“Sustainability” is much more than a recent buzzword. While the use of the word has certainly increased in frequency, the concept itself is hardly new, and it is one which drives us here at The Permaculture Research Institute.
What is Sustainability?
An ecosystem, a lifestyle, or a community that is sustainable is one which supports itself and its surroundings—one which As Tim Murphy writes in Permaculture Design and Sequence, the philosophy behind permaculture is one which seeks to “comprehend and orchestrate the evolution of a climax ecosystem” in a manner that “interfaces with both existing natural systems and natural culture.”
This is a philosophy which is built on a solid foundation of sustainability. Sustainability itself can be defined by three core elements, each of which must be carefully considered in relation to the others:
• Environmental Protection
• Social Development
• Economic Development
Supporting and creating a sustainable ecosystem must, of course, place significant focus on environmental protection. After all, our interactions with the environment are only “sustainable” if they don’t destroy the environment and the resources provided by it. Environmental protection entails examining how our use of the environment affects it, and how we can ensure that negative effects are minimized and behaviors that positively impact the environment are emphasized.
People are only interested in sustainability if they are educated about it, and if its overall importance is effectively communicated. Furthermore, human well-being and the well-being of society is part and parcel of what sustainability stands for. Ensuring that human beings have access to basic resources, that their health is being protected, and that they enjoy a good quality of life within a sustainable environment is critical.
Perhaps one of the more controversial of sustainability’s elements, due in part to the fact that economic success is a rather subjective concept, economic development is nonetheless important for several reasons. First, sustainability without economic development simply cannot succeed—in order to convince individuals, communities, and organizations to invest their resources in sustainability, there must be incentives above and beyond the long-term advantages. Second, as described above, social development is also an important aspect of sustainability—and social development requires (among many other things) economic resources as well.
Why is it so Important?
Sustainability is important for a very simple, very straightforward reason: we cannot maintain our quality of life as human beings, the diversity of life on Earth, or Earth’s ecosystems unless we embrace it. There are indications from all quarters and from the smallest to the largest scale that sustainability is something we must address. We will run out of fossil fuels. Thousands if not millions of animal species will become extinct. We will run out of lumber. We will damage the atmosphere beyond repair… If we don’t change.
And the root of that change lies in understanding and striving for sustainability—in our own homes, in our communities, in our ecosystems, and around the world.
Sustainability in the Home: An Overview
Sustainability is a hot topic lately, and not because it’s a brand new idea. It’s hardly new—but it is gaining recognition because it is becoming abundantly clear that living sustainable lives isn’t just something we “should” do for the environment. It’s something we must do to preserve our qualities of life and of all of the lives on this planet. And as with so many positive changes we can make in the world, starting at home is often one of the most important things we can do.
There are many different ways to support sustainability at home. Some of the most important are:
Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
This mantra has been around for decades, but its longevity is simply proof of its truth. Reducing your waste is perhaps the most vital here—using, for example, cloth towels and diapers instead of the disposable versions. Opting to drink filtered water rather than bottled. There are a multitude of small ways in which we can reduce the waste we produce.
Reusing items is also important, and it’s something that can take many different forms. It’s not simply a matter of using something that’s seen better days. Maybe you don’t want to get an old tire repaired to reuse it because you prefer the reliability of a new tire—but you can reuse a tire as a convenient, affordable planter for a raised garden.
Recycling should be something of an almost-last resort. It’s better than simply sending materials to the landfill, but it’s best to reduce waste to begin with. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and when it’s not, then recycling is the responsible option!
Make Wise Purchasing Decisions
The products we buy and choose to use can contribute to a sustainable lifestyle or detract from it. Consider the chemicals you clean with. Research environmentally friendly cleaners, or even homemade cleaners. Baking soda and white vinegar, lemon juice, and salt (not necessarily combined!) are remarkably effective for many household cleaning tasks.
Consider the materials from which your clothing is made. Where it is made, by whom, and how. Remember that sustainability isn’t just about the “natural” environment, it’s about human quality of life, as well. Purchasing something that is a bit more expensive, but made under conditions that are sustainable from not only an environmental but a social standpoint is often a better choice—and it’s probably more economical than you realize, since such goods last longer.
Grow Your Own Food
Or otherwise contribute to your local ecosystem! A community garden, a suburban front yard herb garden, a few tomato plants—there are so many small yet important ways in which you can improve your own health and life while contributing to a more sustainable world. Growing your own food can also help you feel more interconnected with the environment and encourage you to improve sustainability in other ways: Starting your own compost pile (a great way to reduce, reuse, and recycle!), and purchasing less food that has to be trucked from distant locations (a wise purchasing decision).
