Saturday, September 12, 2009

What is Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability is the ability to maintain the qualities that are valued in the physical environment.

For example, most people want to sustain (maintain):

  • human life
  • the capabilities that the natural environment has to maintain the living conditions for people and other species (eg. clean water and air, a suitable climate)
  • the aspects of the environment that produce renewable resources such as water, timber, fish, solar energy
  • the functioning of society, despite non-renewable resource depletion
  • the quality of life for all people, the livability and beauty of the environment

Threats to these aspects of the environment mean that there is a risk that these things will not be maintained. For example, the large-scale extraction of non-renewable resources (such as minerals, coal and oil) or damage done to the natural environment can create threats of serious decline in quality or destruction or extinction.

Traditionally, when environmental problems arise environmental managers work out how to reduce the damage or wastage. But it is not always easy to work out exactly when and where threats will have their effects and often the impacts are hard to reverse. So increasingly environmental managers adopt strategies aimed to prevent damage being done in the first place. A full sustainability program needs to include actions to prevent threats and impacts from arising, actions to protect the environment from threats and damage, and restoration to reverse damage already done.

Sustainability issues arise wherever there is a risk of difficult or irreversible loss of the things or qualities of the environment that people value. And whenever there are such risks there is a degree of urgency to take action.

Environmental sustainability programs include actions to reduce the use of physical resources, the adoption of a 'recycle everything/buy recycled' approach, the use of renewable rather than depletable resources, the redesign of production processes and products to eliminate the production of toxic materials, and the protection and restoration of natural habitats and environments valued for their livability or beauty.