Most of us want to do the right thing, behave in a way that is responsible and that leads to positive outcomes for ourselves and those we care about. It's rare that someone intentionally sets out to do something that has negative consequences for others.
But this is exactly what happens when we live in unsustainable ways - we are making choices that benefit us to the exclusion of others.
Sustainability is a concept I'm sure we are all familiar with (if not, I suggest you read our blog The Beginners Guide to Sustainability), but the trouble is that it's not always something that is front and centre in our minds when we live our lives, or when we make decisions, or even when we form opinions about the world around us and the behaviour of others.
We should be thinking about sustainability, in all it's forms, every day. It should be a guiding concept for all of us, helping us make good decisions that benefit us, other people, the land and animals, and, most importantly, future generations.
But this isn't always easy. Especially when we aren't always sure what sustainability really is.
We all live with a set of internal values and beliefs - concepts that are important to us and that help us make decisions that appeal to us, or that lead to the best outcome based on what we hold dear.
Why not do the same with sustainability? Why not have a set of guiding principles that we can turn to as guiding lights when making decisions, forming opinions or even supporting political movements.
Well, we can! It's why we wrote this blog.
The 3 Pillars of Sustainability
Economic sustainability refers to practices that support long-term economic growth without negatively impacting the social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the community.
Examples of economic sustainability include building solar power plants, and purchasing second-hand clothing.
Environmental sustainability refers to the way we use the land and natural resources, and do so in a way that ensures future generations have the same or greater access to these resources
Examples include sustainable fishing, organic farming, and recycling.
A sustainable society is one that has learned to live within the boundaries established by ecological limits. It can be maintained as a collective and ongoing entity because practices that imposed excessive burdens upon the environment have been reformed or abolished.
These pillars form the basis for sustainability. While these days we tend to think of sustainability as simply referring to climate change, the fact is that living sustainably means making responsible decisions every day, in almost all aspect of our life.
The 5 Principles of Sustainability
To help make these decisions, the following principles of sustainability can be referred to. If you are ever unsure of the implications of your decisions, or whether you are being sustainable, referring to these principles can help guide you.
1. Interdependence and information
Understanding the connectedness of economic, ecological and social issues on a global scale
Participate in the sharing of ideas and knowledge for the enhancement of humans, nature and to aid in the promotion of the remaining principles.
We must also seek to understand our place in the universe, and continually push to answer the countless unknowns and mysteries that underlie our existence.
2. Non-declining use of materials
This refers to the ability for materials to remain in the economy for as long as possible. This is done through recycling efforts, purchasing second-hand goods, or upcycling old products into something new.
It can also refer to the ability to regenerate materials that are taken from nature. A great example is planting forests as they are cut down to be used for timber, or the responsible use of fishing techniques that allow fish to populations to remain stable.
Finally, it also refers to the control of excess materials used in the production of goods. Instead of throwing away a by-product, look for new ways it can be used. Examples include a Canadian-based company Carbon Engineering that has developed a process to capture atmospheric carbon and turn it into fuel to power cars and planes.
3. Protect and preserve the biodiversity of life
This is possibly the easiest principle to define since it’s the one we all most closely assign as the definition of sustainability - live and behave in a way that protects all life within our ecosystems.
It’s quite possibly also the principle that we all most easily discard.
As a species, we’ve learned to adapt and change to meet the challenges of life. New technology makes life easier and brings wealth, but the unintended side effects, such as global warming and pollution from large scale manufacturing and global transport systems, has forced us to make changes to our behaviour.
This ability to adapt is not unique to humans - animals adapt to their environmental changes all the time. However, these changes are occurring at such a rapid pace that most species cannot evolve in time to meet them.
We must accept the role we play in driving these changes and understand the responsibility we have to protect the crucial biodiversity of life on earth.
4. Develop socially to the inclusion of others
One of the pillars of sustainability is society - how we behave and grow, and how these changes affect those around us both in the present and the future.
Being socially sustainable is not something we think about every day, and yet protecting the rights of others is an important part of being human.
When we make decisions, it’s important to consider how these impact others. When we form social groups, we must ensure we do not do so to the exclusion of others for reasons beyond their control, such as the colour of their skin.
Social development also refers to the protection and promotion of our cultural heritage, customs and traditions that guided our ancestors and have shaped who we are as both individuals and societies. As much as it is our responsibility to protect the environment, we are also called upon to preserve our history and cultural heritage.
5. Develop within the capacity of our environment
Similar to the first principle, it’s vitally important that we recognise, understand and live within the natural confines of our planet. Not all materials and resources and infinite, and this knowledge must play a crucial role in shaping our everyday decisions.
By following these 5 principles we can ensure we are making informed decisions. We can live our lives in ways that benefit not only ourselves, in the here and now, but also the lives of our children and grandchildren (even our great-grandchildren!), and ensure that we leave the world in a better state than we found it.