The Main Problem with Sustainability

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Time and time again, I keep hearing about sustainability this, sustainability that. However, there is a fundamental problem with this approach to making the world a better place. 

A friend of mine recently bought a Tesla because it’s electric, arguing that it’s more sustainable. It’s certainly true that it doesn’t release carbon into the atmosphere when he drives. But buying only sustainable things will not solve climate change. “Yes, it took some carbon to build the Tesla,” he said (or does it?). “But after ____ driven kilometers, it begins to be a green vehicle.” In other words, the car encourages its owner to drive it so that it can be “green” while driving itself costs energy, which in turn, somewhere down the line of how it is produced, releases carbon.

There is a statistic floating around that says we need to reduce our meat intake by 30% to be sustainable. While this may be correct, the thing we are overlooking is that at this point in time, the planet-with-non-endangered-life-of-humans cannot endure more strain. Sure, it may be sustainable if everyone consumed this amount, but will we be able to reach everyone on the planet?

No. So that number must be significantly higher if those who are willing to listen/hear about the problem in the first place will try and make a dent in carbon releases.

What about a specific industry? The fashion industry produces about 10% of all greenhouse gases (how many clothes do you own? Imagine everyone has this amount; that’s a lot of clothes). The trick to solving this, apparently, is to be more sustainable. Produce cotton and synthetic fibers in more sustainable, energy-efficient ways, recycle polyester. This helps, true, but it does not address the central issue. 

Another argument I keep hearing is that it’s the corporations’ fault that so much carbon is released into the atmosphere, and individuals cannot change this. But when we ask who fuels corporations, it is obvious that they are fueled by people: If there were no people, there cannot be a product that they can make that people will buy, and so, they would need to shift their business plans to accommodate attacking the climate crisis head-on. Sure, there might be an overproduction of products in the short term, but any smart firm would realize that supply must stop being produced without demand.

But even if we reduce our use of “red” services, our buying of clothes, and reduced our meat intake, there will still be carbon release. Given enough time then, anything that releases any amount of carbon into the air, anywhere in their supply chain, without sequestering it out, naturally increases the planet’s overall temperature, making sustainability unsustainable.

Sustainability is not always what it seems. In discussion, it is an idealized, moral form of what we should be aiming for, rather than a reality we must accomplish. But we must be better than this.

We must truly live out what we are saying instead of peddling it as a marketing buzzword.

How to accomplish this is, in theory, relatively easy, and in practice, nigh impossible. Stop buying things you don’t need for your survival. Use public transportation or bikes (they are also healthier). Don’t be ashamed of using decade-old clothes or the same few styles over and over again. Eat vegetables, pick up trash when you get the chance, build a community instead of traveling to find one. Stop caring about superficial social statuses, and start investing in our future. We’ve been ignorant long enough, and this must change.

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