By Sian Pankhurst, 18 November 2019
If you are new to the environmental movement, then you may be hearing the word sustainability a lot and wondering: ‘what does it actually mean?’ You hear it everywhere in the movements and in articles and might be wondering, well why is it so important, or wondering why sustainability is so hard to define.
We could take a complex approach to define sustainability based on academic, disciplinary or legal definitions.
For simplicity, we’ll define sustainability as:
Sustainability is the ability to use the resources of the present, within compromising the integrity, availability or form of those resources into the future.
Or according to Wikipedia:
“Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly.”
It could be:
- It is the study of how natural systems function, remain diverse and produce everything it needs for the ecology to remain balance,
- Recognises how human civilisation uses these resources for modern life (Environmental Science, n.d.) and that these resources can be exhausted,
- It states that sustainability is not just about the environment, it is about society’s health to ensure that no people or areas suffer as a result of environmental legislation, examining long term environmental effects and what can be improved (Environmental Science, n.d.) This is important because it has an interrelated idea of looking after the environment, our impact on the environment and how it can be fixed, with changes to our behaviour and policies which affect the environment.
- If occurs in fields outside of the environmental space, including social, economic and environmental sustainability (“the triple bottom line”).
There are three broad sustainability areas that we consider the phrase most applicable to in Earthcare and Catholic teachings sense:
- Environmental protection: must place significant importance and focus on the care of creation – environmental protection, restoration and repair. Our environmental interactions are not only sustainable if they do not destroy the environment; we can also correct previous mistakes to improve it too.
- Social development: basic human and social wellbeing is needed to make sure that all people have basic needs, health protected and enjoy a good quality of life within their own environment, and those for future generations – the principles of Catholic Social Teaching underpin sustainable social development.
- Economic development: Important because sustainability without economic development is more reliant on the good hearts of people, or a motivation other than money. Sustainable economic development allows for the just transition and growth of industries and flows of money, and these channels have the power to address environmental and social injustices. Economic sustainability initiatives can convince people to invest resources and itself is a strong agent for positive change.
But, why is it so important?
Plain and simple, our rate of resource use and consumption is not sustainable. Pope Francis calls on us to reflect on our habit of consumption, and our lifestyles.
Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies”
Small lifestyle changes are an important part of this process. For example, reusable cips, decreased consumption, recycled resources, home-grown or locally sourced, and growing in season are simple ways to address all three of these key sustainability concepts. These small actions we can take for ourselves are immediate actions we can take look after our environment, before we move onto more complex sustainability concepts such as divestment.
Catholic Social Teachings
As always, Laudato Si (2015) discusses ways in which we can look after our common home and identifies which can undertake to make the environment more sustainable. The Church teaches that the Earth is made by God, with Psalm 24:1 stating:
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”Psalm 24:1
This quote demonstrates how important it is to look after the earth and that since God made the Earth, then we are to do our best to look after it. Laudato Si (2015) demonstrates that sustainability is the way to go and help keep the environment as clean as possible. Laudato Si (2015) discusses the issues with consumerism and the throwaway culture that our modern society has created, and this directly connects to the issues referred to in sustainability:
“At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”LS:9
So why is sustainability important?
It is important because the impacts on the environment are going to affect us and our livelihoods plain and simple. As Catholics, we must listen to the message of Laudato Si (2015). This is why it is important and why there is an emphasis on sustainability in current times. As Catholics, and indeed wider humanity, we are called to look after the earth, and therefore must change our actions to make sure that we undertake God’s orders to care for creation which He has provided for us.
Sources and additional reading