Economists often talk about a problem they call “the tragedy of the commons.” It goes like this: Suppose several small farmers all share a single pasture. Grazing sheep on this shared land saves them money on feed. So naturally, they all make as much use of it as they can.
The problem is, if too many animals share the same pasture, it will become overgrazed. There won’t be enough grass left to support all the sheep. Their health will suffer, and some could even die.
The farmers would all be better off if they agreed to use the pasture more moderately. For instance, they could promise to let only a few sheep graze there on any given day. Then there would be enough grass for them all, and all the farmers would prosper.
This is a small-scale picture of what environmental sustainability looks like. It’s about managing our planet’s shared resources so they can support all of us, both now and in the future.
Our entire planet is a shared “commons,” just like that sheep pasture. All of us—all humans on the planet—rely on its resources for everything we do. We need air to breathe, water to drink, plants to eat, wood and metal to build things. Our energy sources, from the harmful fossil fuels to greener renewable resources like wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and tidal energy all come from or are powered by nature or natural processes. And there are countless other resources we rely on to support modern industries.
But if we use up these resources too fast, they won’t be there for future generations. If we want our species to survive and prosper, we have to learn to use them in a sustainable way. Like the sheep farmers, we have to bring our usage in line with what our environment can support.
That’s what environmental sustainability means. It’s about managing resources so that we have what we need today and still have enough for tomorrow.
Some people use the term “sustainable” as a synonym for green or eco-friendly, but it’s more than that. A green activity, lifestyle, or society is one that minimizes the harm it causes to the environment right now. But a sustainable activity, lifestyle, or society is one that can continue indefinitely for the future.
Here’s an example: Recycling is green because it reduces waste and energy use. But it’s not sustainable, because most materials can’t be recycled over and over. Eventually they wear out and new material needs to be added. Composting, on the other hand, is sustainable. You can turn plant waste into compost that feeds new plants, and you can repeat that cycle over and over.
Right now, our species isn’t living sustainably. Instead, we’re using up ever-increasing levels of natural resources and energy.
We rely on fossil fuels, a limited and nonrenewable resource, for heat, electricity, and transportation. We cut down forests that support other species and absorb carbon. We deplete the soil with intensive farming. We pollute the air, water, and land. And we emit greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet so much that it could become uninhabitable.
To survive, we need to bring our consumption into balance with what the planet can produce. But we need to do it in a way that allows humans to prosper as well. We want to help human societies develop while still protecting the natural world.
A truly sustainable society must meet three equally important goals, called the three pillars of sustainability:
This goal is all about taking care of our planet and its natural resources. It includes protecting air, water, land, and the plants and animals we share the planet with. Achieving it means reducing waste, relying on renewable resources, and controlling carbon emissions.
This goal is about helping human societies to grow and thrive. It includes providing good jobs and raising people out of poverty. To achieve it, we need to cultivate healthy businesses that can make a profit without hurting people and the planet.
The final goal is to support human health and emotional well-being. It includes promoting education and curbing hunger and disease. Reaching this goal means combating poverty, pollution, and droughts that lead to famine. As you can see, these are aims that overlap with environmental and economic ones.
To make the whole world sustainable requires action from everyone. Individuals, companies, and governments must all do their part to move toward a sustainable society.
Nearly anything you do to help the environment can be a step toward sustainability. Some examples include:
These actions support all three pillars of sustainability at the same time. For instance, driving less and walking or biking more protects the environment by preventing pollution. It helps you economically by saving you money on gas. And it improves your personal health by helping you get more exercise.
Companies are bigger than individuals, and thus their actions can have a bigger effect on the environment and society. Corporate sustainability can mean:
Actions by governments have the biggest potential of all to affect society. Laws passed within a nation can determine the behavior of all individuals and companies in that nation. Wise government policies can support all three pillars of sustainability—sometimes all at once.
Some people describe sustainability as “saving the planet,” but that’s not actually true. Our planet survived for billions of years before humans existed, and it will continue to survive after we’re gone. What’s less clear is how long it will be able to support us.
What sustainability is really about is saving ourselves. Its ultimate goal is to ensure that our species can survive and prosper long into the future. And since we don’t have another planet to move to, sustainability means preserving the resources on this planet that we need to live and to thrive.
To become sustainable, modern society must overcome some major social challenges. The first is population growth. As Our World in Data shows, there were only 2.5 billion people on the planet in 1950. By 2019, there were 7.7 billion. That’s more than three times as many people sharing the resources of one planet.
Fortunately, population growth is already slowing. However, the world population is still expected to reach 10.9 billion by 2100. We’ll need to produce more of everything—food, clean water, energy—to support that many people. And we’ll need to do it without damaging the environment.
At this point, the population is continuing to grow mostly in the developing world. In developed nations, the biggest threats to sustainability come from our production and consumption patterns. Simply put, we consume too much stuff, and we use too many resources to produce the stuff we consume.
Breaking these patterns of behavior won’t be easy. It will require major changes in the way we grow food, produce energy, manufacture goods, and construct buildings. And since big changes cost money, it’s hard to convince people it’s in their interest to make them. Like the sheep farmers, we want to keep doing what we’re doing now because it’s in our short-term interest.
To achieve sustainability, all of us need to think long-term. For individuals, that means looking beyond what’s cheapest and easiest right now and considering what will help us years in the future. For companies, it means focusing less on this year’s profits and more on long-term growth. And for governments, it means thinking less about the next election and more about ensuring the country’s long-term survival.
It won’t be easy to shift long-ingrained habits of thought. But the benefits are worth it. In the long run, sustainable growth benefits everyone.
A sustainable world is a healthier and happier one. In a sustainable future:
The steps required to get to a sustainable world can also have short-term benefits for businesses. Growing sustainably allows them to:
This overarching goal of environmental sustainability includes several smaller ones. To create a sustainable world, we must:
Moving toward renewable energy can support many of these sustainability goals at once. Replacing fossil fuels with cleaner power sources reduces greenhouse gas emissions and helps control global warming. That, in turn, helps protect our food supply and our water supply, which are both threatened by climate change.
Switching from fossil fuels to renewables also reduces pollution that damages ecosystems and human health. And because renewable energy systems have no ongoing fuel costs, they can help the whole world meet its energy needs. That will improve living standards all around the globe.