What Does It Mean To Be Sustainable?

Photo by ::: M @ X ::: | flickr.com

Photo by ::: M @ X ::: | flickr.com

Originally, this article was going to be a rebuttal to Tina’s article, Flying Facts: Planes and the Fuel Economy. Preparing to write, I had all the research (mostly numbers) comparing GHG emissions of cars and flights per year all laid out in front of me. But while I was writing the article, something clicked - I came to the conclusion that the numbers didn’t really matter.  

Let’s say that I did write up the article to show that planes are indeed more detrimental to the environment than cars. Would that really make a difference? Would that really make reader or two cancel their vacations to Europe? Probably not. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be worried about our environmental footprints.  But it is to say that sustainability isn’t just about quantifiable facts or data. It’s about personal and collective consciousness.

At the personal level, it’s about being aware of our identities – whether it be race, gender, religion, or class (amongst others) and how they construct our notions of what being sustainable means. It’s about analyzing our place in society, how society can be improved, and what we can do. Let us for instance, take a brief look at our tourism culture.  

Tourism is typically a privilege that is available only to those that can afford it, namely the middle and upper-classes. A fair chunk of these people are my friends and acquaintances and I know many that hop on a plane at least once or twice a year. Considering the environmental impact of air travel, would it really decrease our quality of life if we couldn’t go vacationing in [insert destination] every year?

Most of us have no problem recycling the waste around us. We feel good about it. But what makes us feel entitled to destroy the world around us when we go travelling?  Why do our principles cave when presented with an apparently undeniable middle/upper-class pleasure? Sometimes I think that the privileged in society can’t get over the fact that (actually, a lot of the time, considering the hyperconsumer culture that we live in) sustainability means cutting back. It means letting go of certain privileges that we take for granted – and yes, that means cutting back on air travel.

We also need to analyze how identities like our race, gender, and religion influence the way we perceive and are impacted by the environment. Women and ethnic minorities are often disproportionally affected by environmental degradation. Several academic fields such as environmental justice and ecofeminism study this. Religious faiths hold different perspectives on social and environmental stewardship and it’s important to think about the role this plays when discussing sustainability.

Ultimately, I think sustainability begins when we become conscious about who we are and who the people around us are. When we know who weare, we can be critical about our desires, perspectives, and the privilege that has been ascribed to us. 

When we understand who othersare, we learn how we can work together to make the world a better place. Sustainability isn’t just about the numbers. If environmentalists want to appeal to others, they need an approach that is scientific, but also humanistic.