Growing up in the 90’s I never heard the word sustainability. Come to think of it, I had never heard of sustainability until my freshman year of college at Western Washington University. I was always familiar with conservation, recycling and pollution, but never used the term sustainability.

Key Sustainability Events

Environmentalism in the U.S. started in 1969 with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) whose purpose was to “foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Beginning in April 2001, preparation for the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa took place at the local, national, sub-regional, regional and global levels.

In March 2009 the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international team of leading climate scientists, issued a strongly worded statement: “The climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.”

Before these key environmental events, sustainability was not in the vocabulary of mainstream America. It has only been recently that environmentalism has spread to mainstream America. But how many Americans actively value the environment? Do their actions reflect environmentalism?

Developing My Environmentalism

My love and respect for the environment was developed during family vacations to the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Mesa Verde, and numerous sailing adventures through the San Juan Islands in Washington. Early on I discovered that the environment was irreplaceable, yet magnificent. Back then I just saw the beauty, but the environment also provides many ecosystem services that cannot be recreated or reproduced by humans. Despite my family’s love of nature, I never new about sustainable living, the principles of new urbanism or climate change.

Even though environmental problems existed and affected my life, I never knew. As a teenager I never thought about CO2 emissions released from driving my car, or the amount of my garbage that ended up in a landfill. During my first year at college, I learned about the environmental problems that face our world today and potential solutions to these problems. Renewable energy, green building design and environmental economics were suddenly intriguing and I wanted to be part of the solution. I started taking courses in geology, oceanography, energy and resource economics. I recently graduated with a B.A. in Economics and a concentration in Environmental Studies. My goal is to work in the environmental field to contribute to solving environmental problems with innovative solutions.

But this is just my story. Many Americans do not highly value the environment. This is possibly the reason why I never heard about sustainability until I was an adult. We just don’t talk about sustainability enough. Why is environmentalism not a key American value?

Potential Problems with the Use of Sustainability

Do people know the meaning of sustainability? How many people can define sustainability?

Is there one true definition? Does this word, because of its many meanings lead to public ambivalence?

Does using the term sustainability harm environmentalism?

Solutions

  • Instead of approaching sustainability with a feel good method, it is more important to get attention by taking the opposite approach. Create pragmatic ideas to get the discussion started. Once people become passionate about a situation and understand the consequences, they will become active participants in the environmental discussion and the problem solving process. The most efficient way to plant environmentalism into mainstream America is to get the attention of the public by creating and maintaining an environmental discussion.
  • Anchor improving lifestyle with environmentalism. For change to happen, the focus can no longer be just about the environment but also needs to be about improving the lives of people. Sustainability should encompass the economy, environment and equity. Sustainability needs to include improving neighborhood connectivity and advocating healthy lifestyles. In order for people to care about the environment, there needs to be a strong link between the environment and how their life can improve in the process.

Comments and discussion are welcome. Hope you enjoyed the post!