What Is the Science of Sustainability?

By Megan Ray Nichols

Sustainability is a word that appears in conversation often these days, especially with the United Nations giving us a looming 2030 deadline to start reducing our carbon emissions. Everyone is talking about sustainability and why it’s so important, but if you ask people why, they won’t have an answer for you. What is the science behind it, and what can we do to live a more sustainable life?

Sustainability Defined

First, what is sustainability? We talk about living a more sustainable life all the time, but it’s helpful to be able to put a definition behind the word.

At its most basic, sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” according to UCLA. This definition might work well in casual conversation, but there’s so much more to it than just meeting our needs while preserving natural resources for posterity.

Sustainability and sustainable development encompass everything from food production to the health of the ozone. It also includes climate change and its impacts both today and into the future. As much as we dream of going to the stars, we are not a space-faring species yet. That means this little blue marble is the only home our generation and those yet to come will have — and we need to take care of it.

The Science of Sustainability

Sustainability is quickly becoming its own branch of science, with scientists and researchers working around the clock worldwide to change the way we live on and with our home planet. It’s becoming more challenging for these researchers to provide sustainability knowledge that is both usable and socially relevant. This is partially because they’re not just expected to produce the data. They’re often expected to create solutions that city planners and those in power can implement. These options need to be politically acceptable for the areas where they’ll be used.

Sustainability science examines the incredibly complex relationship between people and their environment. They pair adaptive systems with human environments to emulate the effect life has on the planet. This way, scientists can see what kind of damage people could potentially do to the Earth, without allowing them to destroy it any more than they already have.

Sustainability isn’t just a popular buzzword anymore. It’s quickly becoming a necessity, and it will be the most high-impact way to improve life for many generations. Savvy business owners have already been creating sustainable business models because it brings in more customers. Around the world, 66% of customers will switch companies even if it means paying more, as long as the new one is making strides to be more sustainable.

Consumers aren’t fools, though. Companies that say they’re green or sustainable without any science to back up their claims will see people fleeing in droves for their competition. The growing trend of supply chain transparency means businesses can’t hide their flaws even if they want to. Most consumers have a basic grasp of how to navigate a search engine.

Living a More Sustainable Life

You don’t have to be a sustainability scientist or a business owner to make your life a little bit more sustainable every day. Even small steps can help shrink your carbon footprint and improve your overall sustainability rating. Thankfully, you can do many of them without spending a penny.

Start by choosing the paperless billing option for things like utilities and credit cards. You’re probably already paying your bills online anyway, so why waste the paper to get one in the mail every month? This doesn’t cost you anything and may even save you money, since some providers charge extra if you want a physical bill.

Skip the plastic grocery bags at the store in favor of biodegradable, reusable totes made from cotton or hemp. They last longer, hold more groceries and don’t take thousands of years to break down in landfills.

Replace paper towels with cloth kitchen towels made from biodegradable natural fibers. Just like the totes, they’ll last longer, save you a ton of money in the long run and biodegrade when you’re done with them.

Make it a point to recycle or compost as much as possible to keep waste out of landfills. Most cities recycle cardboard, plastic, glass and other materials. Organics like paper and food waste like coffee grounds, eggshells and vegetable peels can all be composted to make natural fertilizer for your garden.

Looking Toward the Future

Creating a sustainable world might seem like a daunting task, but that’s because you’re looking at the global picture. Stop trying to save the world and work on making your life and home more sustainable. If everyone made little changes like these, you might be surprised how quickly they add up and make a real difference.

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