must be changes in the system, such as the value we assign to sectors that are vital to the success of all people and the planet. If we do not prioritize sustainability and the pillars that make it successful, it will be responsible for the next economic crisis.
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