“Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science” is the title of the first chapter in my AP Environmental Science Textbook. As a teacher, I think the first step toward living sustainably is having an understanding of what that term means.
On the first day of school, I do a lot of things like introduce myself, meet my students, go over lab safety rules and classroom expectations. However, I also ask students to define sustainability. It’s kind of cheating, because my students have read the first 5 chapters of the book, along with Silent Spring, as a summer assignment, and will be assessed on their understanding on the second day of class. They should already know the answer; they should already be able to define sustainability. They can talk about different things you can do, eliminate, or try, to be sustainable. They can talk about being green, driving a hybrid, eating organic.
Our text Environmental Science, 7th Edition by Bernard J. Nebel and Richard T. Wright, provides the following definitions:
sustainability– Refers to whether a process can be continued indefinitely without depleting the energy or material resources on which it depends. The practical goal toward which our interactions with the natural world should be working.
stewardship– A steward is one to whom a trust has been given. In reference to natural lands, stewardship is an attitude of active care and concern for nature. The ethical and moral framework that informs our public and private actions.
sound science-The results of scientific work based on peer-reviewed research. The basis for our understanding of how the world works and how humans interact with it.
Four Basic Principles of Ecosystem Sustainability–
- For sustainability, ecosystems use sunlight as their source of energy.
- For sustainability, ecosystems dispose of wastes and replenish nutrients by recycling all elements.
- For sustainability, the size of consumer populations is controlled so that overgrazing or other overuse does not occur.
- For sustainability, biodiversity is maintained.
Throughout the school year, we continue to develop our understanding of the terms, and we continue to refer back to the principles, how they relate to various topics, from fossil fuel chemistry to population issues to endangered species management. However, in my three years of teaching AP Environmental Science, I have never asked students to define what sustainability means to them. I haven’t even officially defined what it means to me. Well, as the dorky student that I am, if you give me an assignment, I will do it.
To me, sustainability means survial. As someone who has studied evolutionary theory in depth, I think of survival in terms of survival of the species, genetic advantages, reproductive capability, limiting factors like food availability, predation, climate, waste. In terms of survival, it’s scary to think in such a broad sense. To step back from my anthropocentric viewpoint, to look at humans as just another species in the ecosystem. Of course I care about individual survival, especially my own and my that of my loved ones, but I’m looking at human survival as a whole. What I see is utterly terrifying. I look at our food systems, our pollution, our overpopulation. I’ve watched bacteria in a petri dish consume and produce waste and reproduce until the population crashes. I’ve seen it first hand. And I see where we’re headed. Are we any different from the bacteria in the petri dish?
YES! We are aware. We are able to take what we understand about that bacteria and apply it to ourselves. We are able to see the crash coming. But that’s not good enough to stop it. We need to do something. We are capable of doing something. With the knowledge of the problem, we have the responsiblity to do something about it.
But what can we do? I don’t intend this post to be doom and gloom, but I do intend for it to be realistic. I am an optimist. I think that we, the most intelligent and capable of all organisms, can survive the impending crisis. But we have to do it. We can’t step back and wait for our politicians to do it. We can’t hope that our schools will teach about it. We can’t hope that the neighbors will change. We can’t hope that a higher power or a super hero will swoop in to save us. We ourselves have to change.
What kind of changes can we make? It’s as simple and as difficult as looking at the Four Basic Principles of Ecosystem Sustainability, understanding them, and applying them to our lives. That’s what I have tried to do over the past few years, and that’s what I will continue to do.
