If you break down the word sustainability into its roots you are left with the words sustain and ability. So sustainability literally means the ability to sustain. It does not mean solar panels, it does not mean electric vehicles, it does not mean wind power nor does sustainability mean banning plastic straws.
So if sustainability means the ability to sustain then that poses a question, what are we trying to sustain?
Sustainability is solely about sustaining life.
The next question you may ask is “What life are we looking to sustain?”
All life. From amoeba to fungi to parrots to whales to squirrels to human life and more. When the goal of sustainability is to sustain life then it becomes clear why ending our reliance on fossil fuel matters, why electric vehicles make sense, why wind and solar power makes sense, why banning plastic straws and all of the other things that the proponents of sustainable movements are promoting matter.
Let’s look at a few examples of why a number of the issues that the proponents of sustainability push back on starting with the burning of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, primarily coal, fuel oil or natural gas, formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been converted to crude oil, coal, natural gas, or heavy oils by exposure to heat and pressure in the earth’s crust over hundreds of millions of years. In common dialogue, the term fossil fuel also includes hydrocarbon-containing natural resources that are not derived from animal or plant sources. The burning of fossil fuels by humans is the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases that allows radiative forcing and contributes to global warming. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/fossil_fuel.htm)
As you can see burning fossil fuels are not sustainable because they produce large amounts of carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide is one of the main causes of climate change. If climate change happens at the extent that scientists product that it will, life as we know it will forever be altered. This also speaks to why electric vehicles are so important. Fossil fuels also comes from sources that are not renewable such as coal, natural gas and oil.
Electric vehicles rely solely on electricity, while it is true that some of the electricity that is produced by electric vehicles comes from coal-fired power plants, electric vehicles also don’t have a tailpipe hence they don’t produce emissions and electric vehicles can generate power when the driver applies the brakes.
Solar and wind power on the other hand are completely renewable, free resources that are available to everyone. Wind power makes complete sense to everyone as wind blows, a wind turbine (think the blades on a windmill) captures the wind energy, then the power generator inside the turbine spins and converts the wind that was captured into usable electricity without burning any source of fuel or emitting any gas noe harmful chemicals. Wind power is one of the simplest and most sensical sources of energy.
Solar on the other hand can be a bit trickier to understand and is also an extremely effective energy source that is free and limitless. Solar power gets generated due to sunlight hitting the solar panel, the solar panel has a converter within it that is able to convert the heat that the sun’s rays produce into energy. The energy that the converter produces gets stored in a battery and the battery releases the energy to power the home, vehicle, equipment, appliance or anything else that is attached to the battery. Solar power eliminates the need for fossil fuels and yes while there is an upfront cost in utilizing solar power the upfront cost often get offset as many solar power systems generate more electricity than what is needed to power the device, vehicle, appliance, equipment or anything else that is connected to the battery and the excess power can be sent back to the power grid. Power companies will often pay you for generating the excess power so solar typically ends up being cost-neutral, profitable or close to it for the person, entity, business or organization that produces it.
Banning plastic straws are an interesting movement within the realm of sustainability. We all assume that plastic straws are recyclable when in fact most cities, towns, municipalities and recyclers cannot recycle plastic straws. Plastics as a whole are tricky to recycle as only harder, non-stretchy plastics can be recycled by most recycling facilities. Plastic milk containers, hard plastic water bottles (aquafina, dasani, fiji), laundry detergent containers (when fully rinsed out), plastic strawberry, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry boxes can be recycled by most municipalities and over 90% of plastic items including crinkly plastic water bottles (poland springs) and plastic straws cannot be recycled by most municipalities.
China used to be a huge buyer of plastics and even the plastics that municipalities often could not recycle from many countries in the world including the U.S. were being sent to China. Billions of pounds of plastic were shipped to China only two years ago, China would then sell the plastics to companies that made recycled plastic products and this was an extremely viable solution for the worlds plastics. Then China stopped buying plastic from the rest of the world two years ago and the bad news of this is that most of the plastics that cannot be recycled are now getting dumped in the ocean. This is why you are hearing about the massive efforts to clean up the plastics in the ocean as the gigantic volumes of plastic in the ocean are literally killing fish, turtles, sharks, lobsters, shrimp, whales and other marine life.
Plastic straws clearly do not sustain life, nor does fossil fuel, nor does conventional farming (I will get into more detail on this area in a later piece). No matter what your beliefs, views, morals, ethics, economic principles, etc. are we all share in the desire to sustain life because we too are life. If our air is too dirty to breathe and our water is too polluted to drink and there are no more fish in the oceans then we all suffer. So please take sustainability seriously because without it there is no life.