The United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It’s not just about the environment - it’s about securing an accessible, healthy way of life for all of Earth’s present and future inhabitants.
The idea of being in harmony with nature and living to support future generations dates back to early humans, but the sustainability movement didn’t gain traction until the late 19th century. The growth of appreciation for wilderness and wildlife emerged in response to the growing industrialization of the United States, with an increased desire to escape urban life.
In 1876, the Appalachian Mountain club, one of the first private conservation organizations, was established to preserve eastern wilderness. In the 1890s and 1900s, figures like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt rose awareness for the conservation movement and helped establish the National Parks Service in the United States. While the National Parks Service was not founded until 1916, Yellowstone became the first national park in 1871. Today, there are 63 national parks in the United States, and the National Parks Service is still running.
The 1950s saw a revival of the environmental movement, and growing awareness around the issue led to the passing of a series of seminal environment-conscious legislation like the Air Pollution Act (1955), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), and the Clean Air Act (1970).A more grassroots approach to environmentalism was born out of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 on the damaging effects of chemical pesticides.
Silent Spring was an instant bestseller and extremely ahead of its time but led to controversy, and the chemical industry vilified Carson for years after publishing. Despite this, Silent Spring became a prominent influencer of the modern environmental movement, which began a decade later.
The popularization of the concept of being in harmony with nature and supporting future generations under the term “sustainability” was introduced in the 1980s with the publication of the UN report Our Common Future. The report details the need to balance economic development with the environment.
Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, was written by an international group of politicians and environmental experts chaired by the Norwegian Prime Minister at the time Gro Harlem Brundtland.
This report laid the foundation for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the largest environmental conference ever organized.⁷ This summit led to international agreements to fight climate change, and protect biodiversity and forests, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21. Additionally, it led to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, creating more government commitments and extending sustainable practices into local government, business, and civil society.
An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary on former Vice President Al Gore’s efforts to educate the public on climate change, was released in 2006. This documentary dramatically affected the public, with many Americans feeling inspired to change their unsustainable habits. It opened peoples’ eyes to issues they had never thought of before.
Today, numerous youth activists like Greta Thunberg, Xiye Bastida, and Disha Ravi utilize social media to promote sustainability and have helped usher in a youth-centric, digital-first 21st century sustainability movement.
Unfortunately, countries have been falling short of their climate goals. The Paris Agreement led to leaders pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but because of the actions of the biggest emitters, the world is not on track to meet those goals. China, the biggest emitter in the world, has stopped dialogue with the United States regarding climate promises due to diplomatic tensions. The United States has struggled with maintaining its climate goals due to Congress' disagreements regarding the issues. Some members of Congress and throughout the U.S. government (and governments across the world) stand in opposition to new climate regulations because of the fossil fuel industry's monetary donations and influence on many policymakers.
Additionally, many countries blatantly underreport their emissions. A Washington Post investigation found that many nations lie about their total emissions, which hinders the ability to create effective goal points on reducing emissions and ensures that all future policies focused on reducing emissions to work towards a better future for global citizens do not have the correct data to work from.
Nowadays, recycling is one of the most popularized methods of practicing sustainability and has evolved significantly throughout the years in the U.S.
In 1972, the first plastic waste recycling mill was established in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and during the 1980s, various cities across the country began implementing recycling policies, ranging from the curbside collection of plastics to mandated plastic recycling.
1988 also marked the year of the creation of the famous closed-loop triangular symbol to identify plastic resin made to help individuals sort their plastics for recycling.
In recent years, some corporations have become involved by switching to a more reusable form of plastic and providing incentives to recycle items such as plastic water bottles. Additionally, circular economies have been adopted, which focus on increasing the life cycle of products and reducing waste to a minimum.In a circular economy, when products reach the end of their life cycle, the goal is to keep them in the economy through effective recycling and reusing to create value.
Additionally, they want to reduce waste streams by using more sustainable materials over time. In 2020, as part of the Green Deal, the new Circular Economy Action was established in the EU. The plan’s goal is to help keep the circulation of resources in the economy. One successful example of this is the Netherlands. The Dutch have adopted a circular economy with the goal being 100% built on circularity by 2050. Their success comes from creating regulations to ensure the implementation of circular tactics, such as legislation focused on building government buildings out of recycled resources.
After World War II, from poor air quality to polluted rivers, the government realized it needed to combat the issue of growing landfills and waste pollution, resulting in a shift to focus on waste management. As a result of this and as a response to the melting of the Arctic, the Arctic Council was established in 1996 as the leading intergovernmental forum for cooperation and coordination between Arctic States.
In 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was signed to address increasing problems from the growing volume of waste. It includes a cleanup program which oversees thousands of cleanups across the country.In the late 1900s, the country saw numerous government reforms, such as the Solid Waste Disposal Act and Federal Resource Recovery Act.
As scientific research continued to provide new insights into hazardous waste’s negative consequences on human health, the Environmental Protection Agency released a series of regulations pertaining to the disposal of hazardous waste. And they declared it necessary that such dangerous waste be reduced or eliminated as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Human health is directly related to sustainability, as unsustainable practices damages it overall. For example, carbon emissions cause trouble breathing, which may create neurological and cardiovascular issues. And when natural resources are burned, biodiversity and water and air quality are negatively affected.
There have been attempts to solve this problem, such as Healthy People 2030, which focuses on reducing exposure to harmful pollutants in air, water, soil, materials, and food in both homes and workplaces by the end of the decade. Through tracking environmental pollutants, Healthy People 2030 attempts to create legislation and policies around reducing pollution and preventing the health problems that accompany it.
Over the last century, due to rapid climate and ecosystem change, there has been an unprecedented loss of biodiversity all over the planet. The threats to biodiversity include deforestation, invasive species, pollution, unsustainable resource use, and a growing human population. Because of these threats, about 40,000 species will be at risk of extinction in the coming decades. Deforestation alone is a huge threat, as approximately 25 million acres of forest are destroyed each year, causing immense habitat loss.
Ocean ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures, with warmer temperatures damaging coral reefs and endangering the thousands of fish in them. Governmental responses to biodiversity loss have been inadequate, with species dying out at hundreds of times the natural rate due to human activity.