What does sustainability mean to students? Vol. I

November 6, 2017 | 0 comments

From time to time we like to share student writing on sustainability.Haley Stauffer is a BioRenewable Systems major with minors in International Agriculture and Spanish. She is interested in areas of biomass processing for fuel or consumer products and enjoys participating in water sports, hiking, and traveling. Haley is an Undergraduate Research Assistant in a Microbiology Lab, Event Planner of EcoAction Club, Secretary of the Students for Sustainability Advisory Council and on their Food, Water, and Waste Committee Board, Vice President of For Art’s Sake Club, as well as a member of the Council for Sustainable Leaders and National Society of Leadership and Success.

Having been raised in a family that valued recycling, composting, and gardening, I grew up connecting the term “sustainability” with living within one’s means and participating in daily actions that reduced consumption waste. I remember my mom taking the reusable grocery bags to the store before it became a trend, and scheduling garden Saturdays in the summer when my family would work outside all day; cultivating and harvesting our few crops. I can recall my dad, a township board member, getting worms from our neighbor to accelerate the decomposition of his four rotating compost beds in the woods that line our backyard, as well as him and me walking up and down our street collecting trash. These fond memories, although I did not realize it at the time, were cultivating in me a subconscious awareness of my own actions that have driven essentially every daily and future action of my adult life. I am incredibly thankful that the level of conservatism expressed in my household, which is what I attributed my family’s actions essentially towards, has come to embody something much larger for me today. As I have explored this term more and have seen greater products and companies claiming they are “sustainable”, I have come to define “sustainable” as highly relative and subjective.

I am familiar with the formal definition of sustainable as, “being able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” After reading the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Heinberg’s five axioms for sustainability, I have concluded that true sustainability is incredibly difficult and in some fields, potentially unattainable. I now view sustainability as a humanitarian and political issue, not simply an environmental facet. Sustainability is all encompassing and highly diverse. Although this is recognized, the current global socio-economic shifts do not provide enough significant relief from the turmoil that has long been brewing on our planet.

The biggest challenges we face regarding sustainability are overpopulation and poverty. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the most poverty-stricken areas are located within the least developed regions of the world and experience the highest birth rates at 4.3%. One such country, Namibia, has seen over the last 20 years, “extreme poverty rates fall by 20% and average family size halved.”  As the world continues to multiply at an exponential rate, our resources are becoming increasingly constrained resulting in turmoil in the form of wars, or global hunger. As mentioned in Heinberg’s Five Axioms, Bartlett’s Axiom: “Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained”. Heinberg states that even small amounts of growth can result in exponential immeasurable impacts. The true scope of the Earth and what it can ultimately sustain cannot be calculated and that is a huge concern for regulating sustainability of our planet.

Within the SDGs, the number one goal addressed was ending poverty. Poverty is a direct result of misallocated resources and failure in education that perpetuates the cycle of abuse and dependency. As stated in goal one’s progress report from the Secretary-General, “Preliminary data show that in 2016, only 45 per cent of the world’s population was effectively protected by a social protection system and that coverage varied widely across countries and regions.” Our political system is at fault for not providing relief for marginalized people in concentrated disaster stricken areas that are more vulnerable to poverty. These people, such as those recently hit by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, are experiencing “environmental racism” that relates to the greater effects of climate change impacting areas that do not have the resources to handle the weather fluctuations experienced. In a recent Huffington Post article, Andrew Dessler, a climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, stated “Adaptation takes money.”  Many people living in poverty do not have the resources or education required to adapt to the unpredictable changes in our climate. This issue of sustainability plays into a feedback loop of impoverished areas that have high hunger rates (SDG 2), insufficient access to proper health systems and education (SDG 3,4), perpetuated inequality (SDG 5), and so on.

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