What is Sustainability?

By Dawn Gifford

Sustainability is the capacity to endure.

It’s about using what we need to live now, without jeopardizing the potential for people in the future to meet their needs, too.

If an activity is said to be sustainable, it should be able to continue forever. When we start to think about what sustainability really means, we begin to glimpse just how deeply and systemically everything needs to change.

No longer can we deny the writing on the wall: very little of what we do in modern life is capable of enduring and very little of what we consume is produced sustainably.


Apocalypse Now?

Today, it is uncertain if our society has the capacity to endure— at least in a way that will allow a basic quality of life for the nine billion people expected on Earth by 2050.

The planet’s ecosystems are deteriorating, and the climate is destabilizing. We are consuming so much, so quickly, that we are eating into our planetary capital, collectively consuming the renewable resources of 1.5 planets, according to the respected World Wildlife Fund / Global Footprint Network Living Planet Report 1.

Despite wasting about 40% of all our food, over a billion of our fellow humans go to bed hungry every night—both an unnecessary tragedy and a source of political unrest. Meanwhile, our globalized world is more interconnected and volatile than ever, making us all more vulnerable.

Everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear is dripping in fossil fuels and other extracted, finite resources from different parts of the world.

We are no longer able to easily extract oil and gas, except at grave cost to our atmosphere, fresh water supplies, and climate. We are running out of phosphate and potash, which will make industrial agriculture impossible.

We are running out of fresh water.

We waste precious fresh air and water, good topsoil, and vast tracts of forest on single-use items like plastic water bottles, disposable diapers, and toilet paper. The accumulation of “stuff” is the foundation of our economy—and the foundation of our destruction.

A culture that truly values its grandchildren’s future would not do such crazy things!

There are no magic numbers, only trade-offs. Any given area of land can sustain many more low-consuming, poor people at bare subsistence than it can high-consuming, rich people living like millionaires.

Better technology always helps, but basically, the richer we all become, the fewer of us the planet— or any country in it—can sustain. And the more of us there are, the lower our sustainable standard of living will become.

The choice is fewer who are richer or more who are poorer.


A New Paradigm

Living sustainably means balancing our consumption, our technology choices, and our population numbers to live within the means of our bioregions and the planet.

It means maintaining a stable and healthy environment for both humanity and all the flora and fauna with which we live in symbiosis.

Sustainable business and governmental policies will ensure the global conversion to renewable energy and renewable or recycled material sources, while phasing out those policies with harmful side effects. Massive effort is needed to minimize waste of energy, water, food, and other commodities. In this finite world, even renewable resources are only available in limited quantities.

We will have to begin measuring our choices and our successes not by monetary profit, but by a “triple bottom line” of social responsibility, environmental responsibility, and only then, economic profit.

The implications are radical. At a bare minimum, a sustainable society—one that can physically be sustained indefinitely—will need to have a zero-growth economy with very high levels of reuse and recycling, 100% renewable energy, no net loss of soil and biodiversity, a low ratio of income inequality, and a stable or reducing population.

No country fits this description, but that doesn’t mean a new paradigm isn’t possible. After all, the fossil fuel-based, “profit-at-any-cost” consumerist economy that got us into this mess is only about 150 years old. We can surely come up with something better than that!

We can create a world that offers the best quality of life, not the greatest quantity of possessions.

We can create a world that balances the needs of people with the needs of the planet and creates prosperity for all in the process.

This implies modest but reasonably comfortable standards of living, free from hunger or insecurity, which enable fulfillment without increasing physical consumption. Only non-physical things—like quality of relationships, education, knowledge, skills, health, arts, spiritual growth, respect, fun—can increase indefinitely in a physically finite world.

Isn’t this what really makes life worth living?

This unsustainable way of life we live today is not “just how things are.” It’s completely within our capacity to change, right now.

The first step in creating a more sustainable, just, and healthy world is becoming conscious of the personal choices we make (and don’t make) and their effect on the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Sustainability starts at home.


Radical Simplicity Can Save Us

Everywhere around us, things seem to be getting more and more complex. And it’s not good for our health or for the planet.

Whether it’s the 35 different choices in the water aisle at the grocery store, or the new need for “smartphones” to organize every detail of our totally overwhelmed lives, or the gazillion forms to fill out to pay for medical care or maintain a farm’s organic certification, we seem to be increasingly burdened as a society by over-choice, micromanagement, and unnecessarily convoluted bureaucracies.

When the continuous operation of a system relies on a long and complex chain of suppliers and resources, all running smoothly, that’s a textbook example of an unsustainable system. The systems we take for granted to deliver everything from widescreen TVs to food and fresh water are significantly more vulnerable than we may think.

Put another way, if “the end of the world as we know it” comes tomorrow, who will fare better: the people living in simple, cooperative, agrarian villages or in modern, industrial cities?


Get Real Simple

There is no singular correct way to simplify our complex way of living. The challenge is to add a bit of radical simplicity and self-sufficiency to our lives every chance we get. The goal is to be our healthiest and happiest utilizing the fewest steps possible.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Plant an organic vegetable garden, or yardshare with a neighbor and harvest more together.
  • Grow fruit or nut trees.
  • Raise some backyard chickens.
  • Get rid of your TV, and in its place, take up something useful like gardening, woodworking, brewing beer, beekeeping, sewing, etc.
  • Do any of the above with children.
  • Join or start a Transition Community.
  • Cloth diaper. Use washable cloth towels instead of paper towels. Hang your clothes to dry outside.
  • Quit eating foods that come in cans, bags and boxes, even if they are organic.
  • Buy what you need locally as often as possible, especially local food.
  • Barter and share instead of buying whenever possible.
  • Make your own household cleaners and toiletries. The internet and this book are full of recipes for everything from homemade dishwasher detergent to shampoo to mascara.
  • Commit to walking or biking everywhere you can. Use public transportation and ridesharing. Make driving solo a last resort.
  • Experiment with buying nothing new for a year—except food, medicine, toiletries, socks and underwear. You may buy second-hand or do swapping, when needed.
  • Join or start a food co-op, buying club, CSA, or a credit union (or all four!).
  • Install a composting toilet, solar system, wood stove, or drill a well, etc. Become self-sufficient to the extent you can.
  • Get involved in political issues that affect your natural resources. Dangerous corporate practices like fracking, tar sands mining, mountaintop removal, and the like threaten our ability to survive for generations to come.

This essay was written to help you add up your own personal “triple bottom line” in all that you do.

It will empower and inspire you with tools and ideas to reduce your family’s resource footprint. You can save money, consume less, produce more, and live a more meaningful, healthy and sustainable life.

The world is counting on each of us to do our part.

Sustainability starts at home.


  1. Living Planet Report.


This essay is excerpted from Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet by Dawn Gifford, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.



Dawn Gifford is an environmental expert and Permaculture designer, as well as the creator of the popular eco-blog, Small Footprint Family. A Washington D.C. native, she currently lives in sunny Southern California with her seven-year-old daughter.