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What's the Definition of Sustainability & What's It Got To Do With Me?

Written by The Leap on 08 / 09 / 2014

Gap Year Advice

In the last decade, 'sustainability' has become the watchword of development professionals and politicians thinking responsibly about the future. Sure, it sounds like a great idea.

But who among us feel they actually understand what this worthy word means or feel they make an active, personal contribution towards sustainability? And quite frankly does it even matter?

Well, in a word YES.

What Does Sustainability Mean?

Keen earth scientists among you may already know the answer to the first part of this burning question, but for the rest of us a definition of the term sustainability is a tricky one to pin down.

Applied to nature and society in equal measure, sustainability is a word used by folks in the know to describe systems in nature or society which ensure the endurance of life processes.

For example, rather than hacking away mindlessly at depleting natural resources a more balanced approach is taken - sustainably developing forests where new trees are planted for every tree felled. Sustainable forms of energy such as solar or wind power are used in favour of tapping our finite stocks of fossil fuels which once used are gone forever.

A sustainable approach to food supply involves monitoring our ocean's fish stock and restricting fishing in areas where the number of breeding fish has reached critical levels. Sounds pretty simple so far, right?

Social Sustainability

On a social level, we can simplify things even further. The definition most often quoted comes from the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations which states that sustainability is the call for a decent standard of living for everyone today without compromising the needs of future generations.

In this context, we ask questions like:

'How can we help people move out of poverty and get good jobs, while protecting the environment?'

Or:

'How can we make sure we meet everyone's basic nutritional needs?'

If you want to better understand the United Nation's approach and actions to securing sustainable development then visit sustainabledevelopment.un.org where you can watch webcasts of high-level meetings and blow your mind with political speak.

If you don't fancy bogging yourself down in the technicals then simply understand that in it's most basic terms sustainability is about seeking to overcome our shrinking natural resources and the massive gap in standards of living between the rich and poor so that we all have a future on planet earth.

Now who in their right mind would argue against that? Which moves on nicely to the next part of the question - what on earth can you do about it?

Start By Making Small Changes in Your Own Life

There are several simple steps that each of us can take in our own lives to contribute towards a future that caters for these social and environmental issues.

Improving our awareness of how we consume resources such as food, energy and consumer goods, where they come from and how we dispose of them is an excellent first step. This might mean avoiding purchases of bottle water - one the world's largest contributors to landfill - recycling mobile phones, or simply borrowing things instead of buying them brand new.

For some great practical guidance on how you can live a greener, more sustainable life take a look at the Worldwatch Institutes's useful resource, 10 Ways to Go Green and Save Green.

Next, Join Forces With A Larger Organisation

Some of the bigger questions of sustainable development, of creating a more equal global society and helping communities in other parts of the world achieve a better standard of living might seem beyond you and I and more a matter for politicians, policy makers and charities to sort out.

But believe me, if you feel passionately about the cause of social sustainability and feel that everyone in the world deserves to enjoy the same freedoms, opportunities and standard of living then there is direct action you can take!

Start by joining forces with organisations that are working on small scale projects, with communities and causes identified as needing assistance overseas and volunteer your time and energy.

The simplest option is to register with an association like The International Ecotourism Society. Your donations will go directly to strengthening their initiatives uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel, and you'll receive lots of advice on traveling responsibly.

But there is a second option: don't sit at home, get stuck in yourself. Helping remote communities in regions like South America, Africa or Asia to set up ecotourism projects so that they can benefit from trade with visitors (rather than global corporations who tend to snap up all the profits) is highly rewarding work, whilst setting up lodges and cultural exchange programmes can provide locals with invaluable opportunities to share skills and learn new ones - benefiting local businesses in the process.

There are some incredible volunteer opportunities out there, ethically-sourced and run by professional charities or gap companies with an eye to the future - seeking to enable communities with the resources and ability to provide a better standard of living for themselves.

If that sounds more like your sort of thing, you're in the right place - that exactly what we do at The Leap. Head over to our volunteering page for more information about the projects that you could personally take part in.

The Rest Is Up To You

We live in a world with a rapidly growing population. 7 billion human beings currently walk the earth and there is huge pressure on our diminishing natural resources. That number is predicted to increase to 9 billion by 2050, which means it's high time we each start thinking about the part we play in securing a better future. Only then will we be able to call ourselves a sustainable species!

What are your thoughts on the matter? Leave us a comment below to let us know if you agree or disagree.

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