living sustainably

4. What does sustainability mean?


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Sustainability is on everyone's lips, but often only vaguely understood. 

Sustainability is a development that satisfies the needs of the present without risking that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs.
Brundtland Report
- Our Common Future. World Commission on the Environment and Development, 1987

Sustainability [ecology] is a principle according to which no more can be consumed, than can respectively be regrown, regenerated, and provided again in the future. 
Translated from: Duden German Dictionary

Sustainability means - concisely formulated - good life for about ten billion people within the ecological boundaries on our planet. 

The concept of sustainable development is a systematic extension of human rights by opening up equal development opportunities for all people on this planet and for future generations.
Translated from: Uwe Schneidewind. Die Grosse Transformation - Eine Einführung in die Kunst gesellschaftlichen Wandels. 2018

As simple as these definitions are, it is difficult to achieve a unified, shared understanding of sustainability.

Without such a common understanding of sustainability, however, the transformation to a sustainable society can hardly be accomplished.

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The transformation towards a more sustainable development will inevitably be linked to a structural change that knows winners and at least temporarily also losers.

In this respect, in addition to the effectiveness and efficiency of environmental policies, the associated distribution effects must also be taken into account. Issues of justice are thus to be taken seriously as the third central measure of environmental policies in order to ensure their legitimacy and approval.
Translated from: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Nr. 310/August 2018: Verantwortliche Umweltpolitik - ökologisch wirksam und sozial gerecht. 

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Think about what's coming in advance. 

The circular economy is one of the expedient concepts of sustainable economic activity. 

In the circular economy, resource use, waste production, emissions and energy waste are minimised by slowing down, reducing and closing energy and material cycles.

Products should be developed from the outset in such a way that, after use, the raw materials can be extracted and reused without any loss of quality, or fed back into the biological cycle without damaging human health or the environment.

This way of doing business is of paramount importance for our future, given the current overuse and waste of material and energy resources worldwide. 

Sustainable development is hardly conceivable without a consistent circular economy. But turning away from a predominantly linear economy requires many political, economic and social decisions.

Circular Economy Action Plan 
EU Commission 2020


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Perceive critical developments at an early stage.

The precautionary principle is probably one of the most effective ways of sustainably protecting our environment.

Critical developments are corrected early on, i.e. initial measures are taken at an early stage against potential critical developments, even if science still has no definite proof of what exactly and when something will happen. 

The precautionary principle is becoming more and more important, since today, as far as the environment is concerned, we are likely to cause far more new problems than we are to solve existing problems. 

European Parliamentary Research Service 2015

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Among other things, for us people in the rich countries, sustainable living means,

1. Providing for the future humans on our earth.

2. Showing solidarity with other people in the world.


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Are we worried today? - Barely. 
When it comes to action, environmental and climate protection has not yet been taken on board by the vast majority of us. 

Are we in solidarity today? - Barely.
Around 20 % of the world's population, mainly in the rich countries, account for around 80 % of total global resource consumption.

The illustration shows the magnitude, exact data are lacking.

  • Consumption of energy is also very unevenly distributed worldwide.

Source: 2'000-Watt-Gesellschaft 
[An energy consumption of 2,000 watt continuous output corresponds to 17,500 kWh per capita and per year].

  • Since 2017, over 4 billion air passengers have been transported annually, even though more than 90 percent of all people in the world [around 8 billion] have never boarded a plane.

  • Today, around 4.3 billion people - over 60 percent of the world's population - live in abject poverty and struggle to survive on less than the equivalent of $ 5 a day.
    Jason Hickel. The Divide - A Brief Guide to Inequality and its Solutions. 2017

Hence, the industrialized countries have to answer for the majority of the global environmental impacts in recent decades. 

For example, Switzerland and its ecological footprint.

Swiss Overshoot Day 2020

On 8 May 2020, the Swiss population had already consumed more natural resources than it was entitled to for the whole of 2020.

If all the people in the world lived like we do in Switzerland, then we would need three planets as big as our Earth. 
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Earth Overshoot Day

This day marks the date when we - all of humanity - have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year. 

2019 it was the 29th of July
2000 it was the 23rd of September 
1985 it was the 4th of November
1970 it was the 29th of December
Source: Earth Overshoot Day

The 8-tons Society

The average resource consumption per capita and year today, for example in Germany, is between 33 and 40 tonnes. For a truly sustainable lifestyle, however, the consumption of resources would have to be reduced to 8 tonnes. 

Calculate my own resource consumption:

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The facts are clear,

  • today we humans are clearly living at the expense of future generations,
  • our descendants probably will have to pay a big price for our overuse and pollution of planet Earth, and
  • at most they will have to live with severe restrictions.

Our way of life in the rich countries today is not sustainable and therefore no longer an option for the future people.

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Global sustainability
The year 2015 - a milestone for global sustainability?

  • Pontifical Enzyklika Laudato Sì
    June 2015
    Pope Francis proclaims his vision of the world. At the centre is the vulnerability of creation.
  • UN Agenda 2030
    September 2015
    169 countries sign 17 Sustainable Development Goals to guide global policy towards sustainable development.
  • The Paris Climate Agreement
    December 2015
    196 member states of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agree to limit man-made global warming to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

Transformation of Our World - The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

17 Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved globally and by all UN Member States by 2030. 

This means that all states are equally challenged to solve the urgent challenges of the world together.

People should have relevant information and awareness of sustainable development by 2030 - all across the world.

17 Goals

Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2019

So, the goals are set. However, we currently do not know the conditions under which humanity can implement the measures to achieve these sustainability goals globally. 

Even today, we are presumably much better at understanding the social consequences of climate change than the social conditions for limiting it. 
Christian Berger. 2020. Sustainable Action. Overcoming the Barriers.

Sustainable development is more than environmental and climate protection. Sustainable development sees the environment, the economy and social issues as equally important and interlinked.


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The ideal of a world in which everyone can prosper without doing so at the expense of others, at the expense of nature or at the expense of the future, this ideal - for me the core idea of sustainability - is needed more than ever.
Christian Berger. 2020. Sustainable Action. Overcoming the Barriers.

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