what is sustainability?

Sustainability is simultaneously a word, an idea, and a goal.  Basic semantics guide understanding the self-defining, compound word sustainability as the ability to sustain.  Critically thinking of the idea sustainability elicits an imaginary utopic concept of worldwide harmony, equity, bio-diversity, cleanliness, and peaceful co-existence.  Attempting to proactively live the goal sustainability has mushroomed from personal go green initiatives, to community reduce-reuse-recycle campaigns, to global sustainable development goals.  So, beyond the word-ideal-goal paradigm, what is sustainability? When did sustainability begin?  How do we, as a global community incorporate the word, idea, and goal of sustainability to work together in the most basic sense of that word – the ability to sustain?  Why is there a cloud of confusion overshadowing most people’s understanding of what sustainability actually means?  Where does the average human find accurate, realistic, and achievable sustainability strategies for daily life?  Who knows the true impact of unified sustainability efforts?  Currently, the stratified levels of understanding the aspects of sustainability culminate in myriad efforts whose entropy often eclipses the grass roots realities and bio-feedback that serve as the necessary nourishment of the sustainability movement.  So, moving forward, where do we go from here?

Community members alerted to the need for solidarity in sustainability efforts ask their leaders, “So, exactly what does sustainability mean?”  The multi-faceted answer to that question is greater than the sum of its parts.  Community organizers must understand the full spectrum of sustainability, which facet best feeds the local needs, and how to effectively encourage participation in sustainability efforts.  Contemporary individuals most often turn to the internet for answers, clarifications, and directions.  Folks interested in sustainability are not different in this aspect.  So, when community leaders look to www. to identify, explain, and demonstrate sustainability, what do they find?  . . . Many words strung together, more maybes than sureties, and much ado about what needs done – talk, talk, talk.  Organizing one’s thoughts and understanding on the necessary concept of sustainability and then aligning with an appropriate discipline requires tracing the origins of sustainability.

Sustainability, the ability to sustain life, means survival.  Humans have always strived to overcome obstacles, survive stressors, dodge dangers, live long, and evade evil; so sustaining life is no new thing.  This original, instinctive, reflexive sustainability is how we got to today; but updated, intuitive, reflective sustainability is how we will get through tomorrow.  The progression of sustainability from initially surviving the elements through developmental element exploitation to current compromise of the integrity of Earth’s elements is a full-circle, self-fulfilling, reverberation of history folding in on itself.  Concern for public health spawned national health associations in organized efforts to control environmental conditions to ensure safety, sanitation, and good health. (https://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/luna/servlet/detail/NLMNLM~1~1~101437737~151832:Milestones-of-public-health-in-Amer#) Infectious contaminants, bacteria, and diseases were studied in laboratories.  The tuberculosis epidemic tested theories, hypotheses, and remedies. Official public health organizations were formed.  Sanitation strategies were identified and incorporated into all facets of society.  Vital statistics recorded data in tables indicating trends in birth and mortality.  Communicable diseases were traced and tracked as epidemiology developed.  Foods and drugs were regulated under the authority of environmental protection agencies.  Public health nursing was formalized and normalized.  Prenatal, infant, and child hygiene/health moved into the foreground in sustaining a viable population.  Our good health assured, today’s population must continue to grow, thrive, and learn that sustainability is vital to any future tomorrows. But, how, when we have damaged, depleted, and destroyed so much?

Environment-Economy-Ethics-Culture are the interconnected, inseparable facets of the sustainability paradigm that are, ideally, necessarily considered when planning solutions to contemporary global issues.  We must recognize the reality that our living need not exhaust our resources.  All nature interacts reciprocally, providing elements for sustenance, shelter, and security in ecosystem balance with  cycles, rhythms, and stages of life.  We humans must not be Earth’s parasite that is karmically slated for demise as a result of our waste, pollution, and disregard for all lifeforms beyond self.  Let’s live long and prosper, equitably , and in a healthy environment for all life on Earth.

sustainability acrostic poster jpg

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