What Does Sustainable Actually Mean?

earth_handsSustainable. Wikipedia describes it as “the capacity to endure.” While the definition is convenient, clean and nice, how it translates into reality is highly subjective. What you think of sustainable living might be quite different from what I think. Furthermore, I find it a common capitalistic affliction to know what sustainable living is and consciously not live that way.

All the submarine and terrestrial volcanoes in the world produce roughly 200 million tons of CO2 annually and humans, through the burning of fossil fuels, production of cement and gas flaring produce 30 billion tons annually. According to the United States Geological Survey, it’s equivalent to adding 8,000 medium-sized active volcanoes like Mt. Kilauea, Hawaii, to the planet. As a marine and environmental scientist, I see daily how the natural world is viewed and used as an infinitely forgiving resource or a place where you can dump or trash. I have to work in my own life to develop myself out of old habits and into more ‘sustainable’ ones. From a global perspective, I have a very high carbon footprint and from a national perspective, it’s low. It’s easy to get lost in the computations of carbon footprints and to justify consuming with responses like, “I try to be a locavore,” “I buy organic,” or “I conserve,” but we are still left with the questions: is it sustainable? And, am I doing enough?

Mostly my answer is, “Hell no—it’s not enough.” We need to keep raising the bar every day. We need to take our love of this planet and each other to the next level. I can easily get wrapped up in the cynical drama of “we are screwed”— no one wants to conserve, Americans barely recycle 30 percent of their waste and folks still refuse to see that our carbonaholic lifestyle is transforming our biosphere.

But then I let go of the cynicism. I channel my despair into action. I channel the sadness into love for humanity and the other animals that share this planet.

What’s great about being a Californian is that we grant ourselves permission to live, love and play without boundaries, arguably more than any other culture. A small group of us took on ‘greening’ Santa Cruz LGBT Pride this year and it was a treat! Connecting with the community and enrolling their support, we introduced composting for the first time, solar power, got most of the vendors to use compostable materials instead of plastics, dressed up the bins with eucalyptus garland and flowers and educated the public about what’s waste and what’s actually useful as compost or recyclable material. We dressed up for fun and we turned trash into treasure.

Sustainability to me not only means shifting from consumer to conserver, but also shifting from resignation and despair to a playful community making a difference. We don’t have to look far to see that there is a lot of work to do; there is a lot of work to do. We have great passion and great vision for what’s needed and wanted in these times. If we source ourselves from this passion and use that to connect with the larger community, we transform life. As Santa Cruzans we can draw on each other and lead the way to a brilliant new reality. We’ve cultivated a rich culture grounded in nature. Now it’s time to empower our visions and take them to the streets, to our workplace, to our festivals. When we dressed for fun, connected with others and decorated those compost bins, I found that the community was nourished and delighted—and for me, this is what sustainable means.

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