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Just What Exactly is "Sustainability"? Has anybody seen it?

By now we all know a "green" house is not one just painted that color. Sustainable agriculture is not the same as conventional agriculture. And hybrid cars probably have something to do with it all. Some of us are more sophisticated, and we realize that the best eco-friendly products are certified by some third party, or that you can save energy by switching to smaller florescent bulbs with electronic ballasts. But what is sustainability really?

Students of the topic learn about the triple bottom line: people, planet, and prosperity. So yes, sustainability is the integration of three goals in anything we do, whether it's a business, a social venture, or a government project: sustainability needs economic success, ecological health, and community benefit all together. Or perhaps you've heard the famous 1987 United Nations' Brundtland Commission's definition: "Sustainability (sustainable development) meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." But what is sustainability really?

People complain that sustainability is a political animal of a concept, one that can change depending upon who is using it in what situation. Like a chameleon. It is a philosophy captured by the life-style police who would deny humans their earthly pleasures. Like a guilty conscience. It can be expensive and exclusive, affordable only by the wealthy. Like a 5-star hotel. Yet it is also the key to our survival as a species, a global community, a nation, a neighborhood.

Sustainability is not rocket science, it is common sense. It is not new, many among us have been practicing this stuff a very long time. Sustainability is a balanced diet, more savings and less borrowing, craving less and sharing more. It is the small business owner who always treated his employees like family. It is valuing experiences, art and music, hiking and sporting, gardens, friendships and time to oneself. Sustainability is eco-efficiency, and eco-effectiveness, innovation that leads us away from fossil fuels while at the same time strengthening economic viability. It is the green jobs Van Jones talks about, the modern medical record-keeping Obama talks about, the solar power initiatives Schwartzenegger talks about.

We need to reach back to old-style ways of doing things, like eating together or being thrifty, at the same time as we invent and use highly modern technologies, like programmable energy management systems or bio-lubricants. Our engineers need to mimic the magic designs of nature (biomimicry), our financial experts need to make room for patient capital (returns with longer time horizons), our architects need to design beautiful yet cost effective structures (U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum buildings).

Sustainability can truly become simply our mainstream way of life, full of happiness, opportunity, and choices. Sustainability just means healthy communities: economically, ecologically, socially. Couldn't be that hard to see it around here somewhere soon. Really. - L. A. Strohm