How you opt to begin your own personal journey to a more sustainable world is up to you, and begins in your own home.
Sustainability: Landscaping and Outdoor Living
Sustainability begins at home, and home doesn’t consist only of what’s surrounded by four walls. In fact, many of the ways in which we can improve the sustainability of our lifestyles can be found right outside of our front (and back!) doors. Sustainable landscaping is a great way to enhance your property while helping your community and the Earth as a whole.
What is Permaculture Landscaping?
Permaculture thinking focuses on understanding and supporting the interconnected elements of the environment, ecosystems, and communities in order to create a living space for humans and other living things that can consistently provide a high quality of life without doing lasting damage. How a household decides to participate in sustainable landscaping can vary a great deal, depending on the region, the particular needs of the household, and the eco-system. We’ll cover just a few ways in which people pursue a more sustainable landscape.
Growing Food and Herbs
Ornamental plants certainly have their uses, but many people are choosing to combine their love of a beautiful landscape with a gourmet appreciation of fresh, natural food and herbs. What does this mean, exactly?
Well, for some, it can be as simple as growing a strawberry patch rather than using a purely ornamental groundcover. Or, one might choose to replace a suburban flower bed with an herb garden—herbs can be equally beautiful and far more practical. For those with more space, giving up a portion of the backyard to plant a larger garden or create a raised garden could be an option. Container gardens, which can be moved and easily swapped out, are another great choice—a surprising number of vegetables—tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, etc.—thrive in containers!
Using fresh, potable water to sustain nothing more than inedible grass, which probably doesn’t provide many other benefits, is often not the right choice for sustainability. But there are so many other options. Choosing plants native to your area that have evolved to thrive under the naturally present conditions is one choice. If exotic plants are more your thing, talk to a naturalist or a botanist at a local nursery or arboretum to discover unique options for your yard—plants that will both please you aesthetically and fit happily into the local ecosystem.
You can also consider installing rain barrels, depending on your local regulations, or planting a “rain garden”—planting water-loving foliage in areas where water tends to gather, to allow it to be absorbed into the soil rather than running off into storm drains.
Sustainable Use of Fertilizers, Pesticides, and Herbicides
The chemicals you use on your lawn matter, and not just to your grass. Using safer, organic alternatives can help you keep your landscaping looking lovely without polluting or endangering the ecosystem. Lawn and garden care chemicals can have lasting effects on plants, animals, and insects in your area, and can also have a negative impact on the water supply.
Remember, your yard is “yours,” but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a part of the local ecosystem, and by participating in sustainable lawn care, you’re supporting a sustainable world!
Sustainability and Family Life
One of the key things that we must understand about sustainability is that it stresses the interconnectedness of different elements in the environment: human beings, ecosystems, animal life, the water cycle, etc. Nearly everywhere we look, we can find examples of sustainable (or unsustainable) practices—including looking within, at our own lives.
From the moment we awake in the morning until the moment we sleep at night, we are making decisions that impact whether or not we’re supporting sustainable lifestyles. How much water we use when showering or brushing our teeth, the source of the cereal we pour into our bowls, the transportation method we opt for when commuting to work—these are all small but important things to consider.
Our personal actions, of course, may not seem like much in the short-term, but as anyone who is committed to sustainable living knows, they do add up over time—even long after the person who took those actions is gone. Well, there’s another way to ensure that our commitment to sustainable living lives on beyond us: Emphasizing sustainable living to our children, and setting an example of it.
Teaching our children about sustainability is about much more than nagging them to turn off lights or preaching about the gallons of water being wasted by an hour long shower. It’s about demonstrating what a holistic approach to sustainable living really means.
Don’t just tell your children that making a garden is important—make one, but more importantly, involve them. Talk to them about why they should turn lights off when they leave a room. If you’re going to take a vacation and want to travel, why not visit an exciting new ecosystem and learn about how it’s being affected by human practices—rather than just going for an easily forgotten trip to an amusement park.
Visit your local farmer’s market, and encourage your children to ask questions of those who produce locally grown foods, to learn about the humane treatment of animals, and organic growing practices. Your interest in these things will plant a seed, and give your child the chance to develop his or her own curiosity about the natural world and how we can work together to live in harmony with it.
You’ll find, also, that this approach isn’t just good for the environment. It’s also good for your family. These types of discussions allow for deep, meaningful discourse. Interest in the environment leads to unique, unforgettable learning opportunities. Sharing these things can deepen a family’s bond, even as they strengthen a family’s commitment to sustainable living.
And then one day, you may just see your children modeling this behavior to their own children… perhaps the most important way you can lend your influence to creating a more sustainable future.