Defining Sustainability

There are a lot of terms being bandied about these days, Green words.  Sustainable is one of those most often used, and seldom defined.  Some people feel that biodiesel is sustainable, for example.  They reason that since it is grown, it is not finite, and therefore it’s renewable, sustainable.  You know, Sustainable… right?  No, not really.

Sustainable goes beyond whether we can get more of the resource or not.  At the most basic level, fossil fuels are not sustainable because we can use up all the oil and coal, but there’s more to it than that.  Can the PLANET sustain our use of fossil fuels?  Even if there were a million times the oil reserves, the ecology couldn’t handle us burning up fossil fuel, so it’s not sustainable.  By the same ruler, neither is biodiesel.  Neither is ethanol.   These are still combustion fuels, employed in combustion engines.  They still leave a huge carbon footprint in their wake.

What about housing?  Making a house out of wood is good, right?  It’s a renewable resource.  We can grow more trees…. right?  It depends.  We have to consider how the trees are grown, and what other processes are done to the timber, what chemicals are used, both before and after harvest.  If your house is made of plywood that’s soaked in formaldehyde, that could be a health issue for both you and the planet.

And recycling?  Recycling is a good thing, right?  Again, we need to take a good look at it all.  It may be profitable, and still not be sustainable.  Cardboard can be collected from across the nation, brought to a central facility, bundled up and sent off to China.  It has been going on for quite some time now.  The wealthiest woman in China made her riches this way.   But is it truly sustainable if we’re using huge quantities of diesel to get that paper over to China, and then more such energy to process it.  Chemicals employed in the recycling process, and their impacts upon the environment, these should also be considered.  On the whole, the first step in recycling may best be accomplished right there at home.  If you get a liquid in a large plastic or glass bottle, use that container over again for iced tea, or even to collect coins.  That may be kinder on the environment than all the fuels involved in sending it off to be processed and reused.

The broadest accurate way to determine if something is Sustainable is to ask yourself if making and using that product is going to have a significant impact on the environment, and then to ask if we can readily get more of it without its acquisition being unsustainable to the environment.

The sun’s rays are a sustainable source of energy, as are wind and tide and flowing waters (that are not dammed up to be harnessed.)   If we build with adobe, we can pretty much figure that to be sustainable.  Cob and straw-bale houses are also sustainable.   Houses which employ Earthship technologies such as biomass heating are pretty safe bets.

What about foods?  Is fishing sustainable?  Sometimes.  As in most things, the key is moderation.  When explorers first came to the waters off of Nova Scotia, they claim the codfish were so thick you could just put a bucket in the water and pull them in that way.  It wasn’t long at all before they’d been fished nearly to extinction.  Even that which seems renewable must be harvested in moderation, flora or fauna.

Plastics are used in the making of solar panels, and their components.  This is considered acceptable, because of the good that solar panels do, so use of petroleum to make plastic for this purpose is deemed sustainable.  We tend to agree.

Each of us has to make our own decisions as to what is an acceptable definition of Sustainable.  In doing so, please consider all of the aspects involved in the product.  Don’t just take the company’s word for it that they’re Green or Environmentally Friendly.  Perhaps the most important part of it all has already been accomplished, if we’ve gotten you to start thinking about what Sustainable means to you.

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