Why Should We Care About Sustainability?
It largely depends on what kind of lifestyle you dream about having, and the type of future that is important to you.
I dream of a lifetime of adventure and travel, so to that end, I need to ensure that my everyday practices and mindset encourage a healthy society and planet.
You might have different dreams, but the mindset is the same. You cannot achieve your dreams if you live in a world where you can’t breathe the air or swim in the oceans. You can’t hope to achieve your dreams if you live in a world that doesn’t lift up a small business, or that actively works to keep certain parts of society in abject poverty. You also cannot achieve your dreams if you live in a world that seeks to erase certain cultures, or doesn’t take into account that some people are different than others — and that those differences should be celebrated.
Think about sustainability as a sturdy, three-legged stool. Not like the one you made your mom in shop class back in middle school. A functioning stool.
This stool has three legs, and each leg has a name. They are: environment, economy, society. Like all three-legged stools, if you remove one leg, the entire stool will topple over.
The stool, in this case, is the entire frickin’ world.
Sustainability is the happy marriage between the world’s environment, the global economy, and our cultures and societies. For humans and the planet to function in perpetuity, all three of these things have to function together seamlessly.
Think about it. If you want a stable economy and more money in the bank, you can’t destroy the very resources that make you money (the environment). Otherwise, you won’t have money for very long, right? Similarly, you can’t save the environment without taking into account the quality of life of the human beings that live on the Earth. Plus, we all know society needs a healthy economy to survive. All of these must happen at the same time.
Sounds easy right? That was sarcasm, I’m sure you realize that it isn’t an easy task. However, it is a worthwhile one to focus on.
We call this type of big-picture thinking holistic. You can also use the word intersectional. It doesn’t really matter because the idea is the same: promote equality for all, economic well-being for all, and a healthy, functioning environment. Everyone must see the big picture.
Why should you care about sustainability? There are a few additional schools of thought here. You could choose to care about sustainability because you are a naturally altruistic person: you care about human rights, or the environment, or economic justice. In this case, the basics of sustainable living will come naturally to you. With training and education, the nuances will fall into place easily.
However, I can’t make you care about the planet. I can’t force you to care about inequality or cultural inclusion. I certainly can’t make you care about economic justice or the fact that all humans should have the chance to feed their families. Truly, if you are reading this but disagree with a sustainable lifestyle, you might actually believe in these basic principles but disagree on the execution.
So why should you care about living a sustainable lifestyle? Well, I’m here to give you permission to be selfish. It’s okay to work towards a sustainable lifestyle for entirely selfish reasons. If you don’t litter because you don’t feel like living next to a vacant lot full of actual trash, that’s valid. If you don’t drive a car to work and instead take the bus because you don’t feel like breathing in frickin’ ozone every day, that’s okay, too. You don’t have to care about other people’s children (like the fact that inner-city kids are more likely to get asthma? You don’t have to care about that). If you just care about yourself and you don’t want asthma, hey, we’ll take it.
Truthfully it doesn’t matter why you do it. The results will be the same.
Let me tell you a brief story: while working for a sustainability nonprofit I attended a summit in a major city. The summit was about helping businesses make small changes to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly. I had the CEO of a major financial institution approach me during cocktail hour and blatantly tell me, “I don’t care at all about the environment, honestly. I put solar panels on the building because it made financial sense. Our return on investment was amazing”. Do you know what I said to him? I genuinely congratulated him and told him that I was happy that the choice had worked out so well for him. I gave zero f*cks if his motivations were selfish.
Again, the results are the same.
So if the why doesn’t matter, what are the steps we can take to make both selfish and altruistic sustainable choices?
Although the United Nations has declared 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the basics fall into the three categories listed above. There are hundreds of ways to promote a sustainable world without giving up all of the things you already love. With ingenuity, we can achieve the SDGs, have fun, see the world, and do good. With ingenuity, we can also achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through more self-oriented reasons like saving ourselves money and keeping ourselves healthy.
When we focus on these things, we will find that our lives naturally become healthier. When we focus on these goals, we will find that our dreams, whatever they may be, will become easier to achieve as well.
Let’s take a final example. Let’s say you’re one of the people who are very pro-coal or pro-oil. You probably have a reason for this, and that reason might be because oil jobs pay well and keep the economy afloat. Perhaps your reasoning for being pro-oil is that you love your truck and you can’t imagine life without it.
However, both coal and oil are unsustainable. If for no other reason, they are unsustainable because they are a finite resource. We might not know when it will run out, but we do know that it must run out eventually because that’s how petroleum works. So your selfish reason for pivoting away from oil? Well, then you can say that when gas prices go up to $18 an hour, you and your hybrid truck won’t be feeling the strain nearly as much.
If you’re pro-coal because of the job aspect, perhaps your selfish reason for pivoting away from coal could be the fact that solar is now the cheapest electricity in history. That means job opportunities. Solar is available in most places (wherever the sun shines, really), so that means no shortage of economic opportunities for you and yours on about 90% of the planet.
So why should you care about sustainability? Pick a reason.