Sustainability is a term that will continue to increase in topicality and discussion. However, we are at an inflection point where we have to consider if we are creating a widening gap between definition and messaging. The Oxford Language definition of sustainability is the following:
the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
"the sustainability of economic growth"
2. avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.
"the pursuit of global environmental sustainability"
Wikipedia defines sustainability as "a societal goal with three dimensions (also called pillars): the environmental, economic and social dimension. This concept can be used to guide decisions at the global, national and at the individual consumer level. A related concept is that of sustainable development. Both terms are often used synonymously. UNESCO formulated a distinction as follows: "Sustainability is often thought of as a long-term goal (i.e. a more sustainable world), while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it."
The issue is the last sentence of that description. Sustainability is often thought of as a long-term goal, with sustainable development being the process and pathways to achieve it. In a world where words and definitions become increasingly muddled and modified, there is a big risk that sustainable development is overlooked and people view sustainability as a long-term objective. It's framed in concepts like working to prevent problems for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Here is the problem with allowing this messaging to become the mainstream definition. A lot of people are really selfish. Some people completely embrace the worthiness of ensuring future generations having the same access to resources and lifestyles that we currently enjoy. However, the reality is that more people simply do not care about theoretical generations, even if they will share their own DNA.
Another issue is that because sustainability is a long-term goal, it takes a back seat to more immediate issues. There are many problems that need to be addressed in our society today. Inflation, gun-control, and women’s reproductive rights are all viewed as much more immediate threats that must be addressed. And with very good reason. We can feel the immediacy. We can feel the urgency in either supporting or suppressing these issues. Sustainability gets thrown into the “get around to it if we can” bucket. And that is a big problem.
Let’s provide an analogy that might present a better picture. If you are in your 20s, the concept of retirement is far from your daily thoughts and decision-making process. This totally makes sense. You have a lot of time before it will even impact you. Very few college graduates will take their first paychecks and promptly run to an investment firm and open up a Roth IRA. They simply have different and more-pressing priorities. However, retirement is a very pressing issue for someone in their 60s. And many people have to face the very uncomfortable reality that they absolutely cannot afford to retire. For those people, only drastic changes to their lifestyle and spending habits will allow them to stop working by choice and not death. Similarly, sustainability is an investment. And we must start investing immediately because we are not in our 20s.
If we allow the definition of sustainability to be dominated by the long-term vision, we continue to kick sustainability down the road and pass the burdens on to future generations. Perhaps we should redefine sustainability as this: Choices that attempt to preserve some aspects we enjoy today for tomorrow. As in the very next day. And all those selfish individuals who couldn’t give any consideration to future generations will definitely aspire to be around tomorrow. This means that sustainability finally gets the attention that it deserves today. The cold hard truth is that sustainability impacts every single living person and every single living thing on this planet. Our decisions and actions have an immediate impact. Once the messaging adjusts to this very real urgency, sustainability initiatives will gain exponential support. Sustainability is not a long-term goal. It is a hundred small things that we need to be doing today. The future is now.