Is sustainability just a buzzword! – Cynthia Kimilu, Gatakaa Njeri

Is sustainability just a buzzword?

Is it something worth looking into?

From recent past, it’s true that the word can be puzzling, in large part, because it doesn’t mean what many seem to think it does. So how can we define this word “Sustainability”? Well, the most comprehensive meaning comes from the Brundtland Commission Report of the United Nations in 1987 which states:

“sustainability is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

So how did the awareness come about to the point that we are now?  Going by history, this move can be traced back to the 18th and 19th century brought about by the Industrial Revolution. This was a shift from an agrarian and handicraft economy to an economy that was subjugated by machine manufacturing and very industry specific. The adoption of this development spread across Europe and others part of the globe. It meant changes in the socioeconomic, cultural and technological aspects. Major changes in technology saw application of science in industries. There was the use of coal, stem engine, electricity and innovation such as the as the spinning jelly and the power loom in the agricultural sector that saw minimalistic use of human labor. There was an increase in output due to technological changes, essentially increasing use of natural resources.

In modern day, sustainability involves a good analysis of how natural systems function while retaining their diversity and balance. Clearly, our activities as humans, take lots of resources so as to sustain our modern way of life, ascertaining our consumerist existence. It is through this, that our activities have caused a great damage to the environment and its chances of survival.

We were once a civilization living in a big planet, now, it is more of a big civilization living in a small planet. Results! Increased greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide), leading to climate change and global warming, essentially causing the drastic weather changes we are experiencing now, and the consequences would be enormous if we lost this battle of sustainable development.

Just a highlight of what some governments have done in matters sustainability. Around the year 1931, when the French ruled Vietnam, there was a rat plague. The French government of the day put a bounty on rats’ tails as a way to encourage Vietnamese to kill them to eliminate the plague. At first it was incredibly successful, but eventually people who were making money out of this ran out of rats. They turned to rat farms! Wasn’t this an ingenious and innovative way for them to make a kill, literally, out of the rats? The government, however, realized what was happening and stopped paying the money for the rats’ tails. With the economic incentive gone, the owners of these farms released the rats. The result was rat population increased drastically.

These types of incentives from governments happen all the time. Recently, the Chinese government tried to tackle issues on air pollution from car emissions and industries through implementing incentives to control and influence people’s behavior. In Mexico, the government tried to reduce air pollution from congestion by giving a directive for cars to be driven on particular days. This was to encourage citizens to use public transport, car share, cycle or even walk. Wasn’t this bound to be a success? Well, this failed because people went and bought other cars, got licenses to operate on the days they wanted to drive. Suddenly, there was an increase in both car ownership and drivers on the roads, hence, increase in car manufacturing, thus, sustainability is a process that ensures that we live in synchronization with the environment.

With this realization, we should then focus on balancing our need to move forward technologically and economically to protect the ecosystems that exist. The Gaia’s Principle observed that everything in nature is interconnected. Just to state an example, in product design, manufacturers may make decisions on materials or processes which have major impacts on the environment that they may never know about. For the reason that businesses are in to make profits, top management may overlook the detrimental effects of their business operations to the environment. These effects may never be felt in this lifetime but does this mean that they should not care? The law of unintended consequences.

We should appreciate how the world is made up; of complex and interconnected systems which are the underlying code to everything that exists on earth. We should stop the take, make and dispose model of our industrial process leading to unsustainable development. Instead, we should adopt a more holistic view, a complex multidimensional model that involves a circular flow of ever diminishing natural resources. We should focus on innovation that delivers greater functionality and interconnecting these systems and natural material flows, a sustainable economy can be achieved.

Sustainability is about self-preservation and understanding these systems so as to sustain ourselves as well as future generations. Doing more with less, is the vehicle that will get us to achieve sustainability. We should then use sustainability for innovative thinking to solve some of these critical issues that we face. First, let us view sustainability as an opportunity and not a problem. All we have to do is to see it differently, think differently and we have to seek to understand how we can all make choices that have a positive consequence on the planet.

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