Rule 1: Sunlight should be our source of energy. Yes, it’s true that the energy in the bonds of the hydrocarbons in fossil fuels originally came from the sun, via photosynthesis of ancient plants. But we’ve seen the problems that we’re causing by burning fossil fuels. The climate is changing, and I know from my studies of evolution, the choice is to adapt along with the climate or go extinct. But we have the unique opportunity to change our actions to halt climate change (I hope). There are all types of alternative technologies awaiting us out there. I have opted for the 100% clean energy option from my state’s Clean Energy Options. My electricity comes from wind (a form of solar) and small scale hydropower. I’m also looking at options for my vehicle and my home heating. We do supplement our heating with wood burning (the energy in the bonds of the cellulose is from the sun, via photosynthesis). Burning wood isn’t the perfect solution, with particulates produced and deforestation and carbon dioxide production, but our wood is scrap or dead wood from the woods behind our house. The carbon dioxide is not contributing to the net carbon dioxide in the biosphere, like fossil fuel use does, and so I see it as a good option for us right now. The point is, I have educated myself and I’m taking strides in doing what I think is right.
Rule 2: Dispose of wastes properly, recycle all elements. I have to say that I think reducing overall consumption will fall into this category. I try to reduce packaging, buy less plastic, carry my own shopping bags, reduce my paper use. I reuse what I can, like glass jars, and recycle what I can’t. I’ve started an informal compost pile, known as throwing weeds and garden scraps in a pile in the woods. Animals will forage through and eat what they can, and the rest will be broken down by the decomposers. I have always been a strong believer that if something will eat it or if it will biodegrade, it’s not litter. Let me clarify. In the fall, I eat an apple in the car on the way to school. I’ve done this since I was a commuter in college, driving the same route I take to work now. When I’m done eating my apple, I throw it in the woods. An animal or a decomposer will eat it. I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and I have yet to see apples pile up. Of course I’d never throw it on someone’s lawn, but that’s just one example of how something that I perceive as trash today will not always be trash. There are better ways to get rid of things than putting them in a plastic bag in the garbage can. Similarly, we spent a lot of money putting in a good septic system. We know that those wastes will be appropriately taken care of by our microbial friends, and our well water will be clean and safe to drink. My tap water in my SIGG bottle is just fine, thank you. I don’t need fancy schmancy water from France to feel special. I’m not that kind of girl.
Rule 3: Help with population control and avoid overuse and exploitation of resources. This is a tricky one, because many people believe in the right to procreate and have as many children as they want. While the population in the United States is rising, we’re not really the ones with huge population problems. I don’t really care how many kids that woman in Arkansas has, I know that their basic needs are met. The people who bear the brunt of overpopulation are the women and children in the developing world. Supporting groups that help to educate and empower women in the developing world is one of the best ways to counteract the problems of overpopulation. Women who have gone to school will delay starting a family, which will mean fewer offspring in a lifetime. I’m not saying college here, because even an 8th grade education can make a difference, as can learning to read and write and do simple calculations. Not only does an education decrease the size of a family, but it can also help to improve their life and increase their income, because of job opportunities. Teaching women a marketable skill can do the same thing. I support groups like Global Girlfriend who aim to improve the lives of women in developing countries because I believe that it does make a huge difference in the population problem. The other side of the coin is to help reduce overuse and exploitation of resources. I do this by refusing to use new tropical hardwoods in our house, instead salvaging materials that would have otherwise been thrown away. Conservation of water, energy, and reducing food waste also fall under this rule.
Rule 4: Maintain biodiversity. Through the eyes of the evolutionist, biodiversity means survival. The fact that there are some individuals who can survive a plague that wipes most of their species out means that the species will survive. That flower that blooms especially early or late in the season may one day allow that species to survive in a changing climate. That alone should be enough to encourage us to plant heirloom or rare varieties in our gardens, avoid eating species that are in decline, and support groups that protect rainforests and endangered species. However, there’s another very important reason: You never know… You never know which plant may be the best for food production and sustaining us in a future climate. You never know which plant or animal or fungus or bacterium could contain the clue to how to cure or protect us from AIDS, cancer, avian influenza. You never know!
For me, living sustainably is more than simply making changes in how I live. I am compelled to educate others. As I said before, with the knowledge of the direction we’re heading, it’s not simply enough for me to make changes in my own household and be a role model. I need to encourage others to learn, explore, and change, if I am to do all that I am capable of to live sustainably.