A dozen years ago sustainability was an uncommon word, and was used occasionally to describe anything that would maintain over time. Then the term gained new meaning as increasingly scientific studies were published with data relating to climate change and its impact on our planet. Former Vice-President Al Gore was one of the first who took those data and tried to make them understandable to the common citizen, which was much needed because scientists tend to communicate in their own jargon, and mainly to their colleagues.
The problem with this situation is that when the information that the scientists are holding has a serious impact on how we live, eat, produce, travel, shop, or entertain, we, the public, should have access to it and understand it. Journalists can play an important role here in growing the understanding of their public audiences, since when interviewing experts in the area, journalists can persuade the scientists to translate their knowledge into examples or analogies that a non-expert can understand.
Most of the time the trigger is some serious event that makes us wonder- How did this happen? In other words, a symptom emerges that is the result of a complex and long chain of interconnected factors. When each of those previous events was taking place, we were not aware of the longer-term consequences that might occur.
An example? We walk out of a store with a little plastic bag containing something we purchased. At home, we fold and store the bag for reuse. Next occasion, we get ready to walk our dog and take the stored bag, because we have clean urban habits when it comes to our dog. Half an hour later, the reused plastic bag is properly disposed of in a litterbin on the sidewalk. The end.
For us. But not for the plastic bag, which will be picked up by the waste management truck, transported to a landfill, dumped with other non-recyclable elements, and depending on the location, covered with layers of earth. Still not the end. The biological contents of our plastic doggy bag will slowly decompose, and as other organic matters, become nutrients for the soil. Not the bag though. The plastic bag, depending on its composition, may remain for a hundred years until it has finally decomposed. And not being organic, but of synthetic origin, it may end up releasing fossil fuel-based toxins into the soil or the water. Which may contaminate the soil that nurtures plants, or the drinking water. Then one day instances of repeated diseases or birth defects in a certain location make the news. How did this happen? Investigators exploring possible contaminants discover that the composition of the drinking water is not safe, or that the vegetables contain high levels of ... some toxic elements. How did this happen? the question persists. In tracing possible causes, someone links the location with a nearby landfill. Who knows what has been filtering into the water from that landfill, over the years.
Talking about waste, we could have contributed to the story by changing the batteries of our remote control and tossing the old ones into the wastebasket. Or ignoring a plastic bottle on the roadside. Or washing off our micro-beads-based face lotion after a good night's sleep. In Nature, there is no waste, what is waste for one organism becomes food for another organism in the ecosystem. In our 'modern and civilized' world, waste it waste.
The vignette could have taken place in a beautiful landscape, and could have cited the farmer who needs to improve the yields of his crops to make up for a bad harvest, and uses fertilizers on a genetically modified seed that has been designed with a pesticide to keep bugs away. I could have selected a vignette of a fashion designer creating the collection for Week 14 of the next year - in what is called the era of the 'fast fashion', where stores feature new collections every few weeks (do you remember when there were four seasons?). The designer is creating beautiful clothing pieces, oblivious of the fact that she is actively contributing to speeding up the use of fabrics, buttons, dyes, and transportation. And making fabrics means increasing the demand of cotton, wool, or fossil fuel-based synthetic fibers. And cotton means increased use of water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy. Which also means increasing our CO2 footprint. What a lovely dress, however. And so inexpensive, that it is a no-brainer to buy it. Even better, the retailers are concerned about their environmental footprint, and encourage the shoppers to bring some old clothing to be recycled at the store, and give a discount on the new purchases. And it makes me feel good that they only buy from socially responsible garment manufacturers in Asia. Isn't that a good trade-off for my little purchase? That I am even supporting low-income families across the globe? The more we shop, the more employment we create. It may not be sustainable in terms of planetary resources, but employment is more immediately visible than depletion of nature. Isn't that right?
I could have shared a story about a developer laying out the plans for a new building on the ocean, with spectacular views, playground, pool and spa. The elegant design is disconnected from how the new owners will deal with their mortgage or insurance as the rise in sea level impacts their property, the neighborhood, the economy of the city, or as saltwater intrusion sposes unseen challenges.
We may have pockets of information, but we are not connecting the dots. While some are debating whether climate change is real, man-made or a natural phenomenon, we are actively contributing day in and day out to our collective un-sustainability. We can have several hours of conversation about the un-sustainability of our habits, embedded in what comfort, or success, or prosperity means for us, or how we deal with social inequity, without ever mentioning climate change. I invite you to do a simple exercise. Look around the room. I challenge you to find one object that is not an example of un-sustainability.
Do you understand why sustainability is more than recycling? It is the challenge of our time -- to innovate and reinvent every single habit, to stop contributing to a planet not prepared for us, at least not in this way. And what we still fail to realize is that the planet is not the environment, it is the ecosystem we desperately need to subsist. The planet, ultimately, does not need us.
Keywords: sustainability, Climate change, recycling, Al Gore, Plastic Bags, organic food, fossil fuels, GMOs, CO2, pesticides, sea level rise