Redefining sustainability Sustainability has been defined as “the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that allow the living systems in which humans are embedded to thrive in perpetuity”

Christopher Charamba Features Writer
What does the word sustainability mean? How is it achieved? Is it an individual or collective problem? And how much will it cost?

These are some of the questions that the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield is trying to answer. A week ago I attended a workshop there on sustainable futures, taking a look at where the world is and where it is going.

It was agreed early that the definition of sustainability was contentious and dependent on the context in which it was being used.

The University of Alberta defines sustainability as “the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that allow the living systems in which humans are embedded to thrive in perpetuity.”

Sustainability calls on people to live within their means without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.
The workshop was focused on unpacking these various contexts into which sustainability falls and finding ways in which it can be applied in people’s lives.

Grantham Centre’s associate director, Professor Colin Osborne, opened the workshop with a keynote address on the challenge of living sustainably as the world approaches a population of 10 billion people.

He noted that there is a great imbalance between developed and developing nations with regards to population growth and consumption patterns.

By 2050, the largest increase in population will take place in sub-Saharan Africa, yet in terms of resource consumption, the more developed world far exceeds the less developed.

Prof Osborne went on to share that one of the problems the world faces is that as people become wealthier they tend to consume more and due to the finite nature of resources, this is not sustainable.

When it comes to food, by 2050 we will need almost 70 percent more food calories to meet consumption demands.
Not only are people eating more calories than they actually need, but the production of food is unsustainable and harmful to the environment. Most of the food crops grown across the US and Europe, for example, is fed to animals.

As Prof Osborne put it, “we need to have an uncomfortable conversation about meat as the production of meat leaves a huge carbon footprint.”

Prof Osborne wrapped up his address by suggesting that we move to a circular economy in terms of the products that we use such as plastic. The aim is Reduce-Reuse-Recycle all the products that we possibly can.

After the address, scholars broke into separate sessions to try and answer different questions on sustainability. These sessions were led by PhD students at the Grantham Centre answering the sustainability question in different fields.

The first two sessions dealt with the questions, “what would a sustainable future look like?” and “who should be responsible for promoting sustainability?”

The consensus was a sustainable future was one in which there was reduced consumption and a focus on using renewable resources.

On the question of responsibility, the agreement was there is a collective responsibility from the smallest individual to the largest supranational institution.

The other two sessions were focused on sustainable eating and sustainable energy.
The uncomfortable truth that emerged was that as a planet, we need to rethink our diet, what foods we should eat and in what quantities.

With regards to energy, one of the major concerns was that of storage. Energy generated for the most part is consumed. How then does the world move to a space where it can store renewable energy? This is a serious issue as it is predicted that the world will run out of fossil fuels by the year 2088.

During the panel discussion that took place after the main session of the day, scholars in attendance posed a number of different questions to the experts on the way forward and what aspects of sustainable living could be applied in their own countries.

Some of the questions brought up emerged from the differences between the developed and the developing world. Climate change and resource depletion are in part a result of industrialisation and development of the West and now those who bear the brunt of these decisions are those in the developing world.

Countries in the Global South are also being asked to compromise their development in order for there to be sustainability. This prompted moral questions on fairness and the route to sustainable development.

The differences between countries and continents means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability, be it environmental or social. Each country must embark on its own path cognisant, however, of the fact the actions of one impact on the actions of another.

This is a key component of the Sustainable Development Goals which recognise that every country has its own developmental needs and a contribution to make towards sustainable living.

As Zimbabwe looks to the future and takes on the “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” position, questions around sustainability need to be posed to the Government.

The country should look at its polices and examine what we are doing to promote a form of development that ensures the generations of the next century will be able to enjoy the benefits of the land we live in.